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Mapping the bottom of the world — an Interview with Brad Herried, Antarctic Cartographer

Mapping the bottom of the world — an Interview with Brad Herried, Antarctic Cartographer

Mapping Earth’s most remote continent presents a number of unique challenges. Antarctic cartographers and scientists are using some of the most advanced mapping technologies available to get a clearer picture of the continent. We asked Brad Herried, a Cartographer and Web Developer at the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota, a few questions about what it’s like to do this unique job both on and off the ice.

Before we go too much further… what is the Polar Geospatial Center, and what does it do for polar science and scientists?

The Polar Geospatial Center (PGC), founded in 2007 by Director Paul Morin, is a research group of about 20 staff and students at the University of Minnesota with a simple mission: solve geospatial problems at the poles (Antarctica and the Arctic). Because we are funded (primarily) through the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA Cryospheric Sciences, that is the community we support – other U.S.-funded polar researchers. We provide custom maps, high-resolution commercial satellite imagery, and Geographic Information System (GIS) support for researchers who would like to use the data for their research but may not have the expertise to do so.

Our primary service is providing high-resolution satellite imagery (i.e. from the DigitalGlobe, Inc. constellation) to U.S.-funded polar researchers – at no additional cost to their grants – through licensing agreements with the U.S. Government. It has proven beneficial to researchers to have a service so that we do the hard parts of data management, remote sensing, and automation of satellite imagery processing so that they don’t have to. So, a glaciologist or geomorphologist or wildlife ecologist studying at the poles may come to us and say: I would like to use satellite imagery to study phenomenon x or y. Some groups use it just for logistics (these are some of the least mapped places on Earth after all) to get to their site. Some groups’ entire research is done using remote sensing.

What kinds of data and resources do you use?

The PGC’s polar archive of high-resolution commercial imagery is absolutely astounding (like, in the thousands of terabytes). The imagery, although licensed to us by U.S. Government contracts, is collected by the DigitalGlobe, Inc. constellation of satellites (e.g. WorldView-2), much like the imagery where you can see your house/car in Google Earth. The benefit is that we can provide it at no cost to our users (researchers). That resource, along with the expertise of the staff at PGC, can provide solutions to users, whether it’s making a simple map of a remote research site or providing a time-series of satellite imagery for a researcher studying change detection (like, say for a glacier front in Greenland).

This also presents a challenge. How do we manage and effectively deliver that much data? We have relied on skilled staff, ingenuity, cheap storage, high-performance computing, and automation to become successful.

As the saying goes, automate or die.

What’s your role at the PGC? How did you find your way into a job like this?

I started at the PGC as a graduate student in 2008. I knew nothing about Antarctica or the Arctic, but my background and studies in GIS & cartography offered a wide range of jobs. After I graduated, I became a full-time employee as the lead cartographer of the (at the time, very small) group. Currently, I do a lot more GIS web application development and geospatial data management. We have recognized the need for more automated, “self-service” systems for our users to get the data they need in a timely manner, and less of asking a PGC employee for a custom product. As the saying goes, automate or die. But, of course, I still spend a fair bit of my times creating maps to keep my cartographic juices going.

Antarctica and the South Polar Regions. Map from the American explorer Richard Byrd’s second expedition in 1933. [Credit: Byrd Antarctic Expeditions]

What kind of work do PGC employees do in Antarctica?

The PGC staffs an office at the United States’ McMurdo Station annually from October to February, with 3-5 staff rotating throughout the field season. It is really an extension of our responsibilities, with a couple interesting twists, both good and bad. First, a majority of our users (NSF-funded researchers) come through McMurdo Station in preparation for their fieldwork. It’s a beneficial and unique experience to meet with them one-on-one and solve problems, ironically, faster than email exchanges back in the States. Second – and this is true of all of Antarctica – the internet bandwidth is very limited. So, we have to a) prepare more regarding what data/imagery we have on site and b) do more with less. That always proves to be a fun challenge because it is impossible to access our entire archive of imagery from down there.

How could I forget collecting Google Street View in Antarctica.

There have been several years, however, when we do get to go out into the field! In past years, we have conducted various field campaigns in the nearby McMurdo Dry Valleys to collect survey ground control to make our satellite imagery more accurate. And, how could I forget collecting Google Street View (with some custom builds of the typical car-camera system for snowmobiles, heavy-duty trucks, and backpacks). The Google Street View provides a window into the world of Antarctica – history, facilities, science, and of course its beautiful landscapes – to a wide audience who only dream of visiting Antarctica.

