CR
Cryospheric Sciences

Cryospheric Sciences

Image of the Week – Antarctica’s Flowing Ice, Year by Year

Fig 1: Map series of annual ice sheet speed from Mouginot et al. (2017). Speeds range from 0 (purple) to 1000+ (dark brown) m/yr. [Credit: George Roth]

Today’s Image of the Week shows annual ice flow velocity mosaics at 1km resolution from 2005 to 2016 for the Antarctic ice sheet. These mosaics, along with similar data for Greenland (see Fig.2), were published by Mouginot et al, (2017) last month as part of NASA’s MEaSUREs (Making Earth System Data Records for Use in Research Environments) program.


How were these images constructed?

The mosaics shown today (Fig 1 and 2) were built by combining optical imagery from the Landsat-8 satellite with radar (SAR) data from the Sentinel-1a/b, RADARSAT-2, ALOS PALSAR, ENVISAT ASAR, RADARSAT-1, TerraSAR-X, and TanDEM-X sensors.

Although the authors used the well-known techniques of feature and speckle tracking to produce their velocities from optical and radar images, respectively, the major novelty of their study lies in the automation and integration of the different datasets.

Fig.2: Mosaics of yearly velocity maps of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet for the period 2015-2016.Composite of satellite-derived yearly ice sheet speeds from 2005-2016 for both Greenland and Antarctica. [Credit: cover figure from Mouginot et al. (2017)]

How is this new dataset useful?

Previously, ice sheet modellers have used mosaics composed of satellite data from multiple years to cover the entire ice sheet. However, this new dataset is one of the first to provide an ice-sheet-wide geographic scale, a yearly temporal resolution, and a moderately high spatial resolution (1km). This means that modellers can now better examine how large parts of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets evolve over time. By linking the evolution of the ice sheets to the changes in weather and climate over those ice sheets during specific years, modellers can calibrate the response of those ice sheets’ outlet glaciers to different climate conditions. The changes in the speeds of these outlet glaciers have important consequences for the amount of sea level rise expected for a given amount of warming.

How can I start using this data?

The yearly MEaSUREs data is hosted at the NSIDC in NetCDF format. The maps shown in the animated image were made using Quantarctica/QGIS (for more information on Quantarctica, check out our previous post E). QGIS natively supports NetCDF files like these mosaics with no additional import steps. Users can quickly calculate new grids showing speed, changes in velocities between years, and more by using the QGIS Raster Calculator or gdal_calc.

References/ Further Reading

Mouginot, J., Rignot, E., Scheuchl, B., & Millan, R. (2017). Comprehensive Annual Ice Sheet Velocity Mapping Using Landsat-8, Sentinel-1, and RADARSAT-2 Data. Remote Sensing, 9(4), 364. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/rs9040364

Image of the Week – Quantarctica: Mapping Antarctica has never been so easy!

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

Written with help from Jelte van Oostsveen
Edited by Clara Burgard and Sophie Berger


George Roth is the Quantarctica Project Coordinator in the Glaciology group (@NPIglaciology) at the Norwegian Polar Institute. He has spent the last several years helping researchers with GIS, cartography, and remote sensing in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Image of the Week – A rather splendid round-up of CryoEGU!

Image of the Week – A rather splendid round-up of CryoEGU!

The 2017 edition of the EGU general assembly was a great success overall and for the cryospheric division in particular. We were for instance thrilled to see that two of the three winning photos of the EGU Photo contest featured ice! To mark the occasion we are delighted to use as our image of this week,  one of these pictures, which  shows an impressive rapid in the Pite River in northern Sweden. Congratulations to Michael Grund for capturing this stunning shot.  You can find all photos entered in the contest on imaggeo — the EGU’s  open access geosciences image repository.

But being the most photogenic division (at least the ice itself is…not sure about the division team itself!) was not our only cryo-achievement during the conference. Read on to get the most of (cryo)EGU 2017!


