Cryospheric Sciences


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Image of the Week – Powering up the ground in the search for ice

Electric Resistivity Tomography profile of the north-facing slope of the Rohrbachstein in canton Bern, Switzerland [Credit: Laura Helene Rasmussen].

In an earlier post, we talked briefly about below-ground ice and the consequences of its disappearing. However, to estimate the consequences of disappearing ground ice, one has to know that there actually is ice in the area of study. How much ice is there – and where is it? As the name suggests, below-ground ice is not so easy to spot with the naked eye. Using geophysical methods, however, it is possible to obtain a good idea of the presence and whereabouts of ground ice, and of frozen ground, in an area of interest.

Looking for ice

Before starting a geophysical survey, which requires instrumentation and time, you might want to take a look at your area of interest and estimate, whether ice presence is even an option. The first indicator is temperature, which has to be in the favor of permafrost presence. Other indicators for presence are surface features such as mounds that could be caused by considerable frost heave, lobes perpendicular to the slope and front angles exceeding the critical angle of repose. They can indicate that ice has had an influence on the geomorphology in the area.

If you suspect ground ice in your area of interest, and you want to confirm or rule out your suspicion as well as investigate the extent of the ice, you might consider doing a geophysical survey. There are a few useful inherent properties of ice that make it possible to distinguish it from rock, air or water. These properties will determine the choice of geophysical methods to use. This week, we will illustrate two methods which, when combined, can be useful tools for determining ground ice presence or absence. The test subject is an area of suspected frozen ground just below 3000 m altitude – the Rohrbachstein in canton Bern, Switzerland.

Electrical resistivity tomography

In an electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) survey, we measure the potential difference (ΔU) of a material, over a given distance, when applied with a certain current strength (I). From the fact that resistance is computed by dividing U by I, the electrical resistivity of the material can be estimated. The resistivity can be seen as the reciprocal of the material’s electrical conductivity and is measured in mΩ. Practically, an array of electrodes are placed in the ground with a certain spacing and a certain length of the profile. The spacing and length of the profile determine the resolution and penetration depth. All electrodes are then connected with a cable to each other and to the instrument, which works as both a voltmeter and a source of current. Then, systematic measurements of potential difference can be conducted throughout the whole profile.

Water has an electrical resistivity of 10-100 mΩ, whereas ground ice has a resistivity of 103 to 106 mΩ. This makes this method practical for distinguishing liquid from frozen water in permafrost areas. The resistivity of rock is between 102 to 105 mΩ, and the resistivity of sediment depends on the mixture of rock, water, ice and air. Air has an extremely high resistivity, which should be easy to point out, but since below-ground material is mostly a mixture of all the mentioned components, things are very often more blurry. What one actually looks for in the measurements is areas of higher, lower and in-between electrical resistivity values. An example of such a case is displayed in our Image of the Week.

Our Image of the Week shows the resistivity profile of a slope at just below 3000 m altitude in the Bernese Alps, Switzerland. For comparison, the same slope is shown in a normal photo in Fig. 2 (not to scale). Blue colours mark high resistivities, red mark low, and green mark somewhere in between. From this profile, we might conclude that the upper layers of the lower slope are moist and underlain by bedrock (red and green, respectively, whereas the upper slope seems to be moist below an area of high resistivity (red below green-blue). Additionally, there is a significant feature of high resistivity in the middle of the slope. This slope could contain ice in those blue areas. However, the high resistivities could also be caused by air volume in this blocky site. To be certain, we can use an additional method.

Fig. 2: Photo of the north-facing slope of the Rohrbachstein in canton Bern, Switzerland. The photo was taken facing east and shows the upper part of the slope analyzed with ERT and seismic refraction, but is not to scale compared with the Image of the Week and Fig.4 [Credit: Laura Helene Rasmussen].

Seismic refraction analysis

To distinguish air from ice, we can do a survey of the subsurface using seismic refraction analysis. Seismic refraction surveys use the fact that the speed (in ms-1) of sound wave propagation is different through different materials. The speed is estimated by placing geophones in a profile line and creating a sound wave by hitting the ground with a sledgehammer in between them (Fig. 3). The geophones detect the sound wave from this hammer blow one by one as it travels through the subsurface, and the time it takes for each geophone to receive the signal is noted. This allows us to calculate the seismic (sound) velocity from the distance and travel time. Different layers in the subsurface with different properties, and thus different seismic velocities, will cause the sound wave arriving at their surface to be refracted with different delay compared to the direct wave (which travels straight from the hammer to each geophone), and that fact can reveal properties of below-ground material.

Fig. 3: Hammer-swinging doing a seismic refraction profile [Credit: Hanne Hendricks].

The advantage of this method for ground ice studies is that ice has a seismic velocity of about 3000 ms-1, whereas sound waves move through air with only 330 ms-1. Thus, a rough profile of that same slope from our Image of the Week and Fig. 2 using seismic refraction geophysics looks like Fig. 4.

In this profile, red colours denote high seismic velocities and blue colours are very low seismic velocities. The high-resistivity feature in the middle of the ERT profile at about 3-4 m depth, which could contain air or ice, would cause red-purple colours (high velocities) if the feature contained ice, and blue colours (low velocities), if it was air volume. As seen from Fig. 4, colours at depths are reddish and certainly not blue, which makes it likely that the ERT feature at 3-4 m depth is actually an ice body. The high-resistivity area in the surface layers of the upper profile, however, corresponds to the blue colours in this seismic refraction profile, and with high resistivity, but low seismic velocity, this area is most likely air volume and not ground ice.

Fig. 4: Seismic refraction profile of the north-facing slope of the Rohrbachstein in canton Bern, Switzerland [Credit: Laura Helene Rasmussen].

The method depends on the setting

Ground ice does, obviously, come in different forms in different environments, and so the methodological considerations when using geophysical techniques vary in different settings. In this case, we look for ice in a blocky slope. That type of setting presents challenges such as contact problems between sensors and the ground, which can impede the measurements. That issue would not worry a scientist mapping ground ice in a moist Arctic lowland site. The lowland scientist might, however, have to consider resolution issues or salt content in her soil solution when evaluating the results. Perhaps she wants to combine with yet other methods such as drilling permafrost cores for detailed information on ice- and sediment type. As non-destructive methods, covering relatively large spatial areas without having to get a drill rig to the high mountains or a remote Arctic area, however, geophysics can be a good option for ground ice detection.

Further reading

Laura Helene Rasmussen is a Danish permafrost scientist working at the Center for Permafrost, University of Copenhagen. She has spent many seasons in Greenland, working with the Greenland Ecosystem Monitoring Programme and is interested in Arctic soils as an ecosystem component, their climate sensitivity, functioning and simply understanding what goes on below.

