Tag Archives: weather

Travels to Greenland in Winter

Waking up after 5 hours on a plane from Baltimore, Maryland to Thule, Greenland large white Pitugfik Gletscher distinguishes itself from the white sea ice by its ragged snout as the plane approaches my new home for the next 6 weeks. I am traveling with 9 midshipmen of the US Naval Academy of which two are women, their 4 professors, and bear guard from Alaska. We will be working and living together for the next 7 days.

Pitugfik Glacier during the early morning hours of Mar.-9, 2017.

A little further along the coast we enter Wolstenholme Fjord where from the plane wide cracks of open water stand out as black against the bluish white horizon. This will be the outer margin of where I plan to work the ice and ocean underneath the next 6 weeks. We need to stay on the shore side of this transition of land-fast to mobile sea ice. I have watched this boundary for the last 4 months with satellite imagery, but seeing with my own eyes is an entire different and humbling experience.

Sea ice near Kap Atholl with heads of open water that separate land-fast ice that does not move from mobile ice.

We land safely at the airport, get our passport stamped by Danish officials, pick up our luggage, and are received by wonderful people working for both NASA and the National Science Foundation. After a hearty lunch of dark rye bread and my beloved pickled herrings christmas arrives in the form of many carefully wrapped packages: I try to find my Arctic clothing that I shipped months before. It is much-needed as the -33 C take your breadth away. I also find the 2,500 lbs of science gear, some of which had arrived directly from Canada after it was ordered Dec.-10, 2016: Without this $22,000 electrical winch, I would be hard pressed to send sensors to the bottom of the ocean and back. Everything appears to be in place and fine, but some acoustic gear is still missing as its large lithium batteries need diplomatic clearances which takes a little longer. Perhaps they will be on the plane that is about to land. There is only 1 flight per week that connects Thule to the US. Hence advance planing is needed and those lithium batteries are not needed until April 6 when Lee and Taylor arrive from Massachusetts.

Where in this pile are my snow boots? Palletized gear on arrival in Thule Greenland.

The next day we put some of our gear out to measure how thick the sea ice is near the coast. While drilling a hole requires power tools, the ice is actually cut by a razor-sharp drill bit that is sensitive to damage when it refuses to cut the ice and no amount of force available can force it through the 3-4 feet of ice we find. We all learn the hard way when we accidentally drill into the frozen sea bed without finding any water. One drill bit down, we only got 2 more and are much, much more careful with it. The remaining drill bits have to last for the next 6 weeks … actually, they do not, because I can change the blades should one bit become dull. [I did not tell this the Naval Academy guys who were doing much of this drilling to support NASA’s Operation IceBridge.]

And on this note, I am heading out to sea at 7:59 am to drill one more hole to prepare for a first mooring deployment. A wooden stick without sensors attached will simulate a mooring that I want to recover after it is frozen in. More later …

P.S.: More photos and stories on this week’s adventures can be found at

https://www.facebook.com/USNAPolarScienceProgram/

Sea Ice, Oceanography, and Nature’s Way to Paint

I am going to sea next week boarding the R/V Sikuliaq in Nome, Alaska to sail for 3 days north into the Arctic Ocean. When we arrive in our study area after all this traveling, then we have perhaps 18 days to deploy 20 ocean moorings. I worry that storms and ice will make our lives at sea miserable. So what does a good data scientist do to prepare him or herself? S/he dives into data:

Map northern Chukchi Sea with mooring locations (red and blue symbols), contours of bottom topography, and radar backscatter from space.

Map northern Chukchi Sea with mooring locations (red and blue symbols), contours of bottom topography, and radar backscatter from space. Slightly darker shades especially in the bottom segment are interpreted as sea ice. The offset in grey scale between top and bottom is caused by me using different numbers for two different data segments to bring the data into a range that varies between 0 and 1.