EGU 2017 in figures

  • 17,399 abstracts in the programme (including 1179 to cryo-related sessions)
  • 14,496 scientists from 107 countries attending the conference
  • 11,312 poster, 4,849 oral and 1,238 PICO presentations
  • 649 scientific sessions and 88 short courses
  • 53% of early-career scientists

Polar Science Career Panel

During the week we teamed up with APECS to put on a Polar Science Career Panel. Our five panellists, from different backgrounds and job fields, engaged in a lively discussion with over 50 session attendees. With many key topics being frankly and honesty discussed by our panelists, who had some great comments and advice to offer. Highlights of the discussion can be found on the @EGU_CR twitter feed with #CareerPanel.

At the end we asked each panellist to come up with some final words of advice for early-career scientists, which were:

  • There is no right and wrong, ask other people and see what you like
  • Remember you can shape your own job
  • Take chances! Even if you are likely to fail and think outside the box
  • Remember that you are a whole human being… not only a scientist and use all your skills
  • And last but not least… come and work at Carbon Brief (thanks Robert McSweeney!!)

However, the most memorable quotation of the entire panel is arguably from Kerim Nisancioglu :

Social media

One of the things the EGU Cryosphere team has been recognised for is its great social media presence. We tweeted away pre-EGU with plenty of advice, tips and information about events during the week and also made sure to keep our followers up-to-date during the week.
If it is not yet the case, please consider following us on twitter and/or facebook to keep updated with the latest news about the cryosphere division, the EGU or any other interesting cryo-related news!

We need YOU for the EGU cryosphere division

Conferences are usually a great way to meet new people but did you know that getting involved with the outreach activities of the division is another way?

Each division has an ECS (early-career scientist) representative and a team to go with that and the Cryosphere division is one of the most active. Our new team of early-career scientists for 2017/18 includes some well known faces and some who are new to the division this year:

Nanna Karlsson : outgoing ECS representative and incoming coordinator for posters and PICOs awards

Emma Smith : incoming ECS representative and outgoing co-chief editor of the  cryoblog

Sophie Berger: chief-editor of the cryoblog and incoming outreach officer

Clara Burgard : incoming co-chief editor the cryoblog

 

 

 

We also have many more people (who aren’t named above) involved in the blog and social media team AND the good news is that we are looking for new people to either run our social media accounts and/or contribute regularly to this “award winning” cryoblog. Please get in touch with Emma Smith (ECS Representative and former blog editor) or Sophie Berger (Chief Blog Editor and Outreach Officer) if you would like to get involved in any aspect of the EGU Cryosphere team. No experience is necessary just enthusiasm and a love of bad puns!

And here is your “Save the Date” for EGU 2018 – which will be held between 8th – 13th April 2018.

Co-authored by Emma Smith and Sophie Berger

Image of the Week — We’re heading for Vienna

Image of the Week — We’re heading for Vienna
Tatata taaa tatatatata Tatata taaa tatatatatatatata
We’re heading for Vienna (Vienna)
And still we stand tall
‘Cause maybe they’ve seen us (seen us)
And welcome us all, yeah
With so many miles left to go
And things to be found (to be found)
I’m sure that we’ll all miss that so
it’s the … 
…congratulations, you’ve recognise the song…..it is the Final Countdown (slightly adapted!)

With the EGU general assembly starting in two days only, we hope that your presentations are almost ready that you haven’t forgotten to include in your programme all the cool stuff listed in our cryo-guide!

 

However, if you don’t have time to read it all, please make sure you’ve heard of these 3 events :
  1. the pre-icebreaker meet up on Sunday 23rd from 16:00 aida (close to Stefanplatz)
  2. the Cryoblog lunch on Tuesday 25th 12:15 in front of the entrance.
    If you like this blog, are curious about it and would like to contribute to it  — directly and/or indirectly — please come and meet us on Tuesday (for more information please email sberger@ulb.ac.be or emma.smith@awi.de)
  3. the cryo night out on Thursday 27th from 19:30 at Wieden Braü

 

See you in Vienna!