Image of the Week – Bioalbedo: algae darken the Greenland Ice Sheet

Image of the Week – Bioalbedo: algae darken the Greenland Ice Sheet

Most of the energy that drives glacier melting comes directly from sunlight, with the amount of melting critically dependent on the amount of solar energy absorbed compared to that reflected back into the atmosphere. The amount of solar energy that is reflected by a surface without being absorbed is called the albedo. A low albedo surface absorbs more of the energy that hits it compared to a high albedo surface. Our Image of the Week shows patches of dark grey-brown algal blooms on the Greenland Ice Sheet, giving the surface a surprisingly low albedo.

The colour of ice

Clean ice and snow are among the most reflective natural materials on Earth’s surface making them important ‘coolers’ in Earth’s climate system. The term ‘albedo’ describes how effectively a material absorbs or reflects incoming solar energy – it is the ratio of downwelling light arriving at a surface to the amount of upwelling light leaving it. The albedo of fresh, clean snow can be as high as 90%, meaning that out of all the solar energy reaching the surface only 10% is absorbed. However, the albedo of ice and snow can vary widely. This is important because the albedo determines how much of the incoming solar energy is retained within the snow or ice and used to raise the temperature or drive melting. It therefore controls snow and ice energy balance to a large extent.

There are several reasons why the albedo of snow and ice can vary. First, once ice crystals begin to melt they lose their delicate structures that efficiently scatter light and develop rounded granular shapes. Meltwater generated by snow or ice melt fills the gaps between the grains, promoting forward scattering of light deeper into the ice, rather than scattering back towards the surface. This increases the distance travelled through media where absorption can occur, and therefore lowers the albedo as the light is less likely to escape the material after it enters. The more melt, the greater this effect. Second, other materials such as dust or rock debris can enter the snow or ice. These ‘impurities’ generally absorb light more effectively than the ice crystals themselves and therefore reduce the albedo. However, this depends upon their concentration, optical properties and proximity to the surface. Additionally, whether the impurities are inside or outside the ice crystals, where on the planet the material is and the time of day are also important.

Any impurity that darkens a mass of ice or snow increases the amount of solar energy absorbed compared to when the material is impurity-free. This means that impurities promote melting, which is in itself an albedo reducing process. Therefore, the impact of impurities on albedo is non-linear and greater than the direct effect of their absorption alone. There are many different impurities that commonly lower the albedo of ice and snow, including mineral dusts and black carbon (e.g. from fossil fuel combustion). However, there is also a growing literature on another form of impurity that darkens ice and snow on glaciers and ice sheets on both hemispheres: biological growth (also see this previous post). Algae are the primary biological albedo-reducers on ice and snow. Photosynthetic microalgae bloom on the surface where light is abundant, which provides them with energy that they use to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars. This in turn provides food for other microorganisms. In doing so, they darken the ice surface simply because the algal cells are more effective absorbers than the ice crystals. However, as the algae become exposed to increasing light intensities, they produce pigments that act as sun shields, protecting their cellular machinery from the damaging effects of too much light. This effect enhances the biological darkening and increases the energy absorbed within the snow or ice.

Biological darkening

There are several distinct microbial habitats on glaciers and ice sheets. Snow algae are a feature of melting snowpacks that colour snow surfaces green early in the year and red later because prolonged exposure to sunlight causes them to produce red ‘sunscreen’ pigments (see this previous post). Their influence on snow albedo has yet to be determined, although they have been shown to change the amount of visible light reflected from the surface (Lutz et al., 2014) and in Antarctica they have been shown to influence light absorption at depth within the snowpack (Hodson et al., 2017). Some bacteria have been identified feeding upon the algae, and the algal blooms also provide food for red coloured ice worms. This is probably why, in ‘The History of Animals’, Aristotle wrongly attributed the red discoloration of patches of snow to red worms rather than pigmented algae!

Fig. 2: (a) Albedo for clean snow, bare ice and ice with an algal bloom measured on the Greenland Ice Sheet in July 2017. (b) Microscope image of melted surface ice from the Greenland ice sheet. The red oval shaped particles are ice algae and the angular, clear particles are mineral dust fragments. [Credit: A: J. Cook, B: C. Williamson]

On ice, a different species of algae exists in a thin liquid water film on the upper surface of melting ice crystals. These algae are also photosynthetic but are not bright green or red, but rather grey, brown or purple. They produce a purple pigment that acts as a UV shield that protects their delicate intracellular machinery from excessive light energy. The side effect of this is that the algae become very dark and have an albedo-lowering effect on the ice surface (see our Image of the Week). Ice with algae has a lower albedo than clean ice (Fig 2a) but, up to now, the magnitude of the biological darkening effect has not been quantified because of difficulties isolating algal darkening from that of mineral dusts, soot and the changing optical properties of the ice itself. This also limits our capability to map these algae using remote sensing. Samples of dark coloured ice examined under the microscope clearly show the presence of an algal community darkening the ice (Fig 2b).

In addition to surface-dwelling ice algae, microbial life exists in small pits known as cryoconite holes (see also this previous post). At the bottom of these holes exists a thin layer of granules comprising living microbial cells, dead cells, biogenic molecules, mineral fragments and soot. The organic matter in these granules is very dark, so they warm up when illuminated by the sun and melt into the ice. The relationship between cryoconite and ice surface albedo is complex because, although the cryoconite is dark, the hole geometry hides the granules beneath the ice surface.

Implications for the future of glaciers and ice sheets

The challenge facing scientists now is to quantify the bioalbedo effect by determining the optical properties of individual algal cells and remotely assessing their spatial coverage at the scale of entire glaciers and ice sheets. This will require new methods to be developed for detecting living cells from the air or space. Then, we must understand the factors controlling their growth, so we can predict biological darkening of ice in future climate scenarios. It is possible that algal coverage will increase as glaciers and ice sheets waste away because algae bloom where there is liquid melt water. Because of the darkening effect, an increasingly widespread algal ecosystem in a warming climate will accelerate the demise of its own habitat by enhancing glacier and ice sheet retreat.

Further reading

Edited by Scott Watson and Clara Burgard

Joseph Cook is a Postdoctoral Research Associate on NERC’s Black and Bloom project based at the University of Sheffield, UK where his remit is the measurement and modelling of surface albedo on the Greenland Ice Sheet. His background is in biotic-abiotic interactions on ice. He tweets as @tothepoles and blogs at Contact Email:

Image of the week – Getting glaciers noticed!

Image of the week – Getting glaciers noticed!

Public engagement and outreach in science is a big deal right now. In cryospheric science the need to inform the public about our research is vital to enable more people to understand how climate change is affecting water resources and sea level rise globally. There is also no better way to enthuse people about science than to involve them in it. However, bringing the cryosphere to the public is a little more difficult when compared to other fields of science. Whilst volcanologists can cause mini explosions, seismologists can simulate earthquakes (such as Explosive Earth at last year’s Royal Society science fair) and realistic rivers can be simulated using interactive stream tables, combining ice and glacier dynamics in a public engagement setting can a little more challenging!