Brad on a snowmobile collecting Google Street View imagery [Credit: Brad Herried]

What are some of the interesting projects PGC has worked on? What’s exciting at PGC right now?

The PGC does a lot to contribute to polar mapping. There’s not exactly a ton of geospatial data or maps for the polar regions, especially Antarctica. What data or maps there are, it is not often of very high quality. For example, there are regions of Antarctica (especially in inland East Antarctica) which have not been properly mapped or surveyed since the 1960s. Those maps offer little help if you’re trying to land an aircraft in the area. So, PGC has done a lot to improve that geospatial data including creating more accurate coastlines, improving geographic coordinates of named features (sometimes the location can be off by 10s of kilometers!), organizing historic aerial photography, and digitizing map collections. These are important to have, but it all changes when you can collect data 100 times more accurate with satellites…

There’s not exactly a ton of geospatial data or maps for the polar regions, especially Antarctica.

Where it gets really interesting is how we can apply our archive of satellite imagery to help researchers solve problems or come up with cutting-edge solutions with the data. One example is the ArcticDEM project. In a private-public collaboration, PGC is using high performance computing (HPC) to develop a pan-Arctic Digital Elevation Model (DEM) at a resolution 10 times better than what exists now. This project requires hundreds of thousands of stereoscopic satellite imagery pairs to be processed using photogrammetry techniques to build a three-dimensional model of the surface for the entire Arctic. There are countless more applications for the imagery and we’ll continue to push the limits of the technology to produce innovative products to help measure the Earth and solve really important research questions.

ArcticDEM hillshade in East Greenland. DEM(s) created by the Polar Geospatial Center from DigitalGlobe, Inc. imagery. [Credit: Brad Herried/ Polar Geospatial Center].


What resources can cryosphere researchers and other polar scientists without US funding get from PGC to enhance their research?

Our website provides a wealth of non-licensed data, freely available to download. That includes our polar map catalog (with over 2,000 historic maps of the polar regions), aerial photography, and elevation data. The ArcticDEM project I mentioned before is freely available (see, as are all DEMs created (derived) from the optical imagery. Moreover, we work with the international community on a regular basis to continue mapping efforts across both poles.


What advice do you have for students interested in a career in science or geospatial science?

This might be a little bit of a tangent, but learn to code. I was trained in cartography ten years ago and we hardly touched the command line. Now? You certainly don’t have to be an expert, say, Python programmer, but you’re behind if you don’t know how to automate some of your tasks, data processing, analysis, or other routine workflows. It allows you to focus on the things you’re actually an expert in (and, employers are most certainly looking for these skills).

ArcticDEM hillshade of Columbia Glacier, Alaska. DEM(s) created by the Polar Geospatial Center from DigitalGlobe, Inc. imagery. [Credit: Brad Herried/ Polar Geospatial Center].

Personally, what has been the highlight of your time at PGC so far?

I will never forget the first time I stepped off the plane landing in Antarctica as a graduate student. A surreal, breathtaking (literally), and completely foreign feeling. To be able to experience the most remote places on Earth first-hand naturally leads to a better understanding of them. So, the highlight for me is this: I find myself asking more questions, talking to the preeminent researchers and students about their work, and discovering the purpose of it all. I may be a small piece in the puzzle of understanding our Earth’s poles, but I’m humbled to be a part.

Interview and Editing by George Roth, Additional Editing by Sophie Berger

Image of the Week – A new way to compute ice dynamic changes

Fig. 1: Map of ice velocity from the NASA MEaSUREs Program showing the region of Enderby Land in East Antarctica [Credit: Fig. 1 from Kallenberg et al. (2017) ].

Up to now, ice sheet mass changes due to ice dynamics have been computed from satellite observations that suffer from sparse coverage in time and space. A new method allows us to compute these changes on much wider temporal and spatial scales. But how does this method work? Let us discover the different steps by having a look at Enderby Land in East Antarctica, for which ice velocities are shown in our Image of the Week…

Mass balance of ice sheets

The mass balance of an ice sheet is the difference between the mass gain of ice, primarily through snowfall, and the mass loss of ice, primarily via meltwater runoff and ice dynamic processes (e.g. iceberg calving, melting below ice shelves). When the mass gain is equal to the mass loss, the ice sheet is in balance. However, if one exceeds the other, the ice sheet either gains or loses mass.

