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.

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 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:

Image of the Week – On the tip of Petermann’s (ice) tongue

Image of the Week – On the tip of Petermann’s (ice) tongue

5th August 2015, 10:30 in the morning. The meeting had to be interrupted to take this picture. We were aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden, and were now closer than anyone before to the terminus of Petermann Glacier in northwestern Greenland. But we had not travelled that far just for pictures…

Petermann’s ice tongue

Petermann is one of Greenland’s largest “marine terminating glaciers”. As the name indicates, this is a glacier, i.e. frozen freshwater, and its terminus floats on the ocean’s surface. Since Petermann is confined within a fjord, the glacier is long and narrow and can be referred to as an “ice tongue”.

Petermann Glacier is famous for its recent calving events. In August 2010, about a quarter of the ice tongue (260 km2) broke off as an iceberg (Fig. 2). In July 2012, Petermann calved again and its ice tongue lost an extra 130 km2.

These are not isolated events. Greenland’s marine terminating glaciers are all thinning and retreating in response to a warming of both air and ocean temperatures (Straneo et al., 2013), and Greenland’s entire ice sheet itself is threatened. Hence, international fieldwork expeditions are needed to understand the dynamics of these glaciers.

Fig. 2: The 2010 calving event of Petermann. Natural-color image from the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite ( August 16, 2010).  [Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory]

The Petermann 2015 expedition

In summer 2015, a paleoceanography expedition was conducted to study Petermann Fjord and its surroundings, in order to assess how unusual these recent calving events are compared to the glacier’s past. Our small team focused on the present-day ocean, and specifically investigated how much of the glacier is melted from below by the comparatively warm ocean (that process has been described on this blog previously). In fact, this “basal melting” could be responsible for up to 80% of the mass loss of Petermann Glacier (Rignot, 1996). Additionally, we were also the first scientists to take measurements in this region since the calving events.

Our results are now published (Heuzé et al., 2017). We show that the meltwater can be detected and tracked by simply using the temperature and salinity measurements that are routinely taken during expeditions (that, also, has been described on this blog previously). Moreover, we found that the processes happening near the glacier are more complex than we expected and require measurements at a higher temporal resolution, daily to hourly and over several months, than the traditional summer single profiles. Luckily, this is why we deployed new sensors there! And since these have already sent their data, we should report on them soon!

Edited by David Rounce and Sophie Berger

References and further reading

Polar Exploration: Perseverance and Pea Sausages

Polar Exploration: Perseverance and Pea Sausages

Born on this Day

Portrait of Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen by Achton Friis. [Credit: Danish Arctic Institute].

On this day in 1872 – 145 years ago –Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen, Danish author and polar explorer, was born. He led two expeditions to Greenland and successfully mapped the then unknown northeastern part of the country. The second expedition was his last. The expedition was surprised by an early onset of spring and could no longer use their dog sledges. The two Danes, Mylius-Erichsen and Høeg Hagen died in November 1907 of cold and hunger. Their bodies have never been found. The last remaining expedition member, the Greenlander Brønlund, continued the journey alone but perished a few weeks later. His body and the expedition diary was found in 1908.

Thousands of Pea Sausages

The tin on the image above contains “pea sausage” and was essentially the world’s first ready meal: A mixture of ground peas, beef fat, bacon, spices and salt. Pea sausage was invented in 1867 in Germany and was a common part of military and expedition rations up until the beginning of the 20th century.

Mylius-Erichsen’s expedition brought along 1756 tins of this kind. Each tin contained 6 tablets of pea sausage, that mixed with ¼ water would make a nourishing soup. And the taste? On his first expedition, Mylius-Erichsen wrote:

“The evening meals in the three boxes consisted mainly of different kinds of sturdy soups, black pudding, meat pie, beef, pea sausage and sizeable portions of vegetable such as cabbage, beans and carrots. We only used one third of the evening meal rations on the way out. We did not like the taste of the meat but black pudding, peas and the different kinds of soup were heavenly”.

And later:

“Jørgen and I had dinner at Amarfik’s, and dinner consisted both days of little auks boiled in our last portion of pea sausage – a wonderful dish…”

Members of Mylius-Erichsen’s first expedition: Brønlund, Bertelsen, Mylius-Erichsen, Rasmussen and Moltke. [Credit: Danish Arctic Institute].