Despite the challenges involved in bringing the cryosphere to the public, a huge variety of great outreach projects concerned with glaciers exist, which deal with different aspects of the cryosphere; from using glacier goo to display how glaciers flow, recreating hydrology of a glacier with ice blocks, dressing up school children in fieldwork kit, or passing wires through ice to show regelation at work. But what should you keep in mind when planning your next cryospheric themed outreach activity?

Figure 2: The Vanishing Glacier of Everest stand at the Manchester Science festival [Credit: Owen King].

Keep it simple. By nature, academics are good at complexity. However, the most effective project I have been involved in was very simple – one where an ice block simply sat and melted (see our Image of the week). The team involved with this project came up with a vast array of complex ideas when planning the stand, but settled on the simple, effective idea of an ice block – which has been a great hit. The stand has now been to numerous science festivals, and people are constantly surprised by the ice being real! Once past the initial shock we have a great base from which to start conversations on the basics of how ice melts to the impact of climate change on glaciers around the world.

Keep it broad. Academics are also very good at forgetting just how specific their area of research is. You may want to link your outreach work to a particular project, but if you try to attempt something very specific you will spend a great deal of time talking to public about the basics before you get to the detail. To ensure everyone can get something out of your outreach work the best way is to provide a platform on which the basics can be taught but, if a conversation takes you there, you have the resources to explain your research in greater detail. At ‘Vanishing Glaciers of Everest’ we have the ice block for introductory discussions, but if someone gets really interested in the details we have figures and photos on the stand behind that can be used to introduce more complex areas of our research (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2).

Figure 2: Glacier goo at science and engineering week, Aberystwyth University [Credit: Morgan Gibson]

Make it interactive. Generally, people don’t want to be talked at. Instead, most people want to discuss what they know with you, so make it easy for them to do so. Give people something to do (e.g. glacier goo – Fig. 3) as soon as they reach the stand that they can explore on their own. You can then join them and ask exploratory questions, which starts a discussion rather than presenting to them. You are then likely to engage the person you are talking to much more effectively, and may well find out something yourself!

Consider all ages. Outreach work is often focused on children. However, adults are also a key demographic on which to focus. Engaging teachers and parents is vital to really bring home the importance of science to children in school and at home; I have found that almost all children have an interest in what you are saying, but without enthusiasm and interest from the supervising adult your hard work at engaging the children will not be encouraged once they leave. Consider how you will show how your aspect of science is fun, but also relevant to peoples’ everyday lives – that way you can appeal to both demographics.

Be innovative. Hanging an ice block from a wire to show regelation is cool, as is glacier goo. However, increasingly I am finding people have seen these experiments before, and are finding it all a little boring as a result. By repeating the same experiments again and again we are in danger of suggesting our research is static, which is obviously not the case! So be inventive when you are coming up with ideas and don’t forget all the new technology you could include!

Figure 4: “Icy bear” – a Twitter-based public engagement ‘project’ that documents research on microbes on ice, and fieldwork, across the world [Credit: Arwyn Edwards]

Be prepared for anything. I’ve had people talk to me, at length, about how the best way for us adapt to sea level rise is for all of us live in high rise blocks on hill tops. I’ve also spent a great deal of time explaining how we know anthropogenic climate change is real. You will get some strange questions and bold statements, but they are part of the experience. Keep an open mind and be positive; you meet amazing, interesting people at these events, and I have had conversations that have led to new research ideas, or to me rewriting paragraphs of a paper due to discussions at such events.

Be reflective. Spend some time considering the effectiveness of your outreach once you have finished (and recovered) from an event. What worked well and what didn’t? Do aspects of your stand or event need adapting for different audiences? Can you expand what you are doing to enable more flexibility on the overall message for your work? Being reflective will only lead to more effective public engagement, more interesting discussions, and you feeling satisfied that you have enthused and engaged public on your research, so it is worth doing!



Public engagement, done right, is incredibly rewarding. You not only spread your enthusiasm for research and get to discuss your work with a huge range of people, but it also enables you to show people that like science is relevant to everyone.

If you want to see some public outreach in action for yourself, the upcoming International APECS Polar Week (September 18-24, 2017) is a great chance to get involved in some outreach activities. For example, the #PolarWorld Frostbytes competition, to design a short audio or video recording used as a tool to help researchers easily share their latest findings with a broad audience!

Edited by Emma Smith

Morgan Gibson is a PhD student at Aberystwyth University, UK, and is researching the role of supraglacial debris in ablation of Himalaya-Karakoram debris-covered glaciers. Morgan’s work focuses on: the extent to which supraglacial debris properties vary spatially; how glacier dynamics control supraglacial debris distribution; and the importance of spatial and temporal variations in debris properties on ablation of Himalaya-Karakoram debris-covered glaciers. Morgan tweets at @morgan_gibson, contact email address:

Image of the week – Micro-organisms on Ice!

Image of the week – Micro-organisms on Ice!

The cold icy surface of a glacier doesn’t seem like an environment where life should exist, but if you look closely you may be surprised! Glaciers are not only locations studied by glaciologists and physical scientists, but are also of great interest to microbiologists and ecologists. In fact, understanding the interaction between ice and microbiology is essential to fully understand the glacier system!

Why study micro-organisms on glaciers?

Micro-plants, micro-animals and bacteria live and reproduce in cryoconite ecosystems on the surface of glaciers. Cryoconite is a dark coloured material (Fig. 2) found at the bottom of cylindrical water-filled melt holes (cryoconite holes) on a glacier surface; it consists of dust and mineral powders transported by the wind, and micro-organisms. Cryoconite holes are formed as the dark coloured material causes localised melting, due to reduced albedo (ability of a surface to reflect solar energy).

Figure 2: Example of a Cryoconite hole filled with dark cryoconite material (markers are 10×10 cm) [Credit: Tommaso Santagata – La Venta Esplorazioni Geografiche]

Because organisms in cryoconite thrive in extreme conditions, they are very unique and interesting to study. Information about their genetic makeup and chemical structure can help to inform, for example, medical and pharmaceutical sciences. Currently, however, information on their community structure is still limited.

Cryoconite ecosystems are very isolated and must work together to survive and thrive. Some micro-organisms (e.g. micro-algae) can photosynthesise and are able to live autonomously inside cryoconite holes using atmospheric carbon dioxide, sunlight, water and chlorophyll. By this same mechanism, they can find all the molecules essential for their vital and structural needs and consequently they generate most of the molecules necessary for all other living things. For example, the waste product of photosynthesis, oxygen, is essential for the survival of all organisms living in aerobiosis in these communities. Due to their key role in the ecosystem, the micro-algae are known as “primary producers”.