The image above is my first attempt to determine, if our planned mooring deployment locations are free of sea ice or not. The darker tones of gray are sea ice with the white spots probably thicker or piled-up ridges of rougher sea ice. The speckled gray surface to the north is probably caused by surface waves and other “noise” that are pretty random. There is a data point ever 40 meters in this image. It also helps to compare these very high-resolution ice data with products that the US National Ice Center (NIC) and the National Weather Service provide:

Ice Chart of the Alaska office of the National Weather Service (link)

Ice Chart of the Alaska office of the National Weather Service

The above is a wonderful map for general orientation, but it is not good or detailed enough to navigate a ship through the ice. The two maps agree, however, my patch of ice to the south of the moorings are represented as the orange/green patch on the top right (north-east). The orange means that 70-80% of the area is covered by ice and this ice is thicker than 1.2 meters and thus too thick for our ship to break through, but there are always pathways through ice and those can be found with the 40-m resolution maps.

In summary, on Sept.-29, 2016 all our moorings are in open water, but this can change, if the wind moves this math northward. So we are also watching the winds and here I like the analyses of Government Canada

Surface weather analysis from Government Canada for Oct.-2, 2016.

Surface weather analysis from Government Canada for Oct.-2, 2016. The map of surface pressure is centered on the north pole with Alaska at the bottom, Europe on the top, Greenland on the right, and Siberia on the left.

It shows a very low pressure center over Siberia to the south-west and a high pressure center over Arctic Canada to our north-east. This implies a strong wind to the north in our study area. So the ice edge will move north into our study area. If the High moves westward, we would be golden, but the general circulation at these latitudes are from west to east, that is, the Low over Siberia will win and move eastward strengthening the northward flow. That’s the bad news for us, but we still have almost 2 weeks before we should be in the area to start placing our fancy ocean moorings carefully into the water below the ice.

While this “operational” stuff motivated me to dive into the satellite radar data that can “see” through clouds and fog, I am most excited about the discovery that the radar data from the European Space Agency are easy to use with a little clever ingenuity and a powerful laptop (2.5 MHz Mac PowerBook). For example, this hidden gems appeared in the Chukchi Sea a few days earlier:

Close-up of the ice edge in the northern Chukchi Sea on Sept.-23, 2016. The mushroom cloud traced by sea ice and associated eddies are about 10-20 km across.

Close-up of the ice edge in the northern Chukchi Sea on Sept.-23, 2016. The mushroom cloud traced by sea ice and associated eddies are about 10-20 km across.

It is a piece of art, nature’s way to paint the surface of the earth only to destroy this painting the next minute or hour or day to make it all anew. It reminds me of the sand-paintings of some Native American tribes in the South-West of the USA that are washed away the moment they are finished. Here the art is in the painting, just as the pudding is in the eating, and the science is the thinking.

Sun Sets over Petermann Gletscher

Lights are out. Our ocean weather station on a floating glacier of northern Greenland confirms what the U.S. Naval Observatory reports for location 60 degrees and 30 minutes West longitude and 80 degrees and 40 minutes North latitude: As of today the sun is no longer above the horizon and will not rise until 23 February 2016. Total darkness means no solar power for the station that will have to survive on a fancy car battery temperatures as low as -50 degrees centigrade. Last week with the sun still up our station recorded -30.4 degrees celsius about 4 feet above the ice. How long will the station survive on that car battery?

Petermann Gletscher at dawn on 5 Oct. 2015 as captured by NASA Operation IceBridge. Our Ocean Weather Station is in the corner bottom left.

Petermann Gletscher at dawn on 5 Oct. 2015 as captured by NASA Operation IceBridge. Our Ocean Weather Station is in the corner bottom left.

Without power the station does not function, because each sensor, each computer, and each telephone call via the Iridium satellite system requires electricity. Without power I am in the dark about what the station does or what ocean or air temperatures are. Since I do have power at the moment, well, I got new data. For example, there is a voltage that the station sends me …

Voltage at Ocean Weather Station on Petermann Gletscher.

Voltage at Ocean Weather Station on Petermann Gletscher.