Photos and descriptions are from the Danish Arctic Institute (@arktiskinstitut) where you can also see a full 360 degrees photo of the tin.

Check out more historical footage from Greenland in a previous Image of the Week showing aerial photos from the 1930s.

Edited by: Sophie Berger

Image of the Week – The Sound of an Ice Age

Image of the Week – The Sound of an Ice Age

New Year’s Eve is just around the corner and the last “image of the week” of 2016 will get you in the mood for a party. If your celebration needs a soundtrack with a suitably geeky touch then look no further. Here is the music for climate enthusiasts: The sound of the past 60,000 years of climate. Scientist Aslak Grinsted (Centre for Ice and Climate, University of Copenhagen, Denmark) has transformed the δOxygen-18 values from the Greenland NorthGRIP ice core and the Antarctic WAIS ice core into music (you can read more about ice cores in our Ice Cores for Dummies post). Using the Greenlandic data as melody and the Antarctic data as bassline, Aslak has produced some compelling music.

You can listen to his composition and read more about his approach here.

The δOxygen-18 values are a measure of the isotopic composition of the ice, and they are a direct indicator of temperature. The image of the week above shows the isotope values for the past 20,000 years as measured by polar ice cores. On the left-hand side, we are in present-day: an inter-glacial. The δOxygen-18 values are high indicating high temperatures. In contrast, on the right-hand side of the figure we are in the last glacial with lower δOxygen-18 values and lower temperatures. One remarkable thing about these curves is how fast the temperature changes in Greenland (top) compared to Antarctica (bottom). This delayed coupling is called the Bipolar Seesaw.

The clefs are our own addition of course. We have not included the time signature because who knows what the rhythm of the climate might be? (Personally, I think it might be in ¾ like a waltz: An unrestrained movement forward with small underlying variations).

The data from Antarctica is published by WAIS Divide Project Members, 2015. The Greenlandic data can be found on the Centre for Ice and Climate website and in publications by Vinther et al., 2006, Rasmussen et al., 2006, Andersen et al., 2006 and Svensson et al., 2006.

Happy New Year!


Ice Cores “For Dummies”

Ice Cores “For Dummies”

Ice cores are important tools for investigating past climate as they are effectively a continuous record of snowfall, which preserves historical information about climate conditions and atmospheric gas composition. In this new “For Dummies” post, we discuss the history and importance of ice-core science, and look at the way we can use ice core chemistry to reconstruct past climate.

Ice sheets, archives of our past

When snow falls on the surface of an ice sheet it begins to compact the snow beneath it – eventually it will be compacted enough to be transformed into ice. Simultaneously, atmospheric air held between the snowflakes is slowly trapped in the ice – forming small air bubbles. In areas where mean annual temperatures at the ice surface remain below 0C, such as Greenland and Antarctica, there is little surface melting, so this snow builds up to form thick ice sheets – up to 3000 metres in some part of East Antarctica! Low surface melt means that the snow that is compressed into ice each year forms a continuous record of the annual snowfall and atmospheric gas concentrations at the time of deposition, but how do we access this record..?

Snow that is compressed into ice each year forms a continuous record of the annual snowfall and atmospheric gas concentrations at the time of deposition

…We drill ice cores – of course!

An ice core is a cylinder of ice that is retrieved from the ice sheet by drilling vertically downwards. The core is drilled in sections from the surface, deep into the ice sheet (Fig. 1) using a rotating drill. Each section of the core is processed at the drill site and often cut further into shorter sections of ~55 cm for more practical transport and analysis in labs. A great deal of equipment is needed to achieve this and drilling is a slow and careful process often taking several field seasons to drill a deep core. An example of a drilling camp is shown in Fig. 2, housing scientists and engineers involved in drilling an ice core on the Fletcher Promontory, West Antarctica.