As around 70% of the earth is covered in water, which is colonised by micro-algae, studying the way they survive in extreme conditions and how they contribute to the ecosystem is of global importance – especially at this time of climate change.

The diversity of highly active bacterial communities in cryoconite holes makes them the most biologically active habitats within glacial ecosystems.

Data collections – Six days on THE glacier

The Perito Moreno glacier (Fig. 3) is known as one of the most important tourist attraction in Argentinian Patagonia (see our previous IOW post). Each day, hundreds of people observe the impressive front of this glacier and wait to see ice detachments and hear the loud sound of it’s impacts in the water of Lake Argentino. The glacier takes it’s name from the explorer Francisco Moreno, who studied the Patagonian region in the 19th century. The glacier is more than 30 km in length and an area of about 250 km2, Perito Moreno is one of the main outlet glaciers of Hielo Patagonico Sur (southern Patagonia icefield).

Figure 3: Aerial view of the Perito Moreno
[Credit : Tommaso Santagata – La Venta Esplorazioni Geografiche]

In April 2017, after several missions to the Greenland Ice Sheet to study extremophilic micro-organisms (organism that thrive in extreme environments) of ice, a team of Italian and French scientists organised a scientific expedition to study the microbiology of Perito Moreno. The expedition was organised by La Venta and Spélé’Ice and included researchers from several French and Italian Universities (see below for full list)

Perito Moreno is very well known, especially to the La Venta team, who have been organising scientific expeditions in Patagonia since 1991. The microbiological research objectives of this mission were to study the micro-organisms that live on the surface of Perito Moreno and compare them to results obtained in the other polar, sub-polar and alpine regions. The multi-disciplinary research team were able to set up a complex field laboratory, which included a microscope and an innovative small tool size capable of DNA sequencing. This meant that samples could be analysed immediately after their extraction from the ice (Fig. 1).

Getting all the equipment and personnel to achieve this expedition onto the ice was not an easy task. The team and their equipment were transported by boat to a site near the front of the glacier. Equipment then needed to be transported to the Buscaini Refugee, a shelter used as a base-camp by the team (Fig. 4). This took two trips, on foot, of about 7 hours (12 km of trail along the lateral moraine and the ice of the glacier with very heavy backpacks) – not an easy start! Luckily this hardship was somewhat mitigated by the absence of extreme cold, in fact, abnormally hot weather tallowed the team to move and work in t-shirts – not bad!

Figure 4: Walking into the field site along the ice of Perito Moreno – part of the 12km of trail to the Buscaini Refugee shelter
[Credit: Alessio Romeo – La Venta Esplorazioni Geografiche]

Thanks to these favourable weather conditions, all the goals were achieved in the short amount of time the team were allowed to camp on the glacier (special permission is needed from the national park to do this). During the five days of activity, many samples were taken and sequenced directly at the camp by the researches. Other important goals, such as morphological comparisons and measurements of the velocity of the glacier through the use of GPS, laser scanning and unmanned aerial vehicles were achieved by another team of researchers (stay tuned for another blog post about this!).

Universities and research institutes involved: University Bicocca of Milan – Italy, University of Milano – Italy, Sciences of the Earth A.Desio – Italy, Natural History Museum of Paris – France, University Diderot of Paris – France, University of Florence – Sciences of the Earth – Italy, University of Bologna – Italy.

Further Reading

Edited by Emma Smith

Tommaso Santagata is a survey technician and geology student at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. As speleologist and member of the Italian association La Venta Esplorazioni Geografiche, he carries out research projects on glaciers using UAV’s, terrestrial laser scanning and 3D photogrammetry techniques to study the ice caves of Patagonia, the in-cave glacier of the Cenote Abyss (Dolomiti Mountains, Italy), the moulins of Gorner Glacier (Switzerland) and other underground environments as the lava tunnels of Mount Etna. He tweets as @tommysgeo

Image of the Week – A new way to compute ice dynamic changes

Fig. 1: Map of ice velocity from the NASA MEaSUREs Program showing the region of Enderby Land in East Antarctica [Credit: Fig. 1 from Kallenberg et al. (2017) ].

Up to now, ice sheet mass changes due to ice dynamics have been computed from satellite observations that suffer from sparse coverage in time and space. A new method allows us to compute these changes on much wider temporal and spatial scales. But how does this method work? Let us discover the different steps by having a look at Enderby Land in East Antarctica, for which ice velocities are shown in our Image of the Week…

Mass balance of ice sheets

The mass balance of an ice sheet is the difference between the mass gain of ice, primarily through snowfall, and the mass loss of ice, primarily via meltwater runoff and ice dynamic processes (e.g. iceberg calving, melting below ice shelves). When the mass gain is equal to the mass loss, the ice sheet is in balance. However, if one exceeds the other, the ice sheet either gains or loses mass.

Measuring mass balance changes of ice sheets is crucial due to their potential contribution to sea level rise (see previous post). You can have a look at this nice review for further details about the recent changes in the mass balance of the two biggest ice sheets on Earth, i.e. Antarctica and Greenland.

Ice mass changes from snowfall and meltwater runoff (what we call ‘surface mass balance’ changes) are reasonably well simulated by regional climate models, which give good agreement with observations (see this study for Antarctica and this one for Greenland). Mass changes from ice dynamics are more complex to obtain. They are commonly estimated by combining ice velocity and ice thickness. Ice velocity is measured via satellite radar interferometry, while ice thickness is obtained thanks to airborne radar. Unfortunately, these measurements have sparse temporal and spatial coverage, especially in Antarctica, which makes the computation of mass changes from ice dynamics challenging.

A new method to estimate ice dynamic changes

Kallenberg et al. (2017) conducted a study focussing on Enderby Land in East Antarctica (see our Image of the Week) in which they use a novel approach to estimate ice dynamic changes. This region of Antarctica has experienced a slightly positive mass balance in past years, meaning that the ice sheet has slightly thickened in this region.

Kallenberg et al. (2017) first used satellite observations to compute the total changes in ice sheet mass. They took advantage of two high-technology datasets. The first one, “Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment” (GRACE), measures changes in the Earth’s gravity field, from which ice mass changes can be derived. A summary explaining how GRACE works can be found in this previous post. The second satellite dataset, “Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite” (ICESat), measures changes in ice surface elevation, from which changes in ice mass can be computed by using ice density.

However, Kallenberg et al. (2017) were not interested in the total ice mass changes, as obtained from GRACE and ICESat satellites, but rather in ice dynamic changes. They subtracted two quantities from the total mass changes in order to obtain the remaining dynamic changes:

  1. Surface mass balance changes: changes from processes happening at the surface of the ice sheet (e.g. snow accumulation, meltwater runoff). These changes were obtained from model simulations using the Regional Atmospheric Climate Model (RACMO2), for which details can be found in this previous post.
  2. Glacial Isostatic Adjustment: changes in land topography due to ice loading and unloading. These changes were computed from Glacial Isostatic Adjustment models.