… whenever the sun is up, the solar panels recharge the battery and the voltage goes up. As I use electricity, the voltage goes down. Lets ignore a small temperature effect and details on how much electricity we draw at what “amperage.” Instead, lets focus on the regular up and down of voltage for the last 60 days and how it suddenly went flat. The flat line at 12.5 Volts tells me that the sun is down. The station now uses the car battery, but how long will this last? Quick answer is … a day, if I am dumb. Or 150 days, if I am smart. Time will tell, if I made a mistake in either my power budget or my computer code that gives and takes power to a range of sensors. Scary stuff, and my little sister Christina Parsons can attest, how nervous I was, when I uploaded new power-saving software that I wrote from my attic at home to the station in Greenland. The station did take the new software, restarted itself, and works making one data call each day instead of three. Data are still collected every hour, but I save 20% of total power.

Power is something in Watts (40 W Light bulb anyone?) and you have to multiply voltage by current draw (0.5 Amps anyone?) to estimate the power needs of the device drawing 0.5 Amp current at 12 Volts. Incidentally, 0.5 Amps is what the Iridium satellite phone draws when it calls me with new data. Let me check my power budget, if this is true … nope, it only takes 0.365 Amps, so it takes 12 volts times 0.365 Amps equal 4.4 Watts which is about 1/10 of that 40 W light bulb you are looking at, perhaps, or the station we put up: the yellow box is the car battery powering all the gadgets you see and many more you do not:

What I just showed you is the beginning of a power budget that I had to make to get my station through the night, now that there is no more sun for the next 4-5 months. My car batteries are rated to give 110 Watts for an hour, so if I run my 4.4 W satellite phone all the time, I would be out of battery juice after 110 Watt-Hours divided by 4.4 Watts equals 25 hours. That’s bad, real bad, especially since one should not run a car battery to zero and the battery at -30 degrees Celsius may only give me half the power than it would at the more usual 15 degrees Celsius we got outside. The solution to this problem is to use the phone only for a few minutes each day, say 5 minutes. So, since I am using the phone only 5 minutes out of the 1440 minutes that each day has, it takes about 1440 minutes divided by 5 minutes times 25 hours equals 300 days for the phone running 5 minutes each day to run down the battery. Magic this math is not, but it shows how important it is to use resources (electricity) wisely. There are times and places where it is not possible to plug your iPhone into a power outlet. You get the picture … well, here are some that University of Delaware PhD student Peter Washam took who was part of the ice drilling team during last summer’s deployment of the ocean weather station:

So, as of this morning at 4 am Delaware time, the station now in total darkness tells me that the ocean temperatures 700 meters below the 100 meter thick glacier are +0.3 degrees Celsius while air temperatures 2 meters above the ice are -11.1 degrees Celsius. Now what that means to the melting of the glacier by the ocean, I will have to tell you at another time in more detail. These data are the ONLY data from below any glacier to the north of the equator. We are really breaking new ground and are making new discoveries as we go along … as long as there is power. Hopefully there is no dumb mistake in my power budget.

Sun over the horizon of Greenland as seen during NASA's Operation IceBridge Flight in October 2015.

Sun over the horizon of Greenland as seen during NASA’s Operation IceBridge Flight in October 2015.

New ocean data from floating Petermann Glacier

#UDel Ocean-Weather station #Greenland on #petermann2015 calls home from 800 m under floating glacier with 2 weeks of new hourly data.

University of Delaware Ocean-Weather station on Petermann Glacier with the hot-water drilling team UDel and British Antarctic Survey after deployment Aug.-20, 2015 [Credit: Peter Washam, UDel]

University of Delaware Ocean-Weather station on Petermann Glacier with the hot-water drilling team UDel and British Antarctic Survey after deployment Aug.-20, 2015. Cables from ocean sensors emerge from the ice where the wooden cross is located on the right. [Credit: Peter Washam, UDel]

Map of Greenland's Petermann Gletscher, Fjord, and adjacent Nares Strait. The UDel Ocean-Weather station is the green dot on the floating ice shelf that does not have a red triangle. Blue dots in the ocean are where we collected ocean data from I/B Oden in August 2015. Green dots are ocean moorings which report via Iridium while red triangles are "fancy" GPS locations we instrumented for 12 days to measure vertical tidal elevations of the glacier.