PS: We take no responsibility for anyone who finds they have Final Countdown stuck in their head all week! (♪ Tatata taaa tatatatata Tatata taaa tatatatatatatata ♫)

Edited by Emma Smith

A brief guide to navigating EGU 2017!

A brief guide to navigating EGU 2017!

Are you going to the EGU General Assembly in Vienna next week? If so, read on for a quick guide to navigating the week: Where to start, what to see and how to meet people and enjoy yourself! After all, the meeting is as much about the opportunities meet scientists from all over the world as it is about the science itself.


How on Earth do I know what is going on?!

The EGU General Assembly is a massive meeting with many parallel session, short courses, medal lectures and much more. So how do you know what is going on and when, and how can you effectively keep track of it all? The simplest way is to use the online EGU program – it has options to browse sessions of interest chronologically or by discipline. You can simply click on a session or an individual presentation to add it to your personal programme. You can then view your personal program online, print it as a PDF or if you have a smartphone you can also use the EGU2017 mobile app to keep track of your personal program on the go – scan the QR code to download it or click here from your smartphone.

Don’t forget to keep track of the twitter hastag #EGU17 to see what is happening on a second by second basis and also the #CryoEGU17 hashtag for up-to-date cryosphere news.


Short courses

Short courses at EGU are designed to give you an insight into a certain area or topic and cover all sorts of subjects and skills. There are many courses running at EGU this year – we have highlighted a few below, but be sure to check out the full list in the online program. Short courses provide a great chance to learn about a topic, skill or piece of software that has been on your to do list, so why not drop by and meet the experts who have kindly agreed to participate and share their knowledge?

How to navigate EGU: tips & tricks

When and Where: Mon, 24 Apr, 08:30–10:00,  Room -2.31

Held first thing on Monday morning, this could be just the session you need to get your week off to a productive start!

Quantarctica

When and Where: Mon, 24 Apr, 13:30–15:00, Room -2.31

Are you working on Antarctica data and getting to grips with GIS? Then this course is for you! The User Workshop is aimed at beginning and intermediate GIS users and Antarctic researchers interested in learning how to integrate, analyze, and present their own research data with the free, open-source, cross-platform QGIS software. Participants should install and test the latest version of the Quantarctica package on their laptops prior to arriving at the workshop.

Crashing the Cryosphere

When and Where: Mon, 24 Apr, 15:30–17:00, Room -2.16

This is one to tell your cryo-curious friends from other divisions about!  We are inviting scientists from all areas to join us in “gate-crashing” the Cryosphere Division and learn about how topics in cryospheric science are relevant to their research. During the short course, four cryosphere experts will introduce their research, giving you the background to venture further into cryospheric topics during the rest of the meeting.

  • Keynote Intro: Olaf Eisen (The AWI, DE and head of EGU Cryosphere Division)
  • Ice-Ocean interaction: Inga Koszalka (GEOMAR, Kiel, DE)
  • The Arctic Atmosphere : John Prytherch (MISU, Stockholm, SE)
  • Avalanches: Thierry Faug (Irstea, FR)
  • GIA/Solid Earth: Valentina Barletta (DTU, DK)

Communicating Climate Change – blogging as a group

When and Where: Wed, 26 Apr, 13:30–15:00, Room -2.85

Blogs are a great way to communicate your science, but where do you start? This interactive short course will begin with an introduction from Mathew Reeve, founder of ClimateSnack. It will then be over to you to get some practice experience at editing a blog post – turning an awful draft into a pleasant and clear blog post. Please bring a pen and paper.

Successful strategies to design, develop and write a scientific paper

When and Where: Wed, 26 Apr, 17:30–19:00, Room N2

An essential part of a career in research is publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals. This means responding to reviews of your own work and reviewing the work of other scientists. In this short course you will get the chance to learn how to navigate the review process. The course will start with some advice, tip and tricks from Benjamin Rabe (Researcher, AWI, Germany), Julienne Stroeve (Senior Research Scientist, NSIDC, USA), Tom Coulthard (Professor of Physical Geography, University of Hull, UK) and Paul Cumine (Publisher, Geophysics and Oil & Gas Journals, Elsevier Ltd., UK) before a panel discussion to allow you to get answers to those burning questions you may have!

Polar Science Career Panel (EGU Cryosphere and APECS)

When and Where: Thu, 27 Apr, 15:30–17:00, Room -2.16

Many early career scientists come to EGU looking for inspiration to take the next step in their careers. There are so many opportunities both academic and elsewhere that it can be daunting to know where to start looking and what the options are. Join us for a panel discussion about everything to do with life post-polar-PhD and expand your ideas about where you might go next. Our panelists are:

  • Felicity Liggins (Climate Scientist and Outreach Program Manager, Met Office, UK)
  • Robert McSweeney (Science Writer, Carbon Brief)
  • Lindsey Nicholson (PostDoc, Uni. Innsbruck, Austria)
  • Kerim Nisancioglu (Prof. Of Earth Sciences, Uni. Bergen, Norway)
  • Wiebke Schubotz (Project Coordinator of HD(CP)², Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Germany)


Social event for Early Career Cryosphere Scientists!

So you have an idea of what scientific stuff is going on, but there is, of course, another important aspect to any conference…. they are a great place to socialise! However, it can be very daunting to know how and where to meet people at such a large meeting. This year the EGU Cryosphere team are organising two social events joint with APECS as well as a lunch for anyone who is interested in joining our blog team – also don’t forget the March for Science taking place on Saturday the 22nd April.

Pre-Icebreaker Meet Up

The conference icebreaker can be a daunting experience to attend alone but it is a great event to go along to. We are organising a friendly pre-icebreaker meet up for cryospheric ECSs on Sunday 23rd from 16:00We will meet at a yet-to-be-determined cafe in Vienna, have a chat, do some networking, have a cake and then head to the EGU conference centre together in time for the icebreaker. Keep your eyes on the Facebook event for more details!

Cryo Night Out!

On Thursday evening (27th), after the Polar Science Career Panel there will be a joint APECS and EGU Cryosphere division night out. We will be leaving from the conference centre after the panel session (Room -2.16) and heading for Wieden Braü for food and drinks, you can walk down with us as a group or meet there at 19:30. If you would like to eat please fill out the Facebook poll to give us an idea of numbers! Hopefully see plenty of faces old and new there 😀

EGU Cryosphere Bloggers Lunch

An informal lunch meeting for anyone interested in getting involved in the EGU Cryosphere blog on Tuesday 25th. Meet in front of the main entrance at 12:15 and we will decide on where to go depending on the weather. Please email the editors Emma (emma.smith@awi.de) or Sophie (sberger@ulb.ac.be) if you want to come along but aren’t sure who to look for. As an extra incentive Sophie will be bringing some Belgian chocolate!!

Ice Core Young Scientist (ICYS) social

Early-career scientists with an interest in ice cores are invited to join the Ice Core Young Scientists (ICYS) for a get-together with drinks and/or dinner on Tuesday 25th, from 18:30 (more details on facebook).
The get-together will take place at Café Einstein, Rathausplatz 4, Vienna . For those going directly from the conference venue, we will be leaving from there at 17:45, and you can find us (Mai Winstrup & Emma Kahle) by the main entrance.

March for Science

The day before the official start of the EGU GA (Saturday 22nd April) is Earth Day. On this day scientists and science enthusiasts across the globe will be marching to celebrate science and to call for the safeguarding of its future. A satellite march organised by local researchers is taking place in Vienna. If you are going to be in Vienna on the Saturday then it is a great chance to get involved – find out more details, including where and when to meet, on the EGU blog.


Am I an ECS?

The EGU officially defines an Early Career Scientist (ECS) as:

an undergraduate or postgraduate (Masters/PhD) student or a scientist who has received his or her highest degree (BSc, MSc, or PhD) within the past seven years  (where appropriate, up to one year of parental leave time may be added per child).

However, everyone is of course more than welcome to come along and  attend the short courses and social events organised by your ECS team, the more the merrier!


General Advice….

The General Assembly can be an overwhelming experience. Here are some tips from the EGU Cryosphere’s esteemed ECS representative Nanna Karlsson:

  • Take advantage of the lunch breaks and go for a walk! When you exit the main conference building turn left and head for the river, or turn right and you will find that behind the concrete buildings there is a very nice park.
  • Go to a session outside your field or area of interest. Even in completely different research topics, I often find similarities in methods or applications that inspire me to think differently about my own research.
  • Explore Vienna and treat yourself to a bit of time off to recover during the week. If your programme is completely packed, then hurry to the U-Bahn in a lunch break (the ticket is after all included in the registration fee) and go to the centre of town. Half an hour’s stroll will give you at least an impression of the city and you will not leave Vienna with the feeling that you have really only seen the conference centre.

Edited by Nanna Karlsson

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

Image of the Week – The ups and downs of sea ice!

Image of the Week – The ups and downs of sea ice!

The reduction in Arctic sea-ice cover has been in the news a lot recently (e.g. here) – as record lows have been observed again and again within the last decade. However, it is also a topic which causes a lot of confusion as so many factors come into play. With this Image of the Week we will give you a brief overview of the ups and downs of sea ice!


In general, Arctic sea ice is at its minimum extent at the end of the summer (September), and its maximum extent at the end of the winter (March). Our Image of the Week (Fig. 1) shows the summer and winter sea ice cover over the last year. In September 2016, the Arctic sea-ice minimum covered the second smallest extent since the beginning of satellite observations (38 years). Only 4.14 million square kilometres of the Northern Hemisphere were covered by sea ice on the day of minimum extent (September 10th). The maximum sea-ice extent was observed on March 7th 2017, only 14.42 million square kilometres of sea ice were observed: the lowest maximum since the beginning of satellite observations.

How long do we have until Arctic summer sea-ice cover is completely gone?

The Arctic Ocean is defined as ice-free, when the sea-ice area does not exceed 1 million km². Due to the close relationship between CO2 emissions and the sea-ice area (see one of our previous posts), it is likely that the summer Arctic sea-ice cover will fall below this threshold during the 21st century. Under the highest emission scenario (RCP 8.5 – IPCC, 2015), an almost ice-free Arctic in September is likely to occur before the middle of the century. It is, however, not easy to predict the exact year of an ice-free Arctic summer as the extent of the ice cover depends on many parameters influencing the freezing and melting of the ice.

On one hand, some parameters and their effect on the sea-ice cover are well understood and their future evolution can be projected quite well through climate models. For example, changes in the sea surface temperature tend to affect the starting date of the freezing period while changes in air temperature tend to affect the starting date of the melting period. As both air temperature and sea surface temperature are projected to increase in the long term, due to climate change, the period where ice can be present will be reduced more and more.

On the other hand, some parameters lead to several concurring effects, which are difficult to separate clearly and not always fully understood. Therefore, their future evolution and influence on sea ice is not totally clear. For example, the sea-ice loss leads to more open ocean areas, which absorb solar radiation, causing warming and therefore leading to faster sea-ice melting – a mechanism called “sea-ice albedo feedback”. At the same time, more open ocean areas also lead to more evaporation and therefore more clouds, which shield the ice from solar radiation and therefore lead to less warming of the ice and ocean surfaces.

Still, even if we knew the effect and long-term evolution of all these parameters, the exact date of ice-free Arctic could not be defined easily in advance. Why? The chaotic nature of the atmosphere leads to very short-term effects that influence the ice cover as well…

Be careful! A record minimum does not always mean a record maximum (and vice versa)!