What does this study tell us?

The results of this study show that it is possible to compute changes in ice mass resulting from ice dynamics with higher spatial and temporal coverage than before, using a combination of satellite observations and models.

Also, the use of two different satellite datasets (GRACE and ICESat) shows that they agree quite well with each other in the region of Enderby Land (see Fig. 2). This means that using one or the other dataset does not make a big difference.

Finally, this new method also shows that differences between GRACE and ICESat reduce when using the newer version of RACMO2 for computing surface mass balance changes. This tells us that comparing results of ice dynamics from both satellites with different models is a good way to identify which models correctly simulate surface processes and which models do not.

Fig. 2: Ice dynamic changes (dH/dt, where H is ice thickness and t is time) computed from (a) GRACE and (b) ICESat and expressed in meters per year [Credit: Fig. 5 from Kallenberg et al. (2017) ].

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard and Emma Smith

David Docquier is a post-doctoral researcher at the Earth and Life Institute of Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium. He works on the development of processed-based sea-ice metrics in order to improve the evaluation of global climate models (GCMs). His study is embedded within the EU Horizon 2020 PRIMAVERA project, which aims at developing a new generation of high-resolution GCMs to better represent the climate.

Image of the Week – Drilling into a Himalayan glacier

Image of the Week – Drilling into a Himalayan glacier

How water travels through and beneath the interior of debris-covered glaciers is poorly understood, partly because it can be difficult to access these glaciers at all, never mind explore their interiors. In this Image of the Week, find out how these aspects can be investigated by drilling holes all the way through the ice…

Hydrological features of debris-covered glaciers

Debris-covered glaciers can have a range of hydrological features that do not usually appear on clean-ice valley glaciers, such as surface (supraglacial) ponds. These features are produced as a result of the variable melting that occurs across the glacier surface, depending on the thickness of the debris layer on the surface. Melting is reduced where the debris layer is thick (e.g. near the terminus), which leads to mass loss primarily by thinning, rather than terminus retreat like clean-ice glaciers (read more about this process in this previous blog post). This produces a low-gradient surface covered by hummocks and depressions in which ponds can form, often with steep bare ice faces (ice cliffs) surrounding them. The occurrence of ice cliffs and ponds also affects the surface melt rate, as glacier ice in/on/under these features melts considerably faster (up to 10 and 7 times more, respectively) than that of the debris-covered areas surrounding them (Sakai et al., 2000). Consequently, these hydrological features are an important contributing factor to the general trend of surface lowering of debris-covered glaciers (Bolch et al., 2012).

As a result, most hydrological research on debris-covered glaciers to date has focused on the (more accessible) supraglacial hydrological environment, as well as measuring the proglacial discharge of meltwater from these glaciers, which is a vital water resource for millions of people (Pritchard, 2017). Below the debris-covered surface of these glaciers, next-to-nothing is known about their hydrology; do drainage networks exist within (englacial) or beneath (subglacial) these glaciers, can they exist, and how can they be observed in such challenging environments?

A limited amount of direct research has been carried out in attempt to answer some of these questions, such as speleological techniques to investigate shallow englacial systems on a few glaciers (e.g. Gulley and Benn, 2007; Narama et al., 2017). However, all other inferences of subsurface drainage through debris-covered glaciers have come from hydrogeochemical analyses of water samples taken from the proglacial environment (e.g. Hasnain and Thayyen, 1994) or interpretation of observed glacier dynamics from satellite imagery (e.g. Quincey et al., 2009). While relict englacial features can be observed on the surface of many debris-covered glaciers (Figure 2), studying these systems while they are still active is more difficult.

Fig. 2: A relict englacial feature in the centre of an ice cliff on Khumbu Glacier (looking downglacier), through which the associated supraglacial pond is thought to have drained in the past. Following the drainage event, the pond water-level would have dropped, exposing the ice cliffs around its edge and resulting in the pond water-level being too low to sustain a water flow through the channel. The inset shows the same feature from the far side (looking upglacier): on this side, a vast amount of surface lowering of the ice surface has occurred and the previously englacial channel is now visible from the surface. For scale, the feature is approximately 10 metres in height. [Large image credit: Evan Miles; Inset image credit: Katie Miles]

Hot-water drilling to investigate subsurface hydrology

One way in which potential hydrological systems beneath the surface of debris-covered glaciers can be investigated is through the use of hot-water drilling, as was carried out on Khumbu Glacier, Nepal Himalaya this year by the EverDrill team. A converted car pressure-washer was used to produce a small jet of hot, pressurised water, which was sent through a spool of hose into the drill stem to melt the ice below as it was slowly lowered into the glacier (our Image of the Week). The result (if all went well!) was a borehole 10-15 cm in width, that penetrated the ice all the way to the glacier bed (Figure 3). During the field campaign, we managed to drill 13 boreholes at 3 different drill sites across Khumbu Glacier, ranging in length from 12 to 155 metres.

Once the borehole has been drilled, it can be used to investigate the hydrology of the glacier in a number of ways. If the water level suddenly drops while drilling is in progress, it is possible that the borehole has cut through an englacial conduit, through which the excess drill water has drained. If it drops at the base of a borehole drilled to the bed, it can be assumed that some form of subglacial drainage network exists at the base of the glacier, and the excess water drained through this system. Such features can be examined further through the use of an optical televiewer (360° camera that is lowered slowly through the length of the borehole, taking hundreds of images to give a complete picture of the internal surface of the borehole), or by installing a variety of sensors along the hole’s length to collect various types of data.

Fig. 3: A borehole drilled into Khumbu Glacier during the EverDrill field season in Spring 2017. The borehole was approximately 10 cm in width. A small channel (to the left of the borehole) was formed during the drilling process to drain away the excess water as the borehole was drilled. [Credit: Katie Miles]

During the EverDrill fieldwork in Spring 2017, we televiewed three of the drilled boreholes. These boreholes were then instrumented with sensors to measure the temperature of the ice and, where the boreholes reached the bed, a subglacial probe to measure electrical conductivity, temperature, water pressure and suspended sediment concentration (turbidity). We have left these probes in the boreholes, so that we have measurements both through our field season and additionally through the monsoon summer months. This will allow us to see whether any subsurface hydrological drainage systems develop when there is an additional source of water contributing to the melting of these glaciers. We will return in October to collect this data, and hopefully find out a little more about the englacial and subglacial drainage systems of this debris-covered glacier!

Further reading

Edited by Morgan Gibson, Clara Burgard and Emma Smith

Katie Miles is a PhD student in the Centre for Glaciology, Aberystwyth University, UK, studying the internal structure and subsurface hydrology of high-elevation debris-covered glaciers in the Himalaya by investigating boreholes and measurements that can be made within them. She is also interested in the potential of Sentinel-1 SAR imagery in detecting lakes on the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Katie tweets at @Katie_Miles_851, contact email:

Image of the Week – Summer is fieldwork season at EastGRIP!

Image of the Week – Summer is fieldwork season at EastGRIP!

As the days get very long, summer is a popular season for conducting fieldwork at high latitudes. At the North East Greenland Ice Stream (NEGIS), the East Greenland Ice-core Project (EastGRIP) is ongoing. Several scientists are busy drilling an ice core through the ice sheet to the very bottom, in continuation to previous years (see here and here). This year, amongst others, several members from the European Research Council (ERC) supported synergy project ice2ice are taking part in the work at EastGRIP. Besides sleeping in the barracks that can be seen in our Image of the Week, the scientists enjoy the international and interdisciplinary setting and, of course, the work in a deep ice core drilling camp…

Life at the EastGRIP camp

In total, 22 people live in the camp (see Fig.2): 1 field leader, 5 ice core drillers, 4 ice core loggers, 3 people working with the physical properties of the ice, 2 are doing continuous water isotope analysis, 2 surface science scientists, 2 field assistants, and 1 mechanic, 1 electrical engineer and most important an excellent cook. We cover a variety of nationalities: British, Czech, Danish, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and more. The crew changes every four weeks and the EastGRIP project aims to get as many young scientists (Master and PhD students) into camp as possible, so that it also works as a learning environment for new generations. In total, the number of people that have and will spent time at EastGRIP this season is almost 100, making it a buzzing science hub. This environment leads to extensive science discussions over the dinner table and therefore facilitates the interdisciplinary connections so vital in ice core science.

Fig.2: The current crew at EastGRIP dressed up for the Saturday party (tie and dress obligatory!) [Credit: EastGRIP diaries].

Science at the EastGRIP camp

The main aim of the EastGRIP project is to retrieve an ice core by drilling through the North East Greenland Ice Stream (NEGIS) up to a depth of 2550 m (!). Ice streams are responsible for draining a significant fraction of the ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet (see Fig. 3). We hope to gain new and fundamental information on ice stream dynamics from the project, thereby improving the understanding of how ice streams will contribute to future sea-level change. The EastGRIP project has many international partners and is managed by the Centre for Ice and Climate, Denmark with air support carried out by US ski-equipped Hercules aircraft managed through the US Office of Polar Programs, National Science Foundation.

Fig. 3: Ice velocities from RADARSAT synthetic aperture radar data are shown in color and illustrate the wedge of fast-flowing ice that begins right at the central ice divide and cuts through the ice sheet to feed into the ocean through three large ice streams (Nioghalvfjerds isstrømmen, Zachariae isbræ, and Storstrømmen). [Credit: EastGRIP, data from Joughin et al., 2010]

Currently, four Norwegian and Danish scientists from the ice2ice project have joined the EastGRIP project to conduct field work at the ice core drilling site. The ice2ice project focuses on how land ice and sea ice influence each other in past, present, and future. Thus, being at the EastGRIP site is a great opport

unity for us in ice2ice to learn more about how the fast-flowing ice stream in North East Greenland may influence the stability of the Greenland ice cap and to enjoy the collaborative spirit at an ice core drilling site.


This year’s fieldwork at EastGRIP started in May and will continue until August. We aim to make it through the brittle zone of the ice. This is a zone where the gas bubbles get enclosed in the ice crystals and thus the ice is, as the name indicates, more brittle than at other depths. Unfortunately for us, the brittle zone makes it very hard to retrieve the ice in a great quality. This is because of the pressure difference between the original depth of the ice and the surface, that causes the ice to fracture when it arrives at the surface. We are doing our very best to stabilize the core and several optimizations in terms of both drilling and processing of the ice core are being applied.

Fig. 4: Cross-section view of an ice core [Credit: Helle Astrid Kjær].

Still, a large part of the core can already be investigated (see Fig. 4) for water isotopes to get information about past climate. Also, ice crystals directions are being investigated through thin slices of the ice core to help better understanding the flow of the NEGIS. On top of the deep ice core, which is to be drilled to bedrock over the coming years, we are doing an extensive surface program to look at accumulation changes.

In the large white plains…

Despite all the fun science and people, when you are at EastGRIP for more than 4 weeks, you have a very similar landscape everyday and can miss seeing something else than just the great white. About a week ago, a falcon came by to remind us of the rest of the world (see Fig. 5). It flew off after a couple of days. We will follow its path to the greener parts of Greenland when we will soon fly down to Kangerlussuaq. Someone else will then take over our job at EastGRIP and enjoy the wonders of white…

Fig.5: Visit of a falcon [Credit: Helle Astrid Kjær].

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard

Helle Astrid Kjær is a postdoc at the Centre for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute at University of Copenhagen. When she is not busy in the field drilling and logging ice cores, she spends most of her time in the lab retrieving the climate signal from ice cores. These include volcanic events, sea salts, dust with more by means of Continuous Flow Analaysis (CFA). Further she is hired to manage the ice2ice project.

Image of the Week – The birth of a sea-ice dragon!

Image of the Week – The birth of a sea-ice dragon!

Dragon-skin ice may sound like the name of an episode of the Game of Thrones fantasy franchise. However, this fantasy name hides a rare and bizarre type of ice formation that you can see in our Image of the Week. It has been recently observed by the “Polynyas, ice production and seasonal evolution in the Ross Sea” (PIPERS) research team in Antarctica. This bizarre phenomenon caused by strong wind conditions has not been observed in Antarctica since 2007.

PIPERS expedition observed dragon-skin ice

In early April, the Nathan B Palmer icebreaker (see Fig. 2) began its 65-day voyage to Antarctica to study sea ice in the Ross Sea during the autumn period. This expedition, named PIPERS, was carried out by a team of 26 scientists from 9 countries. Its goal was to investigate polynyas, ice production, and seasonal evolution with a particular focus on the Terra Nova Bay and Ross Sea Polynyas (see Fig. 3).

Fig.2 : The Nathan B Palmer icebreaker caught in sea ice [Credit: IMAS ].

A polynya is an area of open water or thin sea ice surrounded by thicker sea ice and is generally located in coastal areas [Stringer and Groves, 1991]. Ice formation in polynyas is strongly influenced by wind conditions whose action can lead to astonishing spatial patterns in sea ice appearance. Special wind conditions probably also lead to what the members of the PIPERS expedition had the opportunity to observe: ice patterns that resemble dragon scales, therefore called dragon-skin ice. Such a sighting is quite remarkable as the last one dates back from a decade. However, the sparsity of observations of dragon-skin ice phenomena is probably a consequence of the relatively small number of expeditions in Antarctica during the autumn and winter seasons…

Fig. 3: The Terra Nova Bay Polynya and Ross Sea Polynya explored by the PIPERS expedition. [Credit: PIPERS ].