Map of Greenland’s Petermann Gletscher, Fjord, and adjacent Nares Strait. The UDel Ocean-Weather station is the green dot on the floating ice shelf that does not have a red triangle. Blue dots in the ocean are where we collected ocean data from I/B Oden in August 2015. Green dots are ocean moorings which report via Iridium while red triangles are “fancy” GPS locations we instrumented for 12 days to measure vertical tidal elevations of the glacier.

My nerves are shot and I get depressed when the Ocean-Weather station does not call home when she should. We deployed the station last months on the floating section of Petermann Gletscher where she has moved steadily towards the ocean at about three meters per day. We measure this with GPS which is the black dot next to the temperature sensor above the head of the team that drilled the hole. It connected 5 ocean temperature, salinity, and pressure sensors to 800 meter depth below sea level. The data come from this great depth to the surface where it feeds into the weather station that then transmits data via an Iridium antenna to another Iridium antenna that sits atop my house. Let me run out and take a quick photo of it …

Iridium antenna atop my house in Newark, Delaware that receives data calls from Greenland.

Iridium antenna atop my house in Newark, Delaware that receives data calls from Greenland.

My problem with Iridium over the last 6 weeks has been that its (data) connectivity is spotty. For example, I received no data the last 2 weeks. This has been the longest time with no call and no new data. Designing the system, I decided against the more robust “Short-Burst-Data” SBD text messages. Instead I opted for a truly 2-way serial connection which, if a connection is established, allows more control as well as a more complete and gap-free data stream. The drawback of this serial connection via Iridium is lack of connectivity. Sometimes days or weeks go by without a successful connection even though computer codes are written to connect every 8 hours. I can change that by uploading new codes to the two Campbell CT1000 data loggers that control all sensors as well as data collection and communication via Iridium.

Today’s call was the first in two weeks, but it provided a complete data download without ANY gaps in the hourly time series of weather in the atmosphere (wind, temperature, humidity) and weather in the ocean (temperature, salinity, pressure). The ocean data show that about every 2 weeks with the spring-neap cycles, we see very large excursions of colder and fresher water appear at 2 sensors within about 30 meters of the glacier ice. It is too early to speculate on how this may relate to ocean circulation and glacier melting, but the large and frequent up and down do suggest a lot of ocean weather.

I am anxiously awaiting the next data call in about 5 hours to get the 8 hours of data. Wish me luck and a healthy Iridium satellite system where calls are about $0.90/minute. Today’s call took 5 minutes. This is what some of the (uncalibrated) data look like:

Ocean-Weather station data from Aug.-20 through Sept.-25 (today). Ocean temperatures at 5 vertical levels are shown as 5 red curves  in 5th panel from top. The black lines in that panel are air temperatures that reached -20 C this week.

Ocean-Weather station data from Aug.-20 through Sept.-25 (today). Ocean temperatures at 5 vertical levels are shown as 5 red curves in 5th panel from top. The black lines in that panel are air temperatures that reached -20 C this week.

Oceanography of Nares Strait Ice Flushing

I need the ice out of Nares Strait, a 20 mile wide and 300 miles long pathway to the North Pole between northern Canada and Greenland. The ice blocks our way to Petermann Fjord where a large glacier pushes thick ice out so sea as a floating ice shelf. We plan to drill through the floating section of the glacier that is about as thick as the Empire State Building is high. The ship to get us there is the Swedish icebreaker Oden (Location Map). She is passing the Faroe Islands to the north-west of Scotland and will arrive in 2 weeks at Thule Air Force Base where we will meet her.

Image of northern Greenland (top right) and Ellesmere Island (center) showing open water as black, land as gray, and sea ice as gray/white. The two red dots are Thule Air Force Base in the south and Petermann Glacier in the north. Note the bands of black water along the coast of Ellesmere Island that result from east to west blowing winds that move ice offshore.

