CR
Cryospheric Sciences

Cryospheric Sciences

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.

Image of the Week — Hidden lakes in East Antarctica !

Image of the Week — Hidden lakes in East Antarctica !

Who would have guessed that such a beautiful picture could get you interviewed for the national news?! Certainly not me! And yet, the photo of this englacial lake (a lake trapped within the ice in Antarctica), or rather science behind it, managed to capture the media attention and brought me, one of the happy co-author of this study,  on the Belgian  television… But what do we see on the picture and why is that interesting?


Where was the picture taken?

The Image of this Week shows a 4m-deep meltwater lake trapped 4 m under the surface of the Roi Baudouin Ice Shelf (a coastal area in East Antarctica). To capture this shot, a team of scientists led by Stef Lhermitte (TU Delft) and Jan Lenaerts (Utrecht University) went to the Roi Baudouin ice shelf, drilled a hole and lowered a camera down (see video 1).

Video 1 : Camera lowered into borehole to show an englacial lake 4m below the surface. [Credit: S. Lhermitte]

How was the lake formed?

In this region of East Antarctica, the katabatic winds are very persistent and come down from the centre of the ice sheet towards the coast, that is the floating ice shelf (see animation below). The effect of the winds are two-fold:

  1. They warm the surface because the temperature of the air mass increases during its descent and the katabatic winds mix the very cold layer of air right above the surface with warmer layers that lie above.
  2. They sweep the very bright snow away, revealing darker snow/ice, which absorb more solar radiation

The combination leads to more melting of the ice/snow in the grounding zone — the boundary between the ice sheet and ice shelf — , which further darkens the surface and therefore increases the amount of solar radiation absorbed, leading to more melting, etc. (This vicious circle is very similar to the ice-albedo feedback presented in this previous post).

Animation showing the processes causing the warm micro-climate on the ice shelf. [Credit: S. Lhermitte]

All the melted ice flows downstream and collects in depressions to form (sub)surface lakes. Those lakes are moving towards the ocean with the surrounding ice and are progressively buried by snowfalls to become englacial lakes. Alternatively, the meltwater can also form surface streams that drain in moulins (see video 2).

Video 2 : Meltwater streams and moulins that drain the water on the Roi Baudouin ice shelf. [Credit: S. Lhermitte]

Why does it matter ?

So far we’ve seen pretty images but you might wonder what could possibly justify an appearance in the national news… Unlike in Greenland, ice loss by surface melting has  often been considered negligible in Antarctica. Meltwater can however threaten the structural integrity of ice shelves, which act as a plug of the grounded ice from upstream. Surface melting and ponding was indeed one of the triggers of the dramatic ice shelves collapses in the past decades, in the Antarctic Peninsula . For instance, the many surfaces lakes on the surface of the Larsen Ice shelf in January 2002, fractured and weakened the ice shelf until it finally broke up (see video 3), releasing more grounded ice to the ocean than it used to do.

Of course surface ponding is not the only precondition for an ice shelf to collapse : ice shelves in the Peninsula had progressively thinned and weakened for decades, prior their disintegration. Our study suggests however that surface processes in East Antarctica are more important than previously thought, which means that this part of the continent is probably more vulnerable to climate change than previously assumed. In the future, warmer climates will intensify melt, increasing the risk to destabilise the East Antarctic ice sheet.

Video 3 : MODIS images show Larsen-B collapse between January 31 and April 13, 2002. [Credit:NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center ]

Reference/Further reading

Edited by Nanna Karlsson

Quantarctica: Mapping Antarctica has never been so easy!

Quantarctica: Mapping Antarctica has never been so easy!

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


[Credit: Quantarctica Project]

What is Quantarctica?

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

Project Origins

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

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

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

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

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

What data can I find in Quantarctica?

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

…just to name a few!

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

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

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

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

How do I start using Quantarctica?