Measuring mass balance changes of ice sheets is crucial due to their potential contribution to sea level rise (see previous post). You can have a look at this nice review for further details about the recent changes in the mass balance of the two biggest ice sheets on Earth, i.e. Antarctica and Greenland.

Ice mass changes from snowfall and meltwater runoff (what we call ‘surface mass balance’ changes) are reasonably well simulated by regional climate models, which give good agreement with observations (see this study for Antarctica and this one for Greenland). Mass changes from ice dynamics are more complex to obtain. They are commonly estimated by combining ice velocity and ice thickness. Ice velocity is measured via satellite radar interferometry, while ice thickness is obtained thanks to airborne radar. Unfortunately, these measurements have sparse temporal and spatial coverage, especially in Antarctica, which makes the computation of mass changes from ice dynamics challenging.

A new method to estimate ice dynamic changes

Kallenberg et al. (2017) conducted a study focussing on Enderby Land in East Antarctica (see our Image of the Week) in which they use a novel approach to estimate ice dynamic changes. This region of Antarctica has experienced a slightly positive mass balance in past years, meaning that the ice sheet has slightly thickened in this region.

Kallenberg et al. (2017) first used satellite observations to compute the total changes in ice sheet mass. They took advantage of two high-technology datasets. The first one, “Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment” (GRACE), measures changes in the Earth’s gravity field, from which ice mass changes can be derived. A summary explaining how GRACE works can be found in this previous post. The second satellite dataset, “Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite” (ICESat), measures changes in ice surface elevation, from which changes in ice mass can be computed by using ice density.

However, Kallenberg et al. (2017) were not interested in the total ice mass changes, as obtained from GRACE and ICESat satellites, but rather in ice dynamic changes. They subtracted two quantities from the total mass changes in order to obtain the remaining dynamic changes:

  1. Surface mass balance changes: changes from processes happening at the surface of the ice sheet (e.g. snow accumulation, meltwater runoff). These changes were obtained from model simulations using the Regional Atmospheric Climate Model (RACMO2), for which details can be found in this previous post.
  2. Glacial Isostatic Adjustment: changes in land topography due to ice loading and unloading. These changes were computed from Glacial Isostatic Adjustment models.

What does this study tell us?

The results of this study show that it is possible to compute changes in ice mass resulting from ice dynamics with higher spatial and temporal coverage than before, using a combination of satellite observations and models.

Also, the use of two different satellite datasets (GRACE and ICESat) shows that they agree quite well with each other in the region of Enderby Land (see Fig. 2). This means that using one or the other dataset does not make a big difference.

Finally, this new method also shows that differences between GRACE and ICESat reduce when using the newer version of RACMO2 for computing surface mass balance changes. This tells us that comparing results of ice dynamics from both satellites with different models is a good way to identify which models correctly simulate surface processes and which models do not.

Fig. 2: Ice dynamic changes (dH/dt, where H is ice thickness and t is time) computed from (a) GRACE and (b) ICESat and expressed in meters per year [Credit: Fig. 5 from Kallenberg et al. (2017) ].

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard and Emma Smith

David Docquier is a post-doctoral researcher at the Earth and Life Institute of Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium. He works on the development of processed-based sea-ice metrics in order to improve the evaluation of global climate models (GCMs). His study is embedded within the EU Horizon 2020 PRIMAVERA project, which aims at developing a new generation of high-resolution GCMs to better represent the climate.

Image of the Week – Summer is fieldwork season at EastGRIP!

Image of the Week – Summer is fieldwork season at EastGRIP!

As the days get very long, summer is a popular season for conducting fieldwork at high latitudes. At the North East Greenland Ice Stream (NEGIS), the East Greenland Ice-core Project (EastGRIP) is ongoing. Several scientists are busy drilling an ice core through the ice sheet to the very bottom, in continuation to previous years (see here and here). This year, amongst others, several members from the European Research Council (ERC) supported synergy project ice2ice are taking part in the work at EastGRIP. Besides sleeping in the barracks that can be seen in our Image of the Week, the scientists enjoy the international and interdisciplinary setting and, of course, the work in a deep ice core drilling camp…

Life at the EastGRIP camp

In total, 22 people live in the camp (see Fig.2): 1 field leader, 5 ice core drillers, 4 ice core loggers, 3 people working with the physical properties of the ice, 2 are doing continuous water isotope analysis, 2 surface science scientists, 2 field assistants, and 1 mechanic, 1 electrical engineer and most important an excellent cook. We cover a variety of nationalities: British, Czech, Danish, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and more. The crew changes every four weeks and the EastGRIP project aims to get as many young scientists (Master and PhD students) into camp as possible, so that it also works as a learning environment for new generations. In total, the number of people that have and will spent time at EastGRIP this season is almost 100, making it a buzzing science hub. This environment leads to extensive science discussions over the dinner table and therefore facilitates the interdisciplinary connections so vital in ice core science.

Fig.2: The current crew at EastGRIP dressed up for the Saturday party (tie and dress obligatory!) [Credit: EastGRIP diaries].

Science at the EastGRIP camp

The main aim of the EastGRIP project is to retrieve an ice core by drilling through the North East Greenland Ice Stream (NEGIS) up to a depth of 2550 m (!). Ice streams are responsible for draining a significant fraction of the ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet (see Fig. 3). We hope to gain new and fundamental information on ice stream dynamics from the project, thereby improving the understanding of how ice streams will contribute to future sea-level change. The EastGRIP project has many international partners and is managed by the Centre for Ice and Climate, Denmark with air support carried out by US ski-equipped Hercules aircraft managed through the US Office of Polar Programs, National Science Foundation.

Fig. 3: Ice velocities from RADARSAT synthetic aperture radar data are shown in color and illustrate the wedge of fast-flowing ice that begins right at the central ice divide and cuts through the ice sheet to feed into the ocean through three large ice streams (Nioghalvfjerds isstrømmen, Zachariae isbræ, and Storstrømmen). [Credit: EastGRIP, data from Joughin et al., 2010]

Currently, four Norwegian and Danish scientists from the ice2ice project have joined the EastGRIP project to conduct field work at the ice core drilling site. The ice2ice project focuses on how land ice and sea ice influence each other in past, present, and future. Thus, being at the EastGRIP site is a great opport

unity for us in ice2ice to learn more about how the fast-flowing ice stream in North East Greenland may influence the stability of the Greenland ice cap and to enjoy the collaborative spirit at an ice core drilling site.


This year’s fieldwork at EastGRIP started in May and will continue until August. We aim to make it through the brittle zone of the ice. This is a zone where the gas bubbles get enclosed in the ice crystals and thus the ice is, as the name indicates, more brittle than at other depths. Unfortunately for us, the brittle zone makes it very hard to retrieve the ice in a great quality. This is because of the pressure difference between the original depth of the ice and the surface, that causes the ice to fracture when it arrives at the surface. We are doing our very best to stabilize the core and several optimizations in terms of both drilling and processing of the ice core are being applied.

Fig. 4: Cross-section view of an ice core [Credit: Helle Astrid Kjær].

Still, a large part of the core can already be investigated (see Fig. 4) for water isotopes to get information about past climate. Also, ice crystals directions are being investigated through thin slices of the ice core to help better understanding the flow of the NEGIS. On top of the deep ice core, which is to be drilled to bedrock over the coming years, we are doing an extensive surface program to look at accumulation changes.

In the large white plains…

Despite all the fun science and people, when you are at EastGRIP for more than 4 weeks, you have a very similar landscape everyday and can miss seeing something else than just the great white. About a week ago, a falcon came by to remind us of the rest of the world (see Fig. 5). It flew off after a couple of days. We will follow its path to the greener parts of Greenland when we will soon fly down to Kangerlussuaq. Someone else will then take over our job at EastGRIP and enjoy the wonders of white…

Fig.5: Visit of a falcon [Credit: Helle Astrid Kjær].

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard

Helle Astrid Kjær is a postdoc at the Centre for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute at University of Copenhagen. When she is not busy in the field drilling and logging ice cores, she spends most of her time in the lab retrieving the climate signal from ice cores. These include volcanic events, sea salts, dust with more by means of Continuous Flow Analaysis (CFA). Further she is hired to manage the ice2ice project.

Image of the Week — High altitudes slow down Antarctica’s warming

Elevations in Antarctica. The average altitude is about 2,500m. [Credit: subset of Fig 5 from Helm et al (2014)]

When it comes to climate change, the Arctic and the Antarctic are poles apart. At the north of the planet, temperatures are increasing twice as fast as in the rest of the globe, while warming in Antarctica has been milder. A recent study published in Earth System Dynamics shows that the high elevation of Antarctica might help explain why the two poles are warming at different speeds.

The Arctic vs the Antarctic

At and around the North Pole, in the Arctic, the ice is mostly frozen ocean water, also known as sea ice, which is only a few meters thick. In the Antarctic, however, the situation is very different: the ice forms not just over sea, but over a continental land mass with rugged terrain and high mountains. The average height in Antarctica is about 2,500 metres, with some mountains rising as high as 4,900 metres.

A flat Antarctica would warm faster

Mount Jackson in the Antarctic Peninsula reaches an altitude of 3,184 m  [Credit: euphro via Flickr]

Marc Salzmann, a scientist working at the University of Leipzig in Germany, decided to use a computer model to find out what would happen if the elevation in Antarctica was more like in the Arctic. He discovered that, if Antarctica were flat, there would be more warm air flowing from the equator to the poles, which would make the Antarctic warm faster.

As Antarctica warms and ice melts, it is actually getting flatter as time goes by, even if very slowly. As such, over the next few centuries or thousands of years, we could expect warming in the region to speed up.

Reference/further reading

planet_pressThis is modified version of a “planet press” article written by Bárbara Ferreira and originally published on 18 May 2017 on the EGU website
(a Serbian version is also available, why not considering adding a new language to the list? 🙂 )

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 – Ice Flows!

Image of The Week – Ice Flows!

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

The game in a nutshell!

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

What is the educational message?

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

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

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

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

Developing the game…

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

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

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

— Steph Cornford

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

Further reading

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

Edited by Emma Smith

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

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

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 – It’s all a bit erratic in Yosemite!

Image of the Week – It’s all a bit erratic in Yosemite!

When you think of California, with its sun-soaked beaches and Hollywood glamour, glaciers may not be the first thing that spring to mind – even for ice nerds like us. However, Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada is famous for its dramatic landscape, which was created by glacial action. With our latest image of the week we show you some of the features that were left behind by ancient glaciers.

What do we see here?

Although Yosemite is now largely glacier-free the imprint of large-scale glaciation is evident everywhere you look. During the last glacial maximum (LGM), around 26,000 to 18,000 years ago, much of North America was covered in ice. Evidence of this can be seen in the strange landscape, shown in our image of the week. The bedrock surface in this area is polished and smoothed due to a huge ice mass that was moving over it, crushing anything in it’s path. When this ice mass melted rocks and stones it transported were released from the ice and left strewn on the smoothed bedrock surface. These abandoned rocks and stones are know as glacial erratics. Some of these erratics will have travelled from far-away regions to their resting place today.

During the last glacial maximum (LGM), around 26,000 to 18,000 years ago, much of North America was covered in ice.

Glaciers that still remain!

There are still two glaciers in Yosemite, Lyell and Maclure, residing in the highest peaks of the National Park. Park rangers have been monitoring them since the 1930s (Fig. 2), so there is a comprehensive record of how they have changed over this period. Sadly, as with many other glaciers around the world this means a huge amount mass has been lost – read more about it here!

Figure 2: Survey on Maclure Glacier by park rangers in the 1930s [Credit: National Parks Service]

On a more cheerful note – Here at the EGU Cryosphere Blog we think it is rather fantastic that the park rangers of the 1930s conducted fieldwork in a suit, tie and wide-brimmed hat and we are hoping some of you might be encouraged to bring this fashion back! 😀

If you do please make sure to let us know, posting it on social media an tagging us @EGU_CR! Here are a few more ideas of historical “fieldwork fashion” to wet your appetite: Danish explorers in polar bear suits, 1864-65 Belgian-Dutch Antarctic Expedition and of course Shackleton’s Endurance expedition!

Imaggeo, what is it?

You like this image of the week? Good news, you are free to re-use it in your presentation and publication because it comes from Imaggeo, the EGU open access image repository.