Image of northern Greenland (top right) and Ellesmere Island (center) showing open water as black, land as gray, and sea ice as gray/white. The two red dots are Thule Air Force Base in the south and Petermann Glacier in the north. Note the bands of black water along the coast of Ellesmere Island that result from east to west blowing winds that move ice offshore and reduce the southward flow in Nares Strait.

The voyage from Thule to Petermann usually takes about 2-3 days, but if the sea ice does not flush out with the generally southward currents, then it may take a week or two wrecking havoc to our busy science schedule. So, why is the ice still lingering in Nares Strait this year?

Nares Strait ice cover in July of 2015 (left), 2014 (center), and 2013 (right) from MODIS Terra.

Nares Strait ice cover in July of 2015 (left), 2014 (center), and 2013 (right) from MODIS Terra.

There are three parts to the answer: First, a sturdy ice arch at the southern entrance of Nares Strait has to break. It has done so only last week. Second, a strong and perhaps oscillating flow has to thoroughly collapse the large pieces of ice at a narrow choke point that is Smith Sound. This has not happened yet. And third, a persistent flow to the south has to flush out ice into Baffin Bay to the south faster than it enters from the Arctic Ocean in the north. This flow is much weaker at the moment than is normal, because winds in the Arctic Ocean have been from east to west right now. These winds moved water (and ice) offshore to the north, so sealevel along northern Greenland and Canada drops. We can see this in today’s satellite imagery as prominent black bands of open water along the coast of northern Canada.

Lets take a closer look of this same image and zoom in on the southern part of Nares Strait as it looked this morning.

Collapsing ice arch at the southern entrance to Nares Strait on 13 July 2015 from MODIS AQUA.

Collapsing ice arch at the southern entrance to Nares Strait on 13 July 2015 from MODIS AQUA.

What used to be a solid frozen mass of ice along the Greenland coast (bottom right) has become a broken and loose mass of smaller ice floes. The larger blocks farther from the coast are now sliding southward as the loose ice along the coast reduces friction or lubricates the edges. The sides lose their grip on the ice and the entire construction fails and collapses. A most beautiful video on the stability of arches is posted by Open University here about lines of action or thrust.

All we now need for the ice to flush out of Nares Strait is a weakening or reversal of the winds at the other northern entrances to Nares Strait. Much of the generally southward flow is caused by the ocean’s surface being higher in the north than it is in the south. There are details that I am skipping, but basically much of the flow rolls downhill like a ball. And with the winds up north being from east to west, there is not much of a hill that the water can flow down, so we got somewhat stagnant waters. I have actually measured the height of this “hill of water” many times over the many years with ocean sensors that measure how much water is above them. This figure summarizes 3 years of data collected every 3 hours or so

Graph showing how water flow (called “volume flux”) varies with the steepness of the hill (called “pressure gradient”). The “hill” is at most 10 centimeters or 3 inches) high. [Adapted from Muenchow, 2015]

Now there is more to the “hill” story that is modified near the surface by the earth’s rotation in a fluid that has different densities at different depths. In a nutshell, the surface flow is 2-3 times as strong as the depth averaged flow. Furthermore, the surface flow on the Canadian side of Nares Strait is often twice as strong as that closer to Greenland, but all these spatial variations in flow actually help to smash large pieces of ice by moving and rotating them different sides of the same large piece of ice differently.

So, lets all hope that we get a few days of strong winds from the north flowing south, that should clear Nares Strait quickly before Oden arrives there in 2 weeks time. Those winds from the north not only flush out ice from Nares Strait, they also keep it nicely on one, the Canadian side. Earth rotation does wonderful and magical things to fluids such as water and air.

Muenchow, A, 2015: Volume and freshwater flux observations from Nares Strait to the west of Greenland at daily time scales from 2003 to 2009. J. Phys. Oceanogr., re-submitted July 2015, .pdf