Quantarctica is available for download at http://quantarctica.npolar.no/. It’s a 6 GB package, so if your internet connection is struggling with the download, just contact us and we can send it to you on physical media. You can use the bundled QGIS installers for your operating system, or download the latest version of QGIS at http://qgis.org/ and simply open the Quantarctica project file, Quantarctica.qgs, after installation.

We’re actively developing Version 3 of Quantarctica, for release in Late 2017. Do you know of a pan-Antarctic dataset that you think should be included in the new version? Just email the Quantarctica project team at quantarctica@npolar.no.

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

 

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

Quantarctica Short Course at EGU 2017

Are you attending EGU 2017 and want to learn how to analyze your Antarctic data and create maps using Quantarctica? The Quantarctica team will be teaching a short course (SC32/CR6.15) on Monday, 24 April at 13:30-15:00 in room -2.31. Some basic GIS/QGIS experience is encouraged, but not required. If you’re interested, fill out the registration survey here: https://goo.gl/forms/mLaJg686tZq8bm2N2 and feel free to send any questions or comments to quantarctica@npolar.no. We’ll see you in Vienna!

Edited by Kenny Matsuoka and Sophie Berger

Reference/Further Reading

Data sources

[Read More]

Image of The Week – The Pulsating Ice Sheet!

Image of The Week – The Pulsating Ice Sheet!

During the last glacial period (~110,000-12,500 years ago) the Laurentide Ice Sheet (North America) experienced rapid, episodic, mass loss events – known as Heinrich events. These events are particularly curious as they occurred during the colder portions of the last glacial period, when we would intuitively expect large-scale mass loss during warmer times. In order to understand mass loss mechanisms from present-day ice sheets we need to understand what happened in the past. So, how can we better explain Heinrich events?


What are Heinrich Events?

During a Heinrich event large swarms of icebergs were discharged from the Laurentide Ice Sheet into the Hudson Strait and eventually into the North Atlantic Ocean. This addition of fresh water to the oceans caused a rise in sea level and a change in ocean currents and therefore climate.

We know about these events by studying glacial debris that was transported from the ice sheet into the oceans by the icebergs and eventually deposited on the ocean floor. From studying ocean-sediment records we know that Heinrich events occurred episodically during the last glacial period but not on at a regular intervals. Interestingly, when compared to temperature records from Greenland ice cores, it can be seen that the timing of Heinrich events coincides with the cold phases of Dansgaard–Oeschger (DO) cycles – rapid temperature fluctuations which occurred during the last glacial period (see our previous post).

the timing of Heinrich events coincides with the cold phases of Dansgaard–Oeschger (DO) cycles

What do we think causes them?

A new study, published last month in Nature, uses numerical modelling to show how pulses of warm ocean water could trigger Heinrich events. Our image of the week (Figure 1) illustrates the proposed mechanism for one event cycle:

  • a) Ice sheet at it’s full extent, grounded on a sill (raised portion of the bed, at the mouth of the Hudson Strait). Notice the sill is around 300m below sea level at this time.
  • b) A pulse of sub-surface water (purple) warms by a few degrees, encouraging iceberg calving at the glacier front and causing the ice begin to retreat from the sill.
  • c) As the ice retreats, it becomes unstable due to an inwards sloping bed (see our previous post on MISI). This leads to sudden rapid retreat of the ice – characteristic of Heinrich events.
  • d) Due to ice loss and thus less mass depressing the bed, the bed will slowly rise (Glacial Isostatic Adjustment), eventually the sill has risen to a level which cuts off the warmer water from the ice front and the ice can slowly advance again.

Once the ice has advanced back to it’s maximum extent (a) it will slowly depress the bed again, allowing deeper, warmer water to reach the ice front and the whole cycle repeats!

The authors of this study used this model to simulate Heinrich events over the last glacial period and were able to accurately predict the timing of Heinrich events, as known from ocean sediment records. Check out this video to see the model in action!!

Why is it important?

