Cryospheric Sciences

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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 – 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.

Image of the Week – How geometry limits thinning in the interior of the Greenland Ice Sheet

Image of the Week –  How geometry limits thinning in the interior of the Greenland Ice Sheet

The Greenland ice sheet flows from the interior out to the margins, forming fast flowing, channelized rivers of ice that end in fjords along the coast. Glaciologists call these “outlet glaciers” and a large portion of the mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet is occurring because of changes to these glaciers. The end of the glacier that sits in the fjord is exposed to warm ocean water that can melt away at its face (a.k.a. its “terminus”) and force the glacier to retreat. As the glaciers retreat, they thin and this thinning can spread into the interior of the ice sheet along the glacier’s flow, causing glaciers to lose ice mass to the ocean as is shown in our Image of the Week. But how far inland can this thinning go?

Not all glaciers behave alike

NASA’s GRACE mission measures mass changes of the Earth and has been used to measure ice mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet (see Fig. 1a). The GRACE mission has been extremely valuable in showing us where the largest changes are occurring: around the edge of the ice sheet. To get a closer look, my colleagues and I use a technique called photogrammetry.

Using high-resolution satellite photos, we created digital elevation models of the present-day outlet glacier surfaces. The imagery was collected by the WorldView satellites and has a resolution of 50 cm per pixel! When we compared our present-day glacier surfaces with surfaces from 1985, with the help of an aerial photo survey of the ice sheet margin (Korsgaard et al., 2016), we found that glacier thinning was not very uniform in the West Greenland region (see our Image of the Week, Fig. 1b). Some glaciers thinned by over 150 meters at their termini but others remained stable and may have even thickened slightly! Another observation is that, of the glaciers that have thinned, some have thinned only 10 kilometers into the interior while others have thinned hundreds of kilometers inland (Felikson et al., 2017).

But atmospheric and ocean temperatures are changing on much larger scales – they can’t be the cause of these huge differences in thinning that we observe between glaciers. So what could be the cause of the differences in glacier behaviour? My colleagues and I used kinematic wave theory to help explain how each glacier’s unique shape (thickness and steepness) can control how far inland thinning can spread…

A kinematic wave of thinning

As a glacier’s terminus retreats, it thins and this thinning can spread upglacier, into the interior of the ice sheet, along the glacier’s flow. This spreading of thinning can be modeled as a diffusive kinematic wave (Nye, 1960). This means that the wave of thinning will diffuse in the upglacier direction while the flow of ice advects the thinning in the downglacier direction. An analogy for this process is the spreading of dye in a flowing stream. The dye will spread away from the source (diffusion) and it will also be transported downstream (advection) with the flow of water.

The relative rates of diffusion and advection are given by a non-dimensional value called the Peclet number. For glacier flow, the Peclet number is a function of the thickness of the ice and the surface slope of the ice. Where the ice is thick and flat, the Peclet number is low, and thinning will diffuse upglacier faster than it advects downglacier. Where the ice is thin and steep, the Peclet number is high, and thinning will advect downglacier faster than in diffuses upglacier.

Let’s take a look at an example, the Kangilerngata Sermia in West Greenland

Figure 2: Thinning along the centreline of Kangilerngata Sermia in West Greenland. (a) Glacier surface profile in 1985 (blue), present-day (red), and bed (black). (b) Dynamic thinning from 1985 to present along the profile with percent unit volume loss along this profile shown as colored line. (c) Peclet number along this profile calculated from the geometry in 1985 with Peclet number running maxima highlighted (red). [Credit: Denis Felikson]

There, dynamic thinning has spread from the terminus along the lowest 33 kilometers (see Fig. 2). At that location, the glacier flows over a bump in the bed, causing the ice to be thin and steep. The Peclet number is “high” in this location, meaning that any thinning here will advect downglacier faster than it can spread upglacier. Two important values are needed to further understand the relationship between volume loss and Peclet number. On the one hand, we compute the “percent unit volume loss”, which is the cumulative thinning from the terminus to each location normalized by the total cumulative thinning, to identify where most of the volume loss is taking place. On the other hand, we identify the “Peclet number running maxima” at the locations where the Peclet number is larger than all downglacier values. These locations are critical because if thinning has spread upglacier beyond a local maximum in the Peclet number, and accessed lower Peclet values, then thinning will continue to spread until it reaches a Peclet number that is “large enough” to prevent further spreading. But just how large does the Peclet number need to be to prevent thinning from spreading further upglacier?

Figure 3: (a) Percent unit volume loss against Peclet number running maximum for 12 thinning glaciers in West Greenland. (b) Distances from the termini along glacier flow where the Peclet number first crosses 3. Abbreviations represent glacier names [Credit: Denis Felikson]

If we now look at the percent unit volume loss versus Peclet number running maxima for not only one but twelve thinning glaciers in the region, we see a clear pattern: as the Peclet number increases, more of the volume loss is occurring downglacier (see Fig. 3). By calculating the medians of the glacier values, we find that 94% of unit volume loss has occurred downglacier of where the Peclet number first crosses three. All glaciers follow this pattern but, because of differences in glacier geometry, this threshold may be crossed very close to the glacier terminus or very far inland. This helps explaining the differences in glacier thinning that we’ve observed along the coast of West Greenland. Also, it shows that the Peclet number can be a useful tool in predicting changes for glaciers that have not yet retreated and thinned.

Further reading

Image of the Week – A high-resolution picture of Greenland’s surface mass balance

Image of the Week – A high-resolution picture of Greenland’s surface mass balance

The Greenland ice sheet – the world’s second largest ice mass – stores about one tenth of the Earth’s freshwater. If totally melted, this would rise global sea level by 7.4 m, affecting low-lying regions worldwide. Since the 1990s, the warmer atmosphere and ocean have increased the melt at the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, accelerating the ice loss through increased runoff of meltwater and iceberg discharge in the ocean.

Simulating the climate with a regional model

To understand the causes of the recent ice loss acceleration in Greenland, we use the Regional Atmospheric Climate Model RACMO2.3 (Noël et al. 2015) that simulates the evolution of the surface mass balance, that is the difference between mass gain from snowfall and mass loss from sublimation, drifting snow erosion and meltwater runoff. Using this data set, we identify three different regions on the ice sheet (Fig. 1):

  • the inland accumulation zone (blue) where Greenland gains mass at the surface as snowfall exceeds sublimation and runoff,

  • the ablation zone (red) at the ice sheet margins which loses mass as meltwater runoff exceeds snowfall.

  • the equilibrium line (white) that separates these two areas.

From 11 km to 1 km : downscaling RACMO2.3

To cover large areas while overcoming time-consuming computations, RACMO2.3 is run at a relatively coarse horizontal resolution of 11 km for the period 1958-2015. At this resolution, the model does not resolve small glaciated bodies (Fig. 2a), such as narrow marginal glaciers (few km wide) and small peripheral ice caps (ice masses detached from the big ice sheet). Yet, these areas contribute significantly to ongoing sea-level rise. To solve this, we developed a downscaling algorithm (Noël et al., 2016) that reprojects the original RACMO2.3 output on a 1 km ice mask and topography derived from the Greenland Ice Mapping Project (GIMP) digital elevation model (Howat et al., 2014). The downscaled product accurately reproduces the large mass loss rates in narrow ablation zones, marginal outlet glaciers, and peripheral ice caps (Fig. 2b).

Fig. 2: Surface mass balance (SMB) of central east Greenland a) modelled by RACMO2.3 at 11 km, b) downscaled to 1 km (1958-2015). The 1 km product (b) resolves the large mass loss rates over marginal outlet glaciers [Credit: Brice Noël].


The high-resolution data set has been successfully evaluated using in situ measurements and independent satellite records derived from ICESat/CryoSat-2 (Noël et al., 2016, 2017). Recently, the downscaling method has also been applied to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, for which a similar product is now also available on request.

Endangered peripheral ice caps

Using the new 1 km data set (Fig. 1), we identified 1997 as a tipping point for the mass balance of Greenland’s peripheral ice caps (Noël et al., 2017). Before 1997, ablation (red) and accumulation zones (blue) were in approximate balance, and the ice caps remained stable (Fig. 3a). After 1997, the accumulation zone retreated to the highest sectors of the ice caps and the mass loss accelerated (Fig. 3b). This mass loss acceleration was already reported by ICESat/CryoSat-2 satellite measurements, but no clear explanation was provided. The 1 km surface mass balance provides a valuable tool to identify the processes that triggered this recent mass loss acceleration.