Figure 1: a) Ice core drill being lowered into the ice on Pine Island Glacier [Credit: Alex P. Taylor] b) Dr Rob Mulvaney processing the Berkner Island ice core, Weddell Sea, Antarctica [Credit: R. Mulvaney]

Figure 2: The layout of the Fletcher Promontory ice-drilling project, Weddell Sea, Antarctica. In the background the large Weatherhaven tent houses the drill rig, the central Weatherhaven tent is used for storage and equipment and a simple shower, the nearest Polarhaven tent is the mess tent, and the Polarhaven tent to the left houses the main generator. The pyramid tents in the foreground are the sleeping tents, and the two to the right are used for toilet facilities [Credit: Mulvaney et al., 2014]

Where to drill an ice core for the best record?

To get a good record of climate we want to find an area of ice that has many annual layers (good temporal resolution) that has not been disturbed by high ice flow velocities, usually these conditions can be found at an ice dome or divide. An ice sheet is a large plateau with a relatively stable rate of annual snowfall; the dome (or ice divide) is the point in the ice sheet where there is only vertical flow (compression) of ice (Fig. 3). Horizontal flow of ice is greater with the greater distance from the dome. Therefore, domes are the ideal site on the ice sheet or ice cap to drill for an ice core to ensure no interference with the snowfall history at the site. It is reasonable to assume that the ice-core record taken from a site with high annual snowfall will not extend the furthest back in time; similarly, a low annual snowfall and a large ice-sheet thickness will offer a record spanning much further back in time.

Figure 3: Ice flow within the ice sheet showing the zero flow at the ice divide – the ideal site for an ice core [Credit: Snowball Earth]

For Antarctica, the amount of snowfall across the ice sheet depends on the distance from the coast and sources of moisture; the highest mean annual snowfall is found at West Antarctic ice sheet sites whilst the lowest values are inland on the East Antarctic ice sheet, one of the driest deserts on Earth. In addition to the West and East Antarctic ice sheets, the Antarctic Peninsula is the third and final sector of the continent with high mean annual snowfall comparable to West Antarctica. In comparison to Antarctica, the Greenland ice sheet has a relatively high present-day mean annual snowfall, varying across the ice sheet between 10 and 30 cm per year. Therefore, if your aim is to find the oldest ice on Earth, East Antarctica is a good place to start looking, see our post on the quest to drill an ice core that contains ice which is over a million years old. Additionally, for the longest records it is paramount to find a drilling location with no (or at least very low) annual melting at the bedrock.

If your aim is to find the oldest ice on Earth, East Antarctica is a good place to start looking

What does an ice core actually record?

Once an ice core has been drilled and cut into sections, some of the sections are analysed and others are preserved. This is particularly important as some of the analysis is destructive (e.g. melting of the ice to extract water and gas). Therefore an archive of the ice core itself is needed. So, what information can we obtain from analysing the core and how is it done?

Annual layers, past snowfall and past temperatures!

Reconstructing the past surface temperature and snowfall is incredibly useful for understanding climate processes and changes through time in order to assess any present-day local and regional changes in climate. We can do this by:

          • Measuring the thickness of the annual layers: This is done by counting layers in the core, either by visual identification of the peaks in deposition or use of a computer algorithm. The thickness of a specific year depends on how much snow fell at the site and on how much the snowfalls of the following years compacted this specific layer. We can estimate the strain caused by compaction which allows us to extract historical annual snowfall.
          • Past air temperatures (Stable Water Isotope Record): An additional method to reconstruct past snowfall is from the ratios of the stable water isotopes from the water that forms snow and precipitation. The ratio of stable water isotopes has a linear relationship with surface temperature (see box below). Mathematical reconstructions of accumulation using the temperature reconstructions from stable water isotopes are employed in ice core profiles where the compaction of annual snowfall results in an annual layer thickness beyond standard laboratory resolution, such as Antarctic sites. Following the accumulation reconstruction, the rate of compaction of the annual snowfall to ice and subsequent ‘thinning’ of the deposited snowfall layer must be estimated by glaciological modelling.
          • Trace-element analysis: For the upper depths of a deep ice core, or an ice core with an easily-resolvable annual layer thickness, the continuous analysis of an ice core for stable water isotopes offers a sub-annual view of the climate record.