This study shows that the proposed mechanism probably controlled the onset of rapid mass-loss Heinrich events in the past and more generally that such mechanisms can cause the rapid retreat of marine terminating glaciers. This is important as it adds to our understanding of the stability (or instability) of present day marine terminating glaciers – such as the West Antarctic Ice Sheet! If such rapid mass loss happened regularly in the past we need to know if and how it might happen in the future!

such mechanisms can cause the rapid retreat of marine terminating glaciers.


Check out the full study and the news article summarising the findings here:

Image of the Week — The ice blue eye of the Arctic

Image of the Week — The ice blue eye of the Arctic

Positive feedback” is a term that regularly pops up when talking about climate change. It does not mean good news, but rather that climate change causes a phenomenon which it turns exacerbates climate change. The image of this week shows a beautiful melt pond in the Arctic sea ice, which is an example of such positive feedback.


What is a melt pond?

The Arctic sea ice is typically non-smooth, and covered in snow. When, after the long polar night, the sun shines again on the sea ice, a series of events happen (e.g. Fetterer and Untersteiner, 1998):

  • the snow layer melts;

  • the melted snow collects in depressions at the surface of the sea ice to form ponds;

  • these ponds of melted water are darker than the surrounding ice, i.e. they have a lower albedo. As a result they absorb more heat from the Sun, which melts more ice and deepens the pond. Melt ponds are typically 5 to 10 m wide and 15 to 50 cm deep (Perovich et al., 2009);

  • eventually, the water from the ponds ends up in the ocean: either by percolation through the whole sea-ice column or because the bottom of the pond reaches the ocean. Sometimes, it can also simply refreeze, as the air temperatures drop again (Polashenski et al., 2012).

Melt ponds cover 50-60% of the Arctic sea ice each summer (Eicken et al., 2004), and up to 90% of the first year ice (Perovich al., 2011). How do we know these percentages? Mostly, thanks to satellites.

Monitoring melt ponds by satellites

Like most phenomena that we discuss on this blog, continuous in-situ measurements are not feasible at the scale of the whole Arctic, so scientists rely on satellites instead. For melt ponds, spectro-radiometer data are used (Rösel et al., 2012). These measure the surface reflectance of the Earth i.e. the proportion of energy reflected by the surface for wavelengths in the visible and infrared (0.4 to 14.4 μm). The idea is that different types of surfaces reflect the sunlight differently, and we can use these data to then map the types of surfaces over a region.

In particular for the Arctic, sea ice, open ocean and any stage in-between all reflect the sunlight differently (i.e. have different albedos). The way that the albedo changes with the wavelength is also different for each surface, which is why radiometer measurements are taken for a range of wavelengths. With these measurements, not only can we locate the melt ponds in the Arctic, but even assess how mature the pond is (i.e. how long ago it formed) and how deep it extends. These values are key for climate change predictions.

Fig. 2: Melt pond seen by a camera below the sea ice. (The pond is the lighter area) [Credit: NOAA’s climate.gov]

Melt ponds and the climate

Let’s come back to the positive feedback mentioned in the introduction. Solar radiation and warm air temperature create melt ponds. The darker melt ponds have a higher albedo than the white sea ice, so they absorb more heat, and further warm our climate. This extra heat is also transferred to the ocean, so melt pond-covered sea ice melts three times more from below than bare ice (Flocco et al., 2012). This vicious circle heat – less sea ice – more heat absorbed – even less sea ice…, is called the ice-albedo feedback. It is one of the processes responsible for the polar amplification of global warming, i.e. the fact that poles warm way faster than the rest of the world (see also this post for more explanation).

The ice-albedo feedback is one of the processes responsible for the polar amplification of global warming

But it’s not all doom and gloom. For one thing, melt ponds are associated with algae bloom. The sun light can penetrate deeper through the ocean under a melt pond than under bare ice (see Fig. 2), which means that life can develop more easily. And now that we understand better how melt ponds form, and how much area they cover in the Arctic, efforts are being made to include more realistic sea-ice properties and pond parametrisation in climate models (e.g. Holland et al., 2012). That way, we can study more precisely their impact on future climate, and the demise of the Arctic sea ice.