Fig. 3: Surface mass balance of Hans Tausen ice cap and surrounding small ice bodies in northern Greenland before (a) and after the tipping point in 1997 (b). Since 1997, the accumulation zone (blue) has shrunk and the ablation zone (red) has grown further inland, tripling the pre-1997 mass loss [Credit: Brice Noël].


Greenland ice caps are located in relatively dry regions where summer melt (ME) nominally exceeds winter snowfall (PR). To sustain the ice caps, refreezing of meltwater (RF) in the snow is therefore a key process. The snow acts as a “sponge” that buffers a large amount of meltwater which refreezes in winter. The remaining meltwater runs off to the ocean (RU) and contributes to mass loss (Fig. 4a).

Before 1997, the snow in the interior of these ice caps could compensate for additional melt by refreezing more meltwater. In 1997, following decades of increased melt, the snow became saturated with refrozen meltwater, so that any additional summer melt was forced to run off to the ocean (Fig. 4b), tripling the mass loss.

Fig. 4: Surface processes on an ice cap: the ice cap gains mass from precipitation (PR), in the form of rain and snow. a) In healthy conditions (e.g. before 1997), meltwater (ME) is partially refrozen (RF) inside the snow layer and the remainder runs off (RU) to the ocean. The mass of the ice cap is constant when the amount of precipitation equals the amount of meltwater that runs off. b) When the firn layer is saturated with refrozen meltwater, additional meltwater can no longer be refrozen, causing all meltwater to run off to the ocean. In this case, the ice cap loses mass, because the amount of precipitation is smaller than the amount of meltwater that runs off [Credit: Brice Noël].

  In 1997, following decades of increased melt, the snow became saturated with refrozen meltwater, so that any additional summer melt was forced to run off to the ocean, tripling the mass loss.

We call this a “tipping point” as it would take decades to regrow a new, healthy snow layer over these ice caps that could buffer enough summer meltwater again. In a warmer climate, rainfall will increase at the expense of snowfall, further hampering the formation of a new snow cover. In the absence of refreezing, these ice caps will undergo irreversible mass loss.

What about the Greenland ice sheet?

For now, the big Greenland ice sheet is still safe as snow in the extensive inland accumulation zone still buffers most of the summer melt (Fig. 1). At the current rate of mass loss (~300 Gt per year), it would still take 10,000 years to melt the ice sheet completely (van den Broeke et al., 2016). However, the tipping point reached for the peripheral ice caps must be regarded as an alarm-signal for the Greenland ice sheet in the near future, if temperatures continue to increase.

Data availability

The daily, 1 km Surface Mass Balance product (1958-2015) is available on request without conditions for the Greenland ice sheet, the peripheral ice caps and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Further reading

Edited by Sophie Berger

Brice Noël is a PhD Student at IMAU (Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research at Utrecht University), Netherlands. He simulates the climate of the Arctic region, including the ice masses of Greenland, Svalbard, Iceland and the Canadian Arctic, using the regional climate model RACMO2. His main focus is to identify snow/ice processes affecting the surface mass balance of these ice-covered regions. He tweets as: @BricepyNoel Contact Email:

A year at the South Pole – an interview with Tim Ager, Research Scientist

A year at the South Pole – an interview with Tim Ager, Research Scientist

What is it like to live at the South Pole for a year?  A mechanical engineer by trade, Tim Ager, jumped at the opportunity to work for a year as a research scientist at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.  When not traveling on various adventures he lives in Austin, Texas, and recently took the time to answer a few questions about his time at Pole.

What goes on at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station?

Science!  And lots of it.  Of course there are many people working at Pole just to maintain operations and “keep the lights on,” but it is all in support of science.  There are several large-scale science projects.  A couple highlights that science grantees taught us during science lectures were:

  • The South Pole Ice Core (SPICE Core) project looks back in time into the history of earth through ice cores.  Every year, snow accumulates on the surface, and year after year these layers compress the snow below them into ice.  By drilling down and extracting ice cores, these layers can be studied much like the tree rings.  The ice itself is analyzed, but so are the chemicals, dust, and gas bubbles trapped in it. This analysis gives us a peek into the climate history of our planet (see this post for more details).  Last summer’s project goal of drilling down 1,500 meters (to ice approximately 40,000 years old) was easily surpassed, with the final ice core brought up from a depth of 1,751.5 meters.
  • There are three Cosmic Microwave Background telescopes at Pole that look back in time at the oldest light in the universe, which was created shortly after the big bang.  The South Pole’s near 0% humidity is the ideal place to do this, since the telescopes look for slight ripples of temperature variations in the light and any water vapor gets in the way.
  • IceCube, which is a 1 km³ telescope that sites on the South Pole and collect neutrinos, which are tiny electrically neutral particles that can provide insight into the processes that occur within the sun.  The telescope collects neutrinos that pass through the Earth, which acts like a big filter, and collects only 3 per day.
  • Other projects include studying the weather, the magnetosphere, and ozone depletion.

Inside the collector of the 10 m South Pole Telescope  [Credit: Tim Ager]

Can you tell us a bit about the projects you were working on and what a typical day was like at the station?

I was a caretaker for several projects.  I maintained two GPS projects that tracked the movement of the ice sheet the South Pole Station sits on.  This huge chunk of ice moves about 10 meters per year toward the Weddell Sea.  For the six months that the sun was down I maintained seven aurora cameras.  I was also responsible for SPRESSO (the South Pole Remote Earth Science and Seismological Observatory).  SPRESSO is a seismic listening station for the long-term study of seismicity at the South Pole. It is a part of a 120+ station Global Seismographic Network (GSN) and is located five miles from the South Pole Station to reduce station related “cultural” noise. SPRESSO is located within our “quiet sector” and is the quietest seismic listening post on the planet.  Some additional duties included maintaining the greenhouse, acting as the station cryotech (making and dispensing liquid nitrogen), and testing fuel.

During the summer season there wasn’t a typical day, and I was kept busy helping many science related activities run efficiently.  The typical grantee is only at Pole for one to two weeks, so their time there is very valuable.  Before a grantee arrived, I tracked down any cargo they had sent ahead and made sure any crates that weren’t supposed to freeze were not left outside.  Once the grantee arrived, I helped out with whatever they needed to ensure their visit was a success – from finding and digging out a drifted-over crate left outside several years earlier, to tracking down tools, to delivering liquid nitrogen.  It was never boring and gave me the opportunity to learn about numerous projects.

Amundsen-Scott Station at sunset with markers to help traveling to off-station sites [Credit: Tim Ager]

What did you do when you weren’t working?

There was so much to do that I often had to choose between more than one activity.  There is a weight room, a gymnasium, a sauna, a quiet reading room (filled with lots of books), a game room (with a pool table, foosball table, and even more books), a music room (filled with instruments), an art room (filled with cloth, yarn, paints, markers, colored pencils, paper, sewing machines, and who knows what else), a greenhouse, and two media rooms (filled with DVDs of movies and TV shows, video games, VHS tapes, and even Beta Max tapes – yes, Pole has a working Beta Max player).  People taught classes on a variety of subjects including music, Yoga, particle physics, astronomy, welding, and foreign languages, to name a few.  I learned to play the guitar and became fairly proficient at knitting.

How were the 6 months of darkness and the frigid temperatures?

And the cold wasn’t as uncomfortable as you would think – when you get used to dressing appropriately, -100°F [-75°C] is okay.

The six months of darkness were amazing.  It is hard to explain the magnificence of the night sky.  Given the extremely low humidity at Pole, we could view the stars with unusual clarity, and the aurora activity was nearly constant.  In fact, the auroras frequently obscured the view of the stars, which wasn’t a bad trade-off.  And the cold wasn’t as uncomfortable as you would think – when you get used to dressing appropriately, -100°F [-75°C] is okay.

One of many auroras from the South Pole [Credit: Max Peters]

Was there a big shift in the culture of the station between the summer and the winter?

Yes, the summer and winter seasons are completely different.  During the summer season (usually early November thru mid-February) there is a flurry of activity.  Planes are coming and going, people are coming and going, and the station is full with 150 – 170 people.  Because the summer season is relatively short, everyone is focused on getting as much done as possible.  But once the last plane leaves everything slows down.  The remaining station members put the finishing touches on winterizing the station and settle into a routine that won’t change much, day in and day out, for 8.5 months.

The last plane out doing its customary goodbye flyover – “no one in and no one out” for 8.5 months [Credit: Tim Ager]

Could you share with us any moments that you’ll never forget?  What moments stick out as the highlights of your trip?

The day the last plane of the summer season left was unforgettable.  No matter how well you think you’ve prepared, it is a moment that is extremely unique.  That is when the reality of the situation and the isolation really sinks in.  The remaining 48 of us looked around at each other and pretty much all had the same thought: “Well, this is it.  This is my family for the next 8.5 months.  No one in and no one out.”  Of course we didn’t know that we would have a medevac [i.e., a medical evacuation] in the middle of winter – only the third winter medevac ever, and the first time in total darkness.  It went smoothly and left 46 of us for the rest of the winter.

Although there were many amazing experiences, the highlight was the night sky.  The stars were incredible, and the nearly ever-present auroras were awe inspiring.

I would also like to say that we had an incredible winter-over crew.  People were responsible, hard workers, and always willing to lend a hand.  Although we were all ready to leave once winter was over, I miss the camaraderie of my South Pole family.

The 2016 winterover crew [Credit: Tim Ager]

To conclude is there anything you would like to say to any future winter-overs?

If you have the time and inclination, definitely consider a winter at Pole.  At times it can be physically and/or psychologically challenging, but if you embrace it and live in the moment every day, the time will fly by.  We were all amazed at how quickly it was over.  I am thankful for the opportunity, and often find myself daydreaming about living back at Pole.

Interview led by David Rounce  and edited by Sophie Berger

Image of the Week — Microbes munch on iron beneath glaciers

Image of the Week — Microbes munch on iron beneath glaciers

The interface between a glacier and its underlying bedrock is known as the subglacial zone. Here lie subglacial sediments, the product of mechanical crushing of the rock by the glacial ice. Despite their lack of sunlight, nutrients and oxygen, subglacial sediments host active and diverse communities of microorganisms.

What we (don’t) know about subglacial microorganisms

The past few decades have seen major advances in our understanding of these communities, including the role these microbes play in the chemical breakdown of underlying bedrock (chemical weathering reactions). It is now known, for example, that microorganisms in subglacial systems are involved in pyrite oxidation and it certainly seems that bedrock mineralogy influences the composition of these microbial communities.

However, most studies to date have focussed on the biogeochemical cycling of sulfur and nitrogen in these systems. Consequently, the microbial mediation of iron cycling in subglacial systems remains poorly understood, despite the importance of iron in ocean fertilisation and other downstream environments. For instance, phytoplankton in the open ocean are often limited by the amount of iron available, so fluxes of iron to the oceans from glaciers and ice sheets are an important contribution to ocean productivity.

A new study about subglacial iron

In a new paper published in Biogeosciences, we investigate microbial iron reduction in subglacial sediments. Microorganisms that carry out this metabolism are able to harness energy from the reduction of oxidised iron minerals (such as ferrihydrite and other iron oxides).

We wanted to know two things:

  1. are these microorganisms present and alive in subglacial sediment?
  2. are these microorganisms adapted to the cold conditions of these environments?


To achieve this, we set up experiments in which we ‘teased out’ the microorganisms that make a living from iron reduction, and measured their rates of iron reduction at two different temperatures: 4°C (blue line in the figure) and 15°C(red line). These temperatures were chosen since truly cold-loving (‘psychrophilic’) microorganisms grow optimally at temperatures below 10-15°C, whereas those that tolerate cold temperatures (‘psychrotolerant’) prefer to grow in higher temperatures.