Chaotic ice formation caused by strong winds

Dragon-skin ice is a chaotic result of the complex interplay between the ocean and the atmosphere. Coastal polynyas in Antarctica are kept open by the action of strong and cold offshore winds (see Fig. 4) known as katabatic winds, which blow downwards as fast as 100 km/h for several hours [McKnight and Hess, 2000]. Sea ice forming at the cold sea surface gets blown away by these strong winds, preventing a closed sea-ice cover in this area. As the ice is blown away, an area of open water gets in direct contact with the atmosphere, leading to strong cooling and new formation of ice, that gets blown away again, and so on… Therefore, in general, sea ice in polynyas consists of thin pancake ice (see Fig. 5) i.e. round pieces of ice from 0.3 to 3 meters in diameter, which results from the aggregation of ice crystals caused by the wave action. Due to the wind action, the pieces of ice are pushed out by the wind action to the edges of the polynya.  As these pieces push strongly against each other, dragon-like scales appear on sea ice giving birth to the so-called dragon-skin ice.

Fig.4: Formation of coastal polynyas due to the action of katabatic winds [Credit: Wikimedia Commons ].

Figure 5: Sea ice in polynyas takes the form of pancake ice due to the action of water waves [Credit: PIPERS ].

The importance of polynyas for ocean-atmosphere interactions

Besides providing us with dazzling pictures of the cryosphere, investigating sea-ice production and evolution in polynyas is essential to better understand the complex interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere.
As sea water freezes into sea ice, salt is expelled into the ocean, raising its local salinity. The incessant production of sea ice in polynyas leads to water masses with very high salinity inside the polynyas. As sea water cools down, it releases energy in the atmosphere, leading to a warming of the atmosphere in polar regions. Moreover, due to their high density, these masses of cold and salty water sink and mix with lower ocean layers.
First results from the PIPERS mission show that when sea ice is forming, polynyas release greenhouse gases to atmosphere, instead of capturing it, as it was previously assumed! But fully understanding what’s happening there will necessitate more time and analyses….

Further reading


Edited by Scott Watson and Clara Burgard
Modified by Sophie Berger on 3 July 2017 to account for remarks of Célia Sapart (Member of the PIPER expedition)

Kevin Bulthuis is a F.R.S.-FNRS Research Fellow at the Université de Liège and the Université Libre de Bruxelles. He investigates the influence of uncertainties and instabilities in ice-sheet models as a limitation for accurate predictions of future sea-level rise. Contact

Image of the Week – Heat waves during Polar Night!

Fig. 1: (Left) Evolution of 2-m air temperatures from a reanalysis over December 2016. (Right) Time series of temperature at the location of the black cross (Svalbard). Also shown is the 1979-2000 average and one standard deviation (blue). [Credit: François Massonnet ; Data : ERA-Interim]

The winter 2016-2017 has been one of the hottest on record in the Arctic. In our Image of the Week, you can see that air temperatures were positive in the middle of the winter! Let’s talk about the reasons and implications of this warm Arctic winter. But first, let’s take a tour in Svalbard, the gateway to the Arctic…

A breach in the one of the world’s largest seed vaults

The Global Seed Vault on Svalbard (located at the black cross in our Image of the Week) is one of the world’s largest seed banks. Should mankind face a cataclysm, 800,000 copies of about 4,000 species of crops can safely be recovered from the vault. Buried under 120 m of sandstone, located 130 m above sea level, and embedded inside a thick layer of permafrost, the vault can withstand virtually all types of catastrophe – natural or man-made. This means, for example, that it is high enough to stay above sea level in case of a large sea-level rise, or that it is far enough from regions that might be affected by nuclear warfare. But is it really that safe? Last winter, vault managers reported water flooding at the entrance of the cave, after an unexpected event of permafrost melt in the middle of polar night. Not enough to put the seeds at risk (they are safely guarded in individual chambers deeper in the mountainside), but worrying enough to raise concern about how, and why such an event happened…

Fig. 2: Entrance of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. [Credit: Dag Terje Filip Endresen, Wikimedia Commons ].

Soaring temperatures in the Arctic

The Arctic region is often dubbed the “canary in the coal mine” for climate change: near-surface temperatures there have risen at twice the pace of the world’s average, mainly due to the process of “Arctic Amplification whereby positive feedbacks enhance greatly an initial temperature perturbation. Increases in lower-troposphere Arctic air temperatures have occurred in conjunction with a dramatic retreat and thinning of the sea-ice cover in all seasons, a decrease of continental spring snow cover extent, and significant mass loss from glaciers and ice sheets (IPCC, 2013)

Winter temperatures above freezing point

The last two winters (2015-2016 and 2016-2017) have been particularly exceptional. As displayed in our Image of the Week for winter 2016-2017 and here for 2015-2016 (see also two news articles here and here for an accessible description of the event), temporary intrusions of relatively warm air pushed air temperatures above freezing point in several parts of the Arctic, even causing sea ice to “pause” its expansion at a period of the year where it usually grows at its fastest rate (see Fig. 3).

Fig.3 : Mean Arctic sea ice extent for 1981 to 2010 (grey), and the annual cycles of 1990 (blue), and 2016-2017 (red and cyan, respectively). [Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center. Interactive plotting is available here ]

Cullather et al. (2016) and Overland and Wang (2016) conducted a retrospective analysis of the 2015-2016 extreme winter and underlined that the mid-latitude atmospheric circulation played a significant role in shaping the observed temperature anomaly for that winter (see also this previous post). Scientists are still working to analyse the most recent winter temperature anomaly (2016 – 2017).


How unusual are such high temperatures in the middle of the boreal winter? It is important to keep in mind that the type of event featured in our Image of the Week results from the superposition of weather and climate variability at various time scales, which must be properly distinguished. At the synoptic scale (i.e., that of weather systems, several days), the event is not exceptional. For example, a similar event was already reported back in 1975! It is not surprising to see low-pressure systems penetrate high up to the Arctic.

At longer time scales (several months), the observed temperature anomaly in the recent two winters is more puzzling. The winter 2015-2016 configuration appears to be connected with changes in the large-scale atmospheric circulation (Overland and Wang, 2016). To understand the large-scale atmospheric circulation, scientists like to map the so-called “geopotential heightfield for a given isobar, that is, the height above sea level of all points with a given atmospheric pressure. The geopotential height is a handy diagnostic because, in a first approximation, it is in close relationship with the wind: the higher the gradient in geopotential height between two regions, the higher the wind speed at the front between these two regions. The map of geopotential height anomalies (i.e., deviations from the mean) for the 700 hPa level in December (Fig. 4) is suggestive of the important role played by the large-scale atmospheric circulation on local conditions. The link between recent Arctic warming and mid-latitude atmospheric circulation changes is a topic of intense research.

Fig.4: Anomaly in 700 hPa geopotential height, December 2016 (with regard to the reference period 1979-2000) [Credit: François Massonnet; Data: ERA-Interim]

Finally, at climate time scales (several years to several decades), this event is not so surprising: the Arctic environment has changed dramatically in the last few decades, in great part due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. With a warmer background state, there is higher probability of winter air temperatures surpassing 0°C if synoptic and large-scale variability positively interact with each other, as seems to have been the case during the last two winters.

What does this mean for future winters?

The rapid transformation of the Arctic is already having profound implications on ecosystems (Descamps et al., 2016) and indigenous populations (e.g., SWIPA report). To a larger extent, it can potentially affect our own weather: we polar scientists like to say that “what happens in the Arctic, does not stay in the Arctic”. The unusual summers and winters that large parts of Europe, the U.S. and Asia have experienced in recent years might be related to the rapid Arctic changes, according to several scientists – but there is no consensus yet on that matter. One thing is known for sure: the last two winters have been the warmest on record, but this might just be the beginning of a long chain of more extreme events…

Further reading

Edited by Scott Watson and Clara Burgard

François Massonnet is a F.R.S.-FNRS Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Université catholique de Louvain and affiliated at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (Spain). He is assessing climate models as tools to understand (retrospectively and prospectively) polar climate variability and beyond. He tweets as @FMassonnet. Contact Email:

Image of the Week – When the dirty cryosphere destabilizes!

Image of the Week – When the dirty cryosphere destabilizes!

Ice is usually something you see covering large ocean areas, mountain tops and passes or as huge sheets in polar regions. This type of ice is clearly visible from space or with the naked eye. There is, however, a large volume of ice that is less visible. This ice is distributed over the polar and high alpine permafrost regions; and is the ice hidden below ground. It might be hidden, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. If this below-ground ice melts, the ground might collapse!

On solid ground?

To change the surface of a landscape usually requires wind or water, which actively erodes the material around it. In permafrost areas, however, different mechanisms are at work. In these areas, the ground or parts of the ground, are frozen all year round and the formation and melting of below-ground ice changes the landscape in a complicated way. Below-ground ice can have many shapes and sizes depending on moisture availability, sediment type and thermal regime (French, 2007). Because a gram of ice has 9 % higher volume than a gram of water, simply freezing, thawing and re-freezing soil water can make the surface “wobbly” and irregular. Since ice doesn’t drain from a saturated soil, as water does, a permanently frozen soil can also contain moisture in excess of the absorption capacity of the soil – excess ice. This means that ice might take up the majority of the ground volume in ice-rich areas.

Our Image of the Week (Fig. 1) was taken in NE Greenland. The phenomenon shown is a result of ground, which has been frozen for many years, being destabilized. In this photo, the below-ground ice has begun to melt, and the decrease in ice volume has caused the ground to collapse, forming what is known as a thermokarst development (Fig. 1). This is just one type of feature that can be caused by below-ground ice mass loss. Kokelj and Jorgenson (2013) give a nice overview of recognized thermokarst features including: retrogressive thaw slumps, thermokarst lakes and active layer detachment slides. Ice melt might also simply be expressed as a lowering of the land surface (thermal subsidence), as observed in peat (Dyke and Slaten, 2010) and in areas with ice wedge polygons (Jorgenson et al., 2006), or in upraised plateaus (Chasmer et al., 2016).

the decrease in ice volume has caused the ground to collapse

The spatial scales of these types of collapse features span from depressions of 10 cm depth to areas of several square kilometers, with thermokarst features many meters deep. The rates of surface change also vary from sudden detachment and slide of the unfrozen upper active layer on slope, to features developed over centuries and even millennia (e.g. Morgenstern et al., 2013).

The most dramatic surface changes often happen where ground ice content is high, such as in the coastal lowland tundras of Siberia (e.g. Morgenstern et al., 2013) or coastal northern Canada (Fortier, et L., 2007). However, thermokarst development is found also in coastal Greenland (Fig. 1) and even the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica (Levy et al., 2013).

Why does the ground ice melt?

Many factors can lead to the destabilization of below-ground ice bodies. Notable ones are:

  • Erosion of the surface allows for atmospheric energy to penetrate deeper into the ground.
  • Thermal contraction or other types of cracks might create an easy access to deeper layers for water and energy.
  • Persistent running water might erode physically as well as transfer fresh energy into the system.

Fig. 2 shows a recently opened crack in the ground, close to the karst formation shown in Fig.1. The crack reveals a large body of massive (pure ice) below-ground ice. The opening of the crack, however, also creates a highway for heat energy into the now unstable ice body, which will start degrading.

Figure 2: Looking into a recently opened crack revealing a large ice body just below the summer thaw layer, NE Greenland [Credit: Laura Helene Rasmussen]

“And so what?”

The surface changes somewhat. No big deal. Why investigate where and how and how much and how fast?

For people living in permafrost areas thermal subsidence might happen below the foundation of their house or destabilize the one road leading to their local airport (Fortier, et al., 2011).

Figure 3: Taking a closer (!) look at below-ground ice, NE Greenland [Credit: Line Vinther Nielsen].

Thermal subsidence might also change the hydrology of the area, causing surface water to find new routes (Fortier, et al., 2007) or pool in new places. When water pools in the depressions above frozen ground, the exchange of energy between the atmosphere and the permafrost is altered.

There is increased heat transport downward into the ground in summer (Boike et al., 2015), which can then lead to more melting. Similarly, thermokarst development itself exposes more frozen ground to above-zero temperatures, leading to further thawing (Chasmer et al., 2016)

and crucially mobilising otherwise dormant carbon stored in the permafrost (Tarnocai, et al., 2009).

Reports of an increase in rates of thaw have been linked to recent climatic warming (Kokelj and Jorgenson, 2013), and changes in precipitation patterns (e.g. Kokelj et al., 2015). So expect to see this “dirty“ cryospheric component receiving more attention, and don’t be surprised if you see an increasing number of strange scientists figuratively or literally (!) sticking their heads into cracks in the ground…

Edited by Emma Smith and Clara Burgard

Laura Helene Rasmussen is a Danish permafrost scientist working at the Center for Permafrost, University of Copenhagen. She has spent many seasons in Greenland, working with the Greenland Ecosystem Monitoring Programme and is interested in Arctic soils as an ecosystem component, their climate sensitivity, functioning and simply understanding what goes on below.


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