Edited by Sophie Berger

Further reading

Image of the Week – Icelandic glaciers monitored from space!

Image of the Week – Icelandic glaciers monitored from space!

Located in the North Atlantic Ocean, just south of the polar circle, Iceland is a highly fascinating land. Covered by some of the largest glaciers in Europe and hosting active volcanoes, geothermal sites and subglacial lakes, it is extremely dynamic in nature and ever changing. With this Image of the Week we will tell you a bit about the changing ice caps of Iceland and how we can monitor them from space!


Icelandic ice caps since the mid-1990s

Iceland enjoys a mild and moist climate because of the relatively warm and saline Irminger current transporting heat to its southern coast, although the cold East Greenland and East Icelandic currents may cause sea ice to form to the north. Iceland’s ice caps, which receive abundant precipitation from North Atlantic cyclones, cover about 11% of the land, and contain ~3600 km2 of ice. If they completely melted they would contribute 1 cm to Sea Level Rise (SLR).

In the period 1995-2010, Icelandic glaciers shrank every year and lost mass at an average rate of 9.5±1.5 Gton a-1 – generally reflecting higher summer temperatures and longer melting seasons than in the early 1990s (Björnsson et al., 2013). Importantly, in recent decades Iceland has been the second largest source of glacier meltwater to the North Atlantic after Greenland and its peripheral glaciers. Furthermore, surge-type outlet glaciers – which have unpredictable dynamics – are present in all Icelandic ice caps and represent as much as 75% of the area of Vatnajökull (Bjornsson et al., 2003), the largest ice cap in Europe by volume. Therefore, it is important to continuously monitor Icelandic ice caps (>90% of the whole glaciated area) at high spatial resolution. Glaciological field surveys can yield accurate measurements and are routinely performed in Iceland on all ice caps and most glaciers. However, it is not always feasible to use field methods, depending on the remoteness and size of the glacier (e.g. several glaciers and ice caps in the Arctic). Continuous monitoring of such hardly accessible areas can be achieved from space at high spatial resolution.

Continuous health check from space

Since 2010, the ESA CryoSat-2 (CS2) mission has been fundamental in retrieving ice elevation data over glacial terrain characterised by complex topography and steep slopes – notoriously hard to monitor via satellite. CS2’s radar altimeter provides the elevation of the Point-Of-Closest-Approach (POCA) – the point at the surface closest to the satellite on a straight line – every ~400 m along the flight track. The main novelty of this mission is the use of a second antenna, which allows the use of interferometry across-track to accurately infer the location of a surface reflection in presence of a slope (read more about it here). Additionally, a new and exciting application of CS2 interferometric capabilities is that we can exploit the echos after the POCA, i.e. the reflections coming from the sloping surface moments after the first one. This approach generates a swath of elevations every ~400 m and provides up to two orders of magnitude more elevation data than with conventional POCA processing (Fig. 2; Gray et al., 2013, Foresta et al., 2016).

Since 2010, the ESA CryoSat-2 (CS2) mission has been fundamental in retrieving ice elevation data

Figure 2: Example of the improved elevation data using CS2 swath-processing. CS2 swath data (colors) and conventional (circles) heights over the Austfonna ice cap (Svalbard) for two satellite passes. Swath processing delivers up to two orders of magnitude more elevation data. [Credit: Dr. N. Gourmelen,University of Edinburgh, School of GeoSciences]

This rich dataset can be used to generate maps of surface elevation change rates at sub-kilometer resolution (Figs. 1 and 3). These maps show extensive thinning of up to -10 m a-1 in marginal areas of Iceland’s ice caps, while patterns of change are more variable in their interior. Fig. 3 shows the difference in spatial coverage between the POCA and Swath approaches, with the former sampling preferentially along topographic highs (see for example the Langjökull ice cap in Fig. 3). Using these high resolution maps, it is possible to independently infer the mass balance of each ice cap purely from satellite altimetry data. Based on CS2 swath-processed elevations, between glaciological years 2010/11 and 2014/15 Iceland has lost mass at an average rate of 5.8±0.7 Gton a-1 contributing 0.016±0.002 mm a-1 to SLR (Foresta et al., 2016). The rate of mass loss is ~40% less than during the preceding 15 years, partly caused by Vatnajökull (63% of the total mass loss) having had positive mass balance during the glaciological year 2014/15 due to anomalously high precipitation. Langjökull, with widespread thinning up to the ice divide (Figs. 1 and 3), is the fastest changing ice cap in terms of mass loss per unit area.