On shorter time scales, sudden changes in the atmospheric circulation can have a large impact on sea-ice extent. Therefore, it is not guaranteed that a year with a record low maximum will have a record low minimum and vice versa. For example, heat waves and warm air outbreaks or high winds due to the transport of low pressure systems into the Arctic can lead to a more rapid decline of the sea-ice cover. The other way round, if the atmosphere from lower latitudes does not disturb the Arctic region, the sea-ice cover can stabilise again.

What about this year (2016/2017 season)?

Sometimes, it is not clear why sea-ice retreats rapidly. For example, the low 2016 minimum came as a surprise as the cover started with a very low minimum but then did not melt as fast as in previous years, due to average or below average temperatures. Only shortly before the minimum extent, stormy conditions came into play and led to the low extent that was observed (see Fig. 2).

Figure 2: Comparison of Arctic sea-ice extent between different years for summer (left) and winter (right). [Credit: Image courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center]

The reasons for the record low 2017 maximum are better understood. The Arctic Ocean was not covered by much ice to begin. Then, the autumn and winter in the Arctic were very warm with air temperatures from October 2016 to February 2017 being from 2.5 to up to 5 degrees in some regions higher than on average.

From the Arctic to the Antarctic

In the last decades, although it recovered in some years between the record lows, the Arctic sea-ice cover has overall been declining. This is not the case on the other side of the planet, in Antarctica. Note that Antarctica is a complete different setting than the Arctic Ocean. The former being a continent surrounded by ocean and sea ice, the latter being an ocean with sea ice surrounded by continents.

Figure 3: Comparison of Antarctic sea-ice extent between different years for summer (left) and winter (right). [Credit: Image courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center]

In recent decades, Antarctic sea-ice has been increasing very slowly (see Fig.3). Scientists were puzzled as such an evolution was not expected in a global warming framework. Explanations for this behaviour are that this is likely due to changing wind and surface pressure patterns around Antarctica. Contrary to this trend, this year (2016/2017) was a record low maximum and minimum in Antarctic sea-ice cover. This change is puzzling scientists even more. It remains unclear up to now if this is a permanent shift in the tendency of Antarctic sea ice or if this a single event. Be sure that the next months will be full of papers trying to explain this change in behaviour, it is going to be exciting!

Further reading

Edited by Emma Smith

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 on Fire (Part 2)

Image of the Week – Ice on Fire (Part 2)

This week’s image looks like something out of a science fiction movie, but sometimes what we find on Earth is even more strange than what we can imagine! Where the heat of volcanoes meets the icy cold of glaciers strange and wonderful landscapes are formed. 


Location of the Kamchatka Peninsula [Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica]

The Kamchatka Peninsula, in the far East of Russia, has the highest concentration of active volcanoes on Earth. Its climate is cold due to the Arctic winds from Siberia combined with cold sea currents passing through the Bearing Strait, meaning much of it is glaciated.

Mutnovsky is a volcano located in the south of the peninsula, which last erupted in March 2000. At the base of the volcano are numerous labyrinths of caves within ice. The caves are carved into the ice by volcanically heated water. The roof of the cave shown in our image of the week is thin enough to allow sunlight to penetrate. The light is filtered by the ice creating a magical environment inside the cave, which looks a bit like the stained glass windows of a cathedral. It is not always easy to access these caves, but when the conditions are favourable it makes for a wonderful sight!

The Mutnovsky volcano is fairly accessible for tourists, around 70 km south of the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Maybe this could be the holiday destination you have been searching for?

Further Reading

We have featured a number of stories about ice-volcano interaction on our blog before, read more about them here, here and here!

Edited by Sophie Berger

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 www.iceflowsgame.com!

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 https://iceandicing.wordpress.com/ and tweets as @treacherousbuzz.

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