            Figure 4: Seasonal deposition of four chemical species in the WAIS Divide ice core. Pink: electrical conductivity measurements; Black: Black Carbon; Red: non-sea salt Sulphur; Blue: Sodium. Each panel, shows the averaged annual record for 2 different periods: the Antarctic Cold Reversal (ACR, 13-14,000 years ago – bold line) and the Holocene, (10-11,000 years ago – thin line) the [Credit: Fig. 2, Sigl et al., 2016 ]

            The deposition of a number of chemical elements increases during the summer season and decreases during the winter.When these elements are measured in the ice core they can be depicted as an almost-sinusoidal record, indicating the historical seasons. High-resolution ice-core profiles can be dated by counting these annual layers, and have been done so across Greenland and at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide ice core site. Fig. 4 shows two annual signals over 24 months for four different chemicals that are deposited in ice cores (Sigl et al., 2016). The peak in seasonal deposition is shown twice for each chemical, at different times in history, but the seasonality of these species remains strong throughout time.
Reconstructing Past Temperatures
We commonly think of water as H2O - a molecule containing two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. However, atoms (i.e. Hydrogen and Oxygen) come in several forms, known as isotopes - atoms with the same number of protons, but differing numbers of neutrons. Those isotopes that don't decay over time and are preserved in the ice core are know as stable water isotopes. It is possible to measure the amount of each different stable water isotope present in an ice core by melting the ice core and using a mass spectrometer to analyse the water produced.

The snow that eventually forms ice cores starts its life as ocean water which is evaporated and transported to the polar regions. Water isotopes with more neutrons are heavier and therefore require more energy to evaporate and transport. The amount of energy available to do this is related to temperature. Therefore heavier isotopes are found in ice cores in higher amounts at warmer periods in the planet's history! Find out more  here!

Atmospheric gas

Ice-core measurements of atmospheric gases correlate well with direct measurements taken from the atmosphere dating back to 1950. As a result of this, ice-core scientists can assume that the atmospheric gas concentrations measured in ice cores reflects the atmospheric conditions at the time the gas was entrapped in the ice core. Hence, ice cores tell us that carbon dioxide concentrations have been relatively stable for the last millennia until around 1800 AD but since then a rise of almost 40% has been measured in both ice cores and direct atmospheric measurements (Fig. 5).

Figure 5: 1000 years of atmospheric CO2 concentrations from various Antarctic ice cores (DML, South Pole, Law Dome and Siple Dome) and the direct measurements in Mauna Loa Observatory [Credit: Ashleigh Massam, compiled from open access data sources]

Carbon dioxide concentrations have been relatively stable for the last millennia until around 1800 AD but since then a rise of almost 40% has been measured

In addition to comparison with present-day measurements, the trapped gases offer a record of direct atmospheric and greenhouse gas concentrations, including methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (Fig. 6) on a longer timescale – up to 800,000 years (Loulergue et al., 2008). Records show the connection between fluctuations in the atmosphere and long-term global climate variations (e.g. temperature) on a millennial timescale (Kawamura et al., 2007). The long-term trends show a pattern in the gas concentrations that compare well with glacial-interglacial climate. The phasing and timing of the eight glacial cycles covered by this record are dominated by the orbital cycle of the Earth on a 96,000-year periodicity, with a warm, interglacial period between each cold period. However, as we will see later in this blog post, this may not be the case when we look further back in time!

Figure 6: Variations of temperature (from present day mean temperature, black), atmospheric carbon dioxide (in part per million by volume — blue) and methane (in part per billion per volume red) over the past 800,000 years, from the EPICA Dome C ice core in Antarctica. Modern value (of 2009) of carbon dioxide and methane are indicated by arrows. [Credit : Centre for Ice and Climate , University of Copenhagen. Re-used with permission ]

Other climate proxies

Chemistry preserved in the ice also offers a proxy (=a means) to reconstruct other seasonally-deposited tracers:

                        • Information on past sea-ice extent can be obtained from chemicals found in ice cores which are also present in sea salt such as sodium, chlorine and methanesulphonic acid (MSA) (Sommer et al., 2000; Curran et al., 2003; Rothlisberger et al., 2003).
                        • The seasonal deposition of elements such as iron, magnesium and calcium, which are linked to dust from far-afield and the short-term climate variability such as atmospheric circulation (Fuhrer et al., 1999).
                        • Finally, volcanic layers in the ice core such as tephra and sulphate deposit provides a unique timestamp to a specific depth. These layers were deposited at the same time, all over the world and can be pinpointed to a specific volcanic eruption. Deposits of the same layer outside of a glaciated landscape, (e.g. within rock layers ) can often be dated using radiocarbon (Carbon-14) or another radiogenic dating methods. Additional age horizons can be interpreted by events assumed to occur in the world at the same time, such as rapid climate events. Age constraints are beneficial to interpreting deep ice-core records that are not analysed at a sub-annual resolution by offering pinpoint age horizons to an ice-core record.

Current knowledge from ice-core records

As we have seen, ice core are important because they put the current climate variations into the context of a long-term climate history. Additionally, polar ice cores can allow us to looks at variations between the northern and southern hemisphere. Ice cores also extend back much, much further in time than terrestrial weather stations or satellite records:

Figure 7: Deep ice core locations in Greenland and Antarctica [Credit and more details: NSIDC ]

The current past climate record tells us about glacial and inter-glacial periods (Fig. 6) but also allows us to look at finer detail – i.e. the variability within these periods, which were previously assumed stable.  For example, ice cores have led to the discovery of Dansgaard-Oeschger events; which are are rapid climate fluctuation events, characterised by rapid warming followed by gradual cooling to return to glacial conditions, 25 of these events have happened during the last glacial period.

Records from the Northern and Southern hemisphere also allow us to link these small and large scale changes in climate in the two hemispheres. For example, ice cores analysed from both poles show a ‘call and response’ signal between Dansgaard-Oeschger events in the Northern Hemisphere and events in the Antarctic climate record. The southern hemisphere cooled during the warm phases of Dansgaard-Oeschger events in the northern hemisphere (Buizert et al., 2015), and vice versa during northern hemispheric cooling (see our previous blog post on the subject).

There are already over a dozen ice cores taken from Greenland and Antarctica (Fig. 7), offering a clear and detailed history of the climate during the Late Quaternary period (Fig. 6), going back up to 800,000 years (Quaternary = last 2.6 million years). As we mentioned earlier the timing of glacial and inter-galcial cycles in this 800,000 year old record is dominated by the orbital cycle of the Earth (96,000-year periodicity). However, marine records show that frequency of glacial-interglacial cycles was different before this time (Lisiecki and Raymo, 2005). It is in order to better understand these changes that the quest for the oldest was formed – beginning last month the mission aims to drill an ice core of ice older than 800,000 years to gain detailed information about the climate even further back in time.

Detailed records from high-resolution ice cores improves our understanding of the response of the planet to deglaciation events

The continuous and high-resolution of ice-core records, together with marine and terrestrial records, offers a global view of coupled processes from ice sheet calving events, changes to ocean circulation and heat transport and the subsequent cooling events across the Earth. Detailed records from high-resolution ice cores improves our understanding of the response of the planet to deglaciation events from the large ice sheets that once covered much of the northern hemisphere. Melting ice sheets pose a significant threat to the planet from rising sea levels and the freshwater input leading to inevitable changes in climate.

Edited by Emma Smith and Sophie Berger

Ashleigh Massam is a final-year PhD student based in the Ice Dynamics and Palaeoclimate group at the British Antarctic Survey and with the Department of Geography at Durham University. Her project is developing the age-depth profiles of three ice cores drilled at James Ross Island, Fletcher Promontory and Berkner Island, West Antarctica, by a combination of high-resolution trace-element analytical techniques and modelling ice-sheet processes.

Image of The Week – Plumes of water melting Greenland’s tidewater glaciers


Figure 1: Simulation of a plume at a tidewater glacier in a general circulation model (MITgcm). Left – water temperature and right – time-averaged submarine melt rate in metres per day. Shown are face-on views of a tidewater glacier, as if you were under the water in front of the glacier, looking towards the calving front. 250 m3/s of fresh water emerges into the ocean from a channel at the bottom of the glacier, forming a plume. As the plume rises towards the fjord surface it mixes turbulently with warm ocean water, causing the plume to warm with height. Further details of this simulation can be found here: Slater et al. 2015.

Loss of ice from The Greenland Ice Sheet currently contributes approximately 1 mm/year to global sea level (Enderlin et al., 2014). The most rapidly changing and fastest flowing parts of the ice sheet are tidewater glaciers, which transport ice from the interior of the ice sheet directly into the ocean. In order to better predict how Greenland will contribute to future sea level we need to know more about what happens in these regions.

Tidewater glaciers meet the ocean at the calving front (Fig. 2), where ice undergoes melting by the ocean (“submarine melting”) and icebergs calve off into the sea. In recent decades, tidewater glaciers around Greenland have retreated (due to increased loss of ice at the calving front) and started flowing faster. This in turn causes more ice to be released into the ocean, contributing to sea level. Understanding the cause of these changes at tidewater glaciers is an ongoing topic of research.

Figure 2: Kangiata Nunata Sermia, a large tidewater glacier in south-west Greenland. The expression of a plume originating at the base of the calving front is visible on the fjord surface as turbid sediment-rich water. [Credit: Peter Nienow]

Figure 2: Kangiata Nunata Sermia, a large tidewater glacier in south-west Greenland. The expression of a plume originating at the base of the calving front is visible on the fjord surface as turbid sediment-rich water. [Credit: Peter Nienow]

One possible cause of change is an observed warming of the ocean around Greenland (Straneo and Heimbach, 2013). A warming of the ocean is likely to lead to increased submarine melt rates, which may in turn influence iceberg calving if, for example, melting results in instability of the ice at the calving front. Submarine melt rates are thought to be increased further by upwelling of warm water at the calving front (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2).

This upwelling water, called a plume, may be initiated by submarine melting of the ice, or by fresh glacial meltwater from the ice sheet surface. This fresh glacial meltwater penetrates to the base of the glacier and flows into the ocean from beneath the glacier, which may be hundreds of metres underwater. Once in the ocean, the meltwater rises buoyantly because of a density difference between the meltwater and ocean water, forming a plume. In order to better understand the effect of plumes on submarine melting, we can model plumes using a numerical model (e.g. MITgcm). Our image of the week (Fig. 1) shows such a model, which we can use to estimate submarine melt rates. In combination with simpler analytical approaches (Jenkins et al., 2011; Slater et al., 2016), we can estimate how submarine melt rates may change over time and from glacier to glacier (Carroll et al., 2016), and begin to assess the effect of submarine melting on tidewater glaciers and ultimately on future sea level rise.

Edited by Teresa Kyrke-Smith and Emma Smith


Donald Slater is a PhD student in the Glaciology and Cryosphere Research Group at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on understanding the effect of the ocean on the Greenland Ice Sheet. For more information look up his website or follow him on twitter @donald_glacier.

Image of the Week — Listening to the Snow

Image of the Week — Listening to the Snow

When working in the middle of an ice sheet, you rarely get to experience the amazing wildlife of the polar regions. So what are we doing hundreds of kilometres from the coast with an animal tracker device? We are listening to the snow of course! It is not crazy; It is what Image of the Week today is all about!

Going Wireless

E. Bagshaw testing the range of an ETracer in a 12m borehole at the bottom of a 2m deep snow pit. [Credit: N. B. Karlsson].

E. Bagshaw testing the range of an ETracer in a 12m borehole at the bottom of a 2m deep snow pit. [Credit: N. B. Karlsson].

In June 2016, Liz Bagshaw and I travelled to the EGRIP (East Greenland Ice Core Project) camp to test a handful of wireless sensors named “ETracers” in a new setting. The “wireless” part is very important, because it means that we can make measurements without having to connect our instrument to a cable, which may fail or snap. Instead, the sensors transmit all their data as radio waves. We use the same frequency that biologists use for tracking animals – although there weren’t many to see in the middle of the Greenland Ice Sheet!

The ETracer sensors were originally developed for measuring the meltwater under the ice at the margin of the Greenland ice sheet. We wanted to test if they could also tell us something about what is going on in the snow.  For example, how does the snow temperature change and how is the snow compacting in different parts of the ice sheet? These questions might seem theoretical but their answers are important when working with data from satellites, since the satellite measurements may be affected by different snow conditions.

Pink Baubles

The ETracers stacked on small magnets. This temporarily stops their bleeps [Credit: E. Bagshaw].

The ETracers stacked on small magnets. This temporarily stops their bleeps bleeps and is an efficient way of silencing them while we are listening for other ETracers [Credit: E. Bagshaw].

Armed with an antenna (see image of the week), radar receivers and what looked like small pink plastic baubles we set to work. The pink baubles are in fact the ETracers – small devices that contain temperature, pressure and conductivity sensors.  First, we used a 60m deep borehole that was drilled earlier in the season. In order to test the range of the Etracer we lowered one to the bottom of the hole. We set up the antenna and receiver at the surface, and started listening for the ETracer signal.  We were very pleased when the Etracer sensor happily chirped back informing us that it was below -30 degrees C at the bottom of the hole.

Our colleagues had also drilled several 12m boreholes for us, and we now installed ETracers at the bottom of the holes as well as on the surface. For over a month, the ETracers sent back information to our receivers on the ground about temperature, pressure and conductivity of the snow.

We are still analysing our data but the most important part of our work is done: we have shown that the ETracers can accurately measure the properties of the snow. Next year, we will return to the camp and set up more experiments. Stay tuned – or rather keep listening!

You can read more about setting up the EGRIP camp in a previous Image of the Week post “Ballooning on the Ice“.

Edited by Emma Smith and Sophie Berger

Image of the Week – Canyons Under The Greenland Ice Sheet!

Image of the Week – Canyons Under The Greenland Ice Sheet!

The Greenland Ice Sheet contains enough water to raise sea level by 7.36 meters (Bamber, et. al. 2013) and much of this moves from the interior of the continent into the oceans via Jakobshavn Isbræ – Greenland’s fastest flowing outlet glacier. An ancient river basin hidden beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet, discovered by researchers at the University of Bristol, may help explain the location, size and velocity of the modern Jakobshavn Isbræ. This Research also provides an insight into what past river drainage may have looked like in Greenland, and what it could look like in the future as the ice sheet retreats exposing more of the land underneath it.


The topography (i.e. shape) of the bedrock underneath the Greenland Ice Sheet exerts  a strong control on glacier ice flow , particularly  the direction  and velocity of ice flow. It also influences the  distribution of water and sediment  beneath the ice (see here for one reason why this is important). As well as this, studying the shape of the bed can provide a window into the past, to  help understand  historical  erosive processes, which allow scientists to understand the long-term evolution of the landscape, sometimes  they can even look back at what the land may have looked like before it was covered in ice. Building up this kind of picture allows researchers to  assess the interaction between the Greenland Ice Sheet and its bed and how this has evolved over great time-scales, which will further understanding of  how the ice dynamics have changed over time and what this might mean for the future.


As ice is mostly transparent to radio waves at certain frequencies, scientists can use ‘ice-penetrating radar,’ either from aircraft or on the ground, to measure ice thickness as the radio waves bounce back off the bedrock. Data of this kind have been collected over several decades by research teams across the world, with more recent missions being headed by NASA (through Operation Ice Bridge). Using these data, bedrock elevation maps have been produced for both Antarctica, and Greenland allowing researchers to interpret individual features and landscapes hidden beneath the ice.

What have they found beneath the ice?

Recent research has found large channels, or ‘canyons,’ present underneath both the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica (e.g. Bamber, et al. 2013; Jamieson, et al. 2016), and our image of this week adds to this picture of dramatic topography underneath the Greenland Ice Sheet (Figure 1). A huge ancient basin has been discovered in southern Greenland, showing signs of being carved by ancient rivers, prior to the extensive glaciation of Greenland (i.e. before the Greenland Ice Sheet existed), rather than being carved by the movement of ice itself. The size of the drainage basin the team discovered is very large, at around 450,000 km2, and accounts for about 20% of the total land area of Greenland (including islands). This is comparable to the size of the Ohio River drainage basin, which is the largest tributary of the Mississippi – or roughly twice the size of Great Britain. The channels the team mapped could more appropriately be called ‘canyons’, with relative depths of around 1,400 metres in places, and nearly 12 km wide, all hidden underneath the ice (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Ice-penetrating radargram cross-sections of some channels within the flow network, showing the size of the features hidden beneath the ice. The bed and surface have been identified: The dashed red line, shows bedrock depth relative to the ice surface, (the solid purple line). There is an exaggeration in the vertical by a factor of 13.

Figure 2: Ice-penetrating radargram cross-sections of some channels within the flow network, showing the size of the features hidden beneath the ice. The bed and surface have been identified: The dashed red line, shows bedrock depth relative to the ice surface, (the solid purple line). There is an exaggeration in the vertical by a factor of 13.

Take Home Message

As well as the basin being an interesting discovery of great size, the channel network and basin appears to be instrumental in influencing the flow of ice from the deep interior to the margin, both now and over several glacial cycles, and in particular controlling the location and speed of the Jakobshavn ice stream, which drains a huge amount of the Greenland Ice Sheet into the oceans. This discovery helps us to better understand why this area of Greenland contains such fast flowing ice and how this might evolve in the future.

For more details of this study check out the full paper:

Cooper, M. A., K. Michaelides, M. J. Siegert, and J. L. Bamber (2016), Paleofluvial landscape inheritance for Jakobshavn Isbræ catchment, Greenland, Geophys. Res. Lett., 43, doi:10.1002/2016GL069458.

(Edited by Emma Smith)

head_shot_mikeMichael Cooper is a PhD Student at the University of Bristol, UK. He Investigates what lies beneath the Greenland ice sheet using airborne ice-penetrating radar, to help further understanding of the inter-relationship between ice and the bed with reference to both contemporary and past ice dynamics. He tweets from @macooperr

Image of The Week – Ballooning on the Ice

Image of The Week – Ballooning on the Ice
A curious experiment is taking place in Greenland. An experiment involving very large balloons and – of course – a lot of snow. Read on to discover why balloons are an environmentally friendly tool when constructing an ice core drill camp.

Last year, a small team traversed 400km from northwest Greenland to the EastGRIP site (read more about the traverse here). This year another strenuous task is waiting: setting up the camp and getting everything ready to drill through the largest ice stream in Greenland: The North East Greenland Ice Stream.

What about the balloons then?

When drilling an ice core it is convenient to set up the drill in a place that is sheltered, so that the drilling operation is not hampered by bad weather. It is also best if the ice core is handled in areas where the temperature is not too high. The obvious solution is to dig out caves under the surface of the ice sheet. They provide both a shelter for the weather and a natural cold room. At previous camps, the underground caves or “trenches” have been constructed with wooden beams as a ceiling. However, after several years of snowfall the beams will start to collapse under the weight of the newly accumulated snow.

This year, scientists at the EastGRIP project are attempting a different and completely new approach. Relying on the fact that a dome-shaped ceiling is a very stable construction, the trenches are built using very large balloons. The construction process is quite simple although like all polar fieldwork it also requires hard work.

Pictures by S. Kipfstuhl combined to show the construction of the balloon trenches.

Pictures by S. Kipfstuhl combined to show the construction of the balloon trenches.

First, trenches are dug out of the snow with snowblowers. The balloons are then laid out in the trenches and inflated. Once they are fully inflated they are covered in snow and the snow is left to settle for a couple of days. The balloons are then deflated and beautiful caves appear. After a bit of tidying up, the caves can be outfitted with drills, equipment and other necessities.

A look into the beautiful caves left behind when the balloons were deflated. Credit: S. Kipfstuhl.

A look into the beautiful caves left behind when the balloons were deflated. Credit: S. Kipfstuhl.

And the environmentally-friendly part?

Transporting material into the middle of an ice-sheet is an expensive process that is done via aircrafts fitted with skis. The heavier the material the more fuel is needed for the transport. The wooden beams previously used are heavy and therefore require a lot fuel to transport. On the other hand, balloons are substantially lighter, can be reused for building new trenches and are not left behind as waste. An ingenious solution to a very unique problem!

The EastGRIP project is a lead by Centre for Ice and Climate, University of Copenhagen, Denmark with several international partners and air support from the US Office of Polar Programs, National Science Foundation. You can follow the camp on twitter for photos and updates on daily life on the @egripcamp twitter account.

A balloon ready to get inflated. Credit: S. Kipfstuhl.

A balloon ready to get inflated. Credit: S. Kipfstuhl.


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