between glaciological years 2010/11 and 2014/15 Iceland has lost mass at an average rate of 5.8±0.7 Gton a-1 contributing 0.016±0.002 mm a-1 to SLR

Beside estimating mass change at the ice cap scale, the novel swath approach demonstrates the capability to observe glaciological processes at a sub-catchment scale. Different accumulation and thinning patterns over Vatnajökull and Langjökull, for example, are directly related to past surges or subglacial volcanic eruptions, some of which happened decades ago. Their long term lingering effects on the ice cap topography are now visible from space and as the satellite data record extends we will be able to gain an increased understanding of how these effects evolve over time.

Figure 3 – Comparison between swath-processed (Swath) and conventional (POCA) surface elevation change rates over the six largest ice caps in Iceland, representing 90% of the glaciated area. V (Vatnajökull), L (Langjökull),H(Hofsjökull),M(Mýrdalsjökull), D (Drangajökull), and E (Eyjafjallajökull). The inset shows the location of individual elevation measurements by using Swath and POCA approaches over Langjökull. [Credit: After Foresta et al. (2016).]

Edited by Emma Smith


Luca Foresta is a PhD student in the Glaciology and Cryosphere Research Group at the University of Edinburgh (@EdinGlaciology), and his research focuses on improving CryoSat-2 processing as well as exploiting swath-processed CryoSat-2 data to quantify surface, volume and mass changes over ice caps.

 

Image of the Week – Apocalypse snow? … No, it’s sea ice!

Image of the Week – Apocalypse snow? … No, it’s sea ice!

Sea ice brine sampling is always great fun, but sometimes somewhat challenging !

As sea water freezes to form sea ice, salts in the water are rejected from the ice and concentrate in pockets of very salty water, which are entrapped within the sea ice. These pockets are known as “brines”.

Scientists sample these brines to measure the physical and bio-geochemical properties, such as: temperature, salinity, nutrient, water stable isotopes, Chlorophyll A, algal species, bacterial number and DNA, partial pressure of CO2, dissolved and particulate Carbon and Nitrogen, sulphur compounds, and trace metals.  All of this helps to better understand how sea ice impacts the atmosphere-ocean exchanges of climate relevant gases.

In theory, sampling such brines is very simple: you just have to drill several holes in the sea-ice ensuring that the holes don’t reach the bottom of ice and wait for half an hour. During this time, the brine pockets which are trapped in the surrounding sea ice drain under gravity into the hole. After that, you just need to sample the salty water that has appeared in the hole. Simple…

…at least it would be if they didn’t have to deal with the darkness of the Antarctic winter, blowing snow, handling water at -30°C and all while wearing trace metal clean suits on top of polar gear…hence the faces!


This photo won the jury prize of the Antarctic photo competition, organised by APECS Belgium and Netherlands as part of Antarctica Day celebrations (1st of December).

All the photos of the contest can be seen here.

Edited by Sophie Berger and Emma Smith


Jean-Louis Tison is a professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles. His activities are focused on the study of physico-chemical properties of « interface ice », be it the « ice-bedrock » (continental basal ice) , « ice-ocean » (marine ice) or « ice-atmosphere » (sea ice) interface. His work is based on numerous field expeditions and laboratory experiments, and on the development of equipments and analytical techniques dedicated to the multi-parametric study of ice: textures and fabrics, stable isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen, total gas content and gas composition, bulk salinity, major elements chemistry…

 

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: