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Cryospheric Sciences

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Image of the Week – Karthaus Summer School 2017

Gloriously cloudless day for the fieldtrip to the Ötztal Alps [Credit: C. Reijmer].

Glaciologists often undertake fieldwork in remote and difficult to access locations, which perhaps explains why they happily travel to similar locations to attend meetings and workshops. The Karthaus Summer School, which focuses on Ice Sheets and Glaciers in the Climate System, is no exception. The idyllic village of Karthaus, located in the narrow Schnalstal valley in Südtirol (Italy), has been hosting this 10-day glaciology course nearly every year since 1995. In September, an international crowd of some 30+ PhD students and postdocs, and 11 lecturers assembled in Karthaus for the 2017 edition of this famous course, for an intensive program of lectures, food, some science, more food (with wine!), and lots of socialising.


The lecture theatre with a backdrop of green hills, on the day the cows came down from the hills [Credit: D. Medrzycka].

The morning sessions

A typical morning of the course involved four hours of lectures, which covered a wide range of topics including continuum mechanics, thermodynamics, ice-ocean interactions, ice cores, geophysics, and geodynamics, with a special focus on numerical modelling and its applications for investigating ice-climate interactions. The lectures covered fundamentals processes, their applications and limitations, and current knowledge gaps for a wide range of complex concepts related to ice dynamics. All our lecturers happily answered our (many) additional questions during the coffee and cake breaks, enjoyed in the fresh mountain air outside the lecture theatre.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The biggest challenge was not the group work itself, but trying to not get distracted by the sun and the hills surrounding us [Credit: V. Zorzut].

The afternoon sessions

After a three-course lunch, we spent the afternoon sessions applying the theory learned in the morning lectures. The group projects were designed to get us to go into more detail on certain topics, and work on real-world applications for specific research problems. We presented the results of our work at the end of the course during a 15 minute group presentation. For those who could afford a bit of free time after these sessions, the rest of the afternoon could be spent either hiking or trail running in the steep hills overlooking the village (trying to beat I. Hewitt’s time up Kruezspitze), playing football, chilling in the sauna, or catching up on some sleep before dinner.

 

The evenings

Everyone who has ever attended the Karthaus course mentions the food, complementing both the quality and (legendary) quantity of it. Every evening, we were served a memorable five course meal accompanied by generous amounts of local wine. Dessert was followed by musical entertainment, with inspired performances by Frank Pattyn on the piano. On the last evening, Frank was accompanied by Johannes Oerlemans who treated us to two of his original tango arrangements on the guitar, followed by a passionate rendition of Jacques Brel’s Le port d’Amsterdam by our own Kevin Bulthuis (vocals). We wrapped up each day of the course in the local bar, socialising, playing card games, sampling the local beers, and making our way through the many different flavours of schnaps and grappa. Big thanks to the owners, Paul and Stefania Grüner, and staff (with a special shout-out to Hannes) of the Goldene Rose Hotel, and the village of Karthaus, for taking great care of us!

Frank Pattyn (piano) and Johannes Oerlemans (guitar) performing an original tango arrangement [Credit: D. Medrzycka].


 

Out and about

On the penultimate day of the course the group headed to a number of glaciers in the Ötztal Alps. The excursion, which happened to take place on a perfectly cloudless day, gave us the opportunity to observe first hand the changes affecting glaciers in the region, and the impact of these retreating ice masses on the landscape and humans inhabiting it. It also provided a much needed break from the intense week! After walking down the ski slopes of the Hochjochferner, a small valley glacier accessible by cable car from Kurzras, we stopped to enjoy the sun and have lunch at the Schöne Aussicht (Bellavista) hut (2845 m a.s.l.). Those with more energy scrambled up to the ridge running along the Italian/Austrian border (3270 m a.s.l.), through at times knee-deep snow, to take a peak at the Hintereisferner, a valley glacier on the Austrian side of the border. Four of us continued on along the ridge, and by chance visited the laser scanner (LiDAR) system operated by researchers from the University of Innsbruck, used to monitor changes in surface elevation on the glacier.

Standing on the ridge running along the Italian/Austrian border. View onto the Hintereisferner [Credit: D. Medrzycka].


 

Final thoughts

The 10 day course was certainly an intensive (and intense) experience, and I would recommend it to all glaciology students without reservations, whether they are looking for a basic introduction to ice dynamics, or aiming to fill a few knowledge gaps. Whilst some of the topics covered in the course were only remotely related to my own PhD research (and far out of my comfort zone!), the lectures and project work forced me to think in alternate ways. Although I may have finished the course with more questions than I had at the start, I now know where to go look for the answers!

A big part of the experience was without a doubt the social aspect of the course. Between the never ending and excellent food (as a result of which some of us developed “food babies”), and the long evenings at the local bar (resulting in increasing amounts of sleep deprivation), there were plenty of opportunities to talk science, gain new insights into our ongoing research, and discuss ideas for future projects. As with all great Summer Schools, one of the major perks was the opportunity to hang out with fellow students, expand our network of fellow researchers, and establish the groundwork for continued professional collaborations. Huge thanks to the convenor, Johannes Oerlemans, the village of Karthaus, and all the lecturers and fellow students for a memorable 10 days! I am looking forward to working with all of you in the future.

The crowd of the Karthaus summerschool: 2017 edition [Credit: C. Reijmer].

Edited by Morgan Gibson and Clara Burgard


Dorota Medrzycka is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa (Canada), working with Luke Copland. Her research focuses on the dynamics of glaciers and ice caps in the Canadian High Arctic, with a focus on ice flow instabilities (including glacier surging). Her project combines field studies and remote sensing techniques to monitor ice motion, and gain insight into the factors controlling the variability in ice dynamics in the Canadian Arctic. Contact: dorota.medrzycka@uottawa.ca.

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: University of Fribourg, Switzerland].

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: University of Fribourg, Switzerland].

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

Edited by Clara Burgard and Emma Smith


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 http://tothepoles.wordpress.com. Contact Email: joe.cook@sheffield.ac.uk

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: kam64@aber.ac.uk

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).

Unusual?

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: francois.massonnet@uclouvain.be

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: b.p.y.noel@uu.nl

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