Microorganisms that can use iron to make a living are amongst the most plausible life to exist on Mars

We found that active iron-reducing microorganisms were present in all of our subglacial sediment samples, which spanned glaciers in the High Arctic, European Alps and Antarctica, and that in almost all cases rates of iron reduction were higher at the lower temperature tested. To get an idea of which microorganisms were carrying out this process, we looked at the DNA from our experiments to identify the microbes present. We found that the microorganisms using iron in our experiments were largely the same, suggesting that the same key players are active in these types of environments worldwide. Overall our paper suggests that microbial iron reduction is widespread in subglacial environments, with implications for the availability of iron for other biogeochemical processes downstream. Subglacial environments are thought to be similar to potentially habitable environments on Mars, and microorganisms that can use iron to make a living are amongst the most plausible life to exist on the Red Planet, now and in the past. Our work therefore strengthens the hypothesis that similar environments beyond Earth could harbour this type of life.

Edited by Sophie Berger

Sophie Nixon is a postdoctoral researcher in the Geomicrobiology group at the University of Manchester. She completed her PhD in Astrobiology in 2014 at the University of Edinburgh, the subject of which was the feasibility for microbial iron reduction on Mars. One essential task in the search for life on Mars and beyond is defining the limits of life in extreme environments here on Earth. It was during her PhD that this study was carried out in collaboration with researchers at the University of Bristol, where Sophie gained her MSci in Geographical Sciences. Sophie’s research interests since joining the University of Manchester are varied, spanning the microbiological implications of anthropogenic engineering of the subsurface (e.g. nuclear waste disposal, shale gas extraction), as well as life in extreme environments and the feasibility for life beyond Earth. 

Image of The Week – Ice Flows!

Image of The Week – Ice Flows!

Portraying ice sheets and shelves to the general public can be tricky. They are in remote locations, meaning the majority of people will never have seen them. They also change over timescales that are often hard to represent without showing dramatic images of more unusual events such as the collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf.  However, an app launched in the summer at the SCAR (Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research) Open Science Conference in Kuala Lumpur set out to change this through a game. Developed by Anne Le Brocq from the University of Exeter, this game is aptly named – Ice Flows!

The game in a nutshell!

Ice Flows is a game that allows the player to control various variables of an ice shelf (floating portion of an ice sheet) environment, such as ocean temperature and snowfall, and see the changes that these cause. For example, increasing the amount of snowfall increases the ice thickness but increasing the ocean temperature causes thinning of the ice shelf. The aim of the game is to help penguins feed by altering the variables to create ice shelf conditions which give them access to the ocean. Although the game is based around penguins, importantly, it is changing the ice shelf environment that the player controls, this allows a player to investigate how changing environmental conditions affect the ice. Our Image of the week shows a still from the game, where the player has created ice conditions which allow the penguins to dive down and catch fish.

What is the educational message?

The polar regions are constantly changing and assigning these changes to either natural cycles or anthropogenic (human induced) climate change can be tricky. Ice shelves tend to only hit the news when large changes happen, such as the recent development of the Larsen C rift which is thought to be unrelated to the warming climate of the region but may still have catastrophic consequences for the ice shelf. Understanding that changes like these can sometimes be part of a natural process can seem conflicting with the many stories about changes caused by warming. That’s why ice flows is a great way to demonstrate the ways in which ice shelves can change and the various factors that can lead to these changes. And the bonus chance to do this with penguins is never going to be a bad thing!

The game allows players to visualise the transformation of ice sheet to ice shelf to iceberg. This is an especially important educational point given the confusing ways that various types of ice can be portrayed by the media; reports, even if factually correct, will often jump from sea ice to ice shelves and back (see this example). It is also common for reports to cloud the climate change narrative by connecting processes thought to be due to natural causes (such as the Larsen C rift) to a warming climate (such as this piece). This confusion is something I often see reflected in people’s understanding of the cryosphere. In my own outreach work I start by explicitly explaining the difference between ice shelves and sea ice (my work is based on ice shelves). Even so, I can usually guarantee that many people will ask me questions about sea ice at the end of my talk.

Xue Long the Snow Dragon Penguin [Credit: Ice Flows game ]

Despite the messages that it is trying to convey, the app doesn’t come across as pushing the educational side too much. There is plenty of information available but the game also has genuinely fun elements. For example, you can earn rewards and save these to upgrade your penguins to some extravagant characters (my favourite has to be Xue Long – the snow dragon penguin!) Although the focus may be drawn towards catching the fish for the penguins while you’re actually playing, it would be hard for anyone to play the game and walk away without gaining an understanding of the basic structure of an ice shelf and how various changing environmental factors can affect it.

Developing the game…

The game was developed by Anne Le Broq in collaboration with games developers Inhouse Visual and Questionable Quality, using funding from the Natural Environment Research Council. Of course, many scientific researchers were also involved to ensure that the game was as scientifically accurate as possible whilst still remaining fun to play.

A key challenge in developing the game was modelling the ice flow. In order to be used in the app, the ice flow model needed to represent scientific understanding as well as being reactive enough to allow the game to be playable. This required some compromise, as one of the scientists involved in the development, Steph Cornford (CPOM, University of Bristol), explains on the CPOM Blog:

On one hand, we wanted the model to reflect contemporary understanding well enough for students to learn about ice sheets, ice shelves, and Antarctica in particular. On the other, the game had to be playable, so that any calculations needed to be carried out quickly enough that the animation appeared smooth, and changing any of the parameters (for example, the accumulation rate) had to lead to a new steady state within seconds, to make the link between cause and effect clear.

— Steph Cornford

The resulting model works really well, creating a fun, challenging and educational game! See for yourself by downloading the free to play game from your app store, or online at!

Further reading

  • Find out more about the game on the University of Exeter website or visit the game’s own website here.
  • You can read in more detail about Steph’s modelling here.

Edited by Emma Smith

Sammie Buzzard has recently submitted her PhD thesis where she has developed a model of ice shelf surface melt, focusing on the Larsen C Ice Shelf. She is based at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling within the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology. She blogs about her work and PhD life in general at and tweets as @treacherousbuzz.

Quantarctica: Mapping Antarctica has never been so easy!

Quantarctica: Mapping Antarctica has never been so easy!

One of the most time-consuming and stressful parts of any Antarctic research project is simply making a map. Whether it’s plotting your own data points, lines, or images; making the perfect “Figure 1” for your next paper, or replying to a collaborator who says “Just show me a map!,” it seems that quick and effective map-making is a skill that we take for granted. However, finding good map data and tools for Earth’s most sparsely-populated and poorly-mapped continent can be exhausting. The Quantarctica project aims to provide a package of pre-prepared scientific and geographic datasets, combined with easy-to-use mapping software for the entire Antarctic community. This post will introduce you to Quantarctica, but please note that the project is organizing a Quantarctica User Workshop at the 2017 EGU General Assembly (see below for more details).

[Credit: Quantarctica Project]

What is Quantarctica?

Quantarctica is a collection of Antarctic geographic datasets which works with the free, open-source mapping software QGIS. Thanks to this Geographic Information System package, it’s now easier than ever for anyone to create their own Antarctic maps – for any topic and at any spatial scale. Users can add and plot their own scientific data, browse satellite imagery, make professional-quality maps and figures, and much, much more. Read on to learn how researchers are using Quantarctica, and find out how to use it to start making your own (Qu-)Antarctic maps!

Project Origins

When you make a sandwich, you start with bread, not flour. So why would you start with ‘flour’ to do your science?” — Kenny Matsuoka, Norwegian Polar Institute

Deception Island isn’t so deceptive anymore, thanks to Quantarctica’s included basemap layers, customized layer styles, and easy-to-use cartography tools. [Credit: Quantarctica Project]

Necessity is the mother of invention, and people who work in Antarctica are nothing if not inventive. When Kenny Matsuoka found himself spending too much time and effort just locating other Antarctic datasets and struggling with an expired license key for his commercial Geographic Information System (GIS) software in the field, he decided that there had to be a better way – and that many of his Antarctic colleagues were probably facing the same problems. In 2010, he approached Anders Skoglund, a topographer at the Norwegian Polar Institute, and they decided to collaborate and combine some of the critical scientific and basemap data for Antarctica with the open-source, cross-platform (Windows, Mac, and Linux) mapping software QGIS. Quantarctica was born, and was quickly made public for the entire Antarctic community.

Since then, maps and figures made with Quantarctica have appeared in at least 25 peer-reviewed journal articles (that we can find!). We’ve identified hundreds of Quantarctica users, spread among every country participating in Antarctic research, with especially high usage in countries with smaller Antarctic programs. We’ve been actively incorporating even more datasets into the project, teaching user workshops at popular Antarctic conferences – such as EGU 2017 – and building educational materials on Antarctic mapping for anyone to use.

A great example of a Quantarctica-made figure published in a paper. Elevation, imagery , ice flow speeds, latitude/longitude graticules, custom text and drawing annotations… it’s all there and ready for you to use! [Credit: Figs 1 and 2 from Winter et al (2015)].

What data can I find in Quantarctica?

  • Continent-wide satellite imagery (Landsat, MODIS, RADARSAT)
  • Digital elevation models and/or contour lines of bed and ice-surface topography and seafloor bathymetry
  • Locations of all Antarctic research stations and every named location in Antarctica (the SCAR Composite Gazetteer of Antarctica)
  • Antarctic and sub-Antarctic coastlines and outlines for exposed rock, ice shelf, and subglacial lakes
  • Magnetic and gravity anomalies
  • Ice flow velocities, catchment areas, mass balance, and firn thickness grids
  • Ancient UFO crash sites

…just to name a few!

Four examples of included datasets. From left to right: Ice flow speed, drainage basins, and subglacial lakes; bed topography; geoid height; modeled snow accumulation and surface blue ice areas [Credit: Quantarctica Project]

All of these datasets have been converted, imported, projected to a standard Antarctic coordinate system, and hand-styled for maximum visibility and compatibility with other layers. All you have to do is select which layers you want to show! The entire data package is presented in a single QGIS project file that you can quickly open, modify, save, and redistribute as your own. We also include QGIS installers for Windows and Mac, so everything you need to get started is all in one place. And finally, all of the data and software operates entirely offline, with no need to connect to a license server, so whether you’re in a tent in Antarctica or in a coffee shop with bad wi-fi, you can still work on your maps!

Quantarctica was used in traverse planning for the MADICE Project, a collaboration between India’s National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) and the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI), investigating mass balance, ice dynamics, and climate in central Dronning Maud Land. Check out pictures from their recently-completed field campaign on Facebook and Twitter! Base image: RADARSAT Mosaic; Ice Rises: Moholdt and Matsuoka (2015); Mapping satellite features on ice: Ian Lee, University of Washington; Traverse track: NCAOR/NPI. [Credit: Quantarctica Project]

Every dataset in Quantarctica is free for non-commercial use, modification, and redistribution – we get explicit permission from the data authors before their datasets are included in Quantarctica, always include any README or extra license/disclaimer files, and never include a dataset if it has any stricter terms than that. We always provide all metadata and citation information, and require that any Quantarctica-made maps or figures printed online or in any publication include citations for the original datasets.

How do I start using Quantarctica?

Quantarctica is available for download at It’s a 6 GB package, so if your internet connection is struggling with the download, just contact us and we can send it to you on physical media. You can use the bundled QGIS installers for your operating system, or download the latest version of QGIS at and simply open the Quantarctica project file, Quantarctica.qgs, after installation.

We’re actively developing Version 3 of Quantarctica, for release in Late 2017. Do you know of a pan-Antarctic dataset that you think should be included in the new version? Just email the Quantarctica project team at

Quantarctica makes it easy to start using QGIS, but if you’ve never used mapping software before or need to brush up on a few topics, we recommend QGIS Tutorials and Tips and the official QGIS Training Manual. There are also a lot of great YouTube tutorial videos out there!


Nobody said you could only use Quantarctica for work – you can use it to make cool desktop backgrounds, too! Foggy day in the Ross Island / McMurdo Dry Valleys area? Though it often is, the fog effects image was created using only the LIMA 15m Landsat Imagery Mosaic and RAMP2 DEM in Quantarctica, with the help of this tutorial. [Credit: Quantarctica Project]

Quantarctica Short Course at EGU 2017

Are you attending EGU 2017 and want to learn how to analyze your Antarctic data and create maps using Quantarctica? The Quantarctica team will be teaching a short course (SC32/CR6.15) on Monday, 24 April at 13:30-15:00 in room -2.31. Some basic GIS/QGIS experience is encouraged, but not required. If you’re interested, fill out the registration survey here: and feel free to send any questions or comments to We’ll see you in Vienna!

Edited by Kenny Matsuoka and Sophie Berger

Reference/Further Reading

Data sources

[Read More]


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