Cryospheric Sciences

Imaggeo on Mondays: Polar backbone (Arctic Ocean)

Imaggeo on Mondays: Polar backbone (Arctic Ocean)

This image was taken during the Arctic Ocean 2016(AO16) expedition that ventured to the central regions of the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole. It shows a pressure ridge, or ice ridge, as viewed from onboard the deck of the icebreaker Oden. It was quite striking that the ice ridge resembled an image of a spine – sea ice being a defining characteristic of the broader Arctic environment and backbone to global climate interactions.

An ice ridge is a wall of broken ice that forms when floating ice is deformed by a build up of pressure between adjacent ice floes. Sea ice can drift quite quickly, and is driven by wind and ocean currents. Ridges are typically thicker than the surrounding level sea ice, being built up by ice blocks of different sizes. The submerged portion of the ridge is referred to as the “keel”, and the part above the water surface is called the “sail”. Ridges can be categorized as “first year” or “multi-year” features, with weathering affecting the morphology.

In the Arctic, such ridges have been measured to in excess of 20 m in thickness including keel and sail. As someone who studies plate tectonics, these collisional boundaries between plates of ice reminded me of a downscaled mountain-building setting.

The AO16 expedition ran from August to September 2016 and involved the Swedish icebreaker Oden and the Canadian icebreaker the Louis S. St-Laurent. A wealth of geological, oceanographic, meteorological data was collected. This period appeared to have coincided with the second lowest extent of sea ice coverage on record (tied with 2007), with around 4.14 million square kilometers.

The geological evolution of the Arctic Ocean in the regions closest to the margins of northern Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Islands are some of the most poorly understood. This is largely a function of the oceanic gyre system, which causes the thickest sea ice to build up in these areas making physical access difficult. From a maritime engineering perspective, the ice ridges pose a challenge and risk to icebreaking operations and navigation. Ice ridges may determine the design load for marine and coastal structures such as platforms, ships, pipelines and bridges, and are important for both ice volume estimations and for the strength of pack ice.

By Grace Shephard, geophysicist from the Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED) at the University of Oslo, Norway.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sneaking up from above

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sneaking up from above

Take some ice, mix in some rock, snow and maybe a little mud and the result is a rock glacier. Unlike ice glaciers (the ones we are most familiar with), rock glaciers have very little ice at the surface. Looking at today’s featured image, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Morenas Coloradas rock glacier wasn’t a glacier at all. But appearances can be misleading; as Jan Blöthe (a researcher at the University of Bonn) explains in today’s post.

The picture shows the Morenas Coloradas rock glacier, a pivotal example of actively creeping permafrost (ground that remains frozen for periods longer than two consecutive years) in the dry central Andes of Argentina. The rock glacier is located in the “Cordon del Plata” range, some 50 km east of the city of Mendoza.

The rock glacier fills the entire valley and slowly creeps downslope creating impressive lobes and tongues with steep fronts. With more than 4 km length, the Morenas Coloradas is one of the largest rock glaciers of the central Andes.

Taken from a drone, the picture looks straight up the rock glacier into the main amphitheatre-like valley formed by glacial erosion located at ~4500 m.a.s.l. From there, large amounts of loose debris are moved down the valley at speeds on the order of a few meters per year. The creeping process forms tongues of material that override each other, producing the characteristic surface with steps, ridges and furrows.

The central Andes of Argentina are semi-arid, receiving less than 500 mm of precipitation per year, mainly falling as snow during the winter. The region is famous for its wines, which are grow in the dry Andean foreland that is heavily dependent on meltwater from the mountains. How much of this meltwater is actually stored in ice-rich permafrost landforms is unknown.

As opposed to ice glaciers, rock glaciers show a delayed reaction to a changing climate, as large amounts of debris cover the ground ice, isolating it from rising air temperatures. With large areas located above the lower altitudinal limit of mountain permafrost of ~3600 m.a.s.l., the central Andes of Argentina might store significant amounts of water in the subsurface.

Using mainly near-surface geophysics, our research tries to quantify the water storage capacities in the very abundant and impressive rock glaciers of the region. The Morenas Coloradas rock glacier is of special importance in this regard, as first geophysical measurements date back to the 1980s. Since then, active layer thickness has dramatically increased in the lower parts of the rock glacier, indicating that also the ground ice of the permafrost domain of the central Andes is suffering under the currently warming climate.

A final remark: Thanks goes to the entire team of this research project, namely Christian Halla, Estefania Bottegal, Joachim Götz, Lothar Schrott, Dario Trombotto, Floreana Miesen, Lorenz Banzer, Julius Isigkeit, Henning Clemens, and Thorsten Höser.

By Jan Blöthe, University of Bonn, Germany

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2017 General Assembly

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2017 General Assembly

This month’s GeoRoundUp is a slight deviation from the norm. Instead of drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels and unique or quirky research featured in the news, we’ve rounded up some of the stories which came out of researcher presented at our General Assembly (which took place last week in Vienna). The traditional format for the column will return in May!

Major story

Artists often draw inspiration from the world around them when composing the scene for a major work of art. Retrospectively trying to understanding the meaning behind the imagery can be tricky.

This is poignantly true for Edvard Munch’s iconic ‘The Scream’. The psychedelic clouds depicted in the 18th Century painting have been attributed to Munch’s inner turmoil and a trouble mental state. Others argue that ash particles strewn in the atmosphere following the 1883 Krakatoa volcanic eruption are the reason for the swirly nature of the clouds represented in the painting.

At last week’s General Assembly, a team of Norwegian researchers presented findings which provide a new explanation for the origin of Munch’s colourful sky (original news item from AFP [Agence France-Presse): mother-of-pearl clouds. These clouds “appear irregularly in the winter stratosphere at high northern latitudes, about 20-30 km above the surface of the Earth,” explains Svein Fikke, lead author of the study, in the conference abstract.

“So far observed mostly in the Scandinavian countries, these clouds are formed of microscopic and uniform particles of ice, orientated into thin clouds. When the sun is below the horizon (before sunrise or after sunset), these clouds are illuminated in a surprisingly vibrant way blazing across the sky in swathes of red, green, blue and silver. They have a distinctive wavy structure as the clouds are formed in the lee-waves behind mountains”, writes Hazel Gibson (EGU General Assembly Press Assistant) in a post published on GeoLog following a press conference at the meeting in Vienna (which you can watch here).

With coverage in just over 200 news items, this story was certainly one of the most popular of the meeting. Read more about the study in the full research paper, out now.

What you might have missed

Also (typically) formed in the downside of mountains and in the conference spotlight were föhn winds. The warm and dry winds have been found to be a contributing factor that weakens ice shelves before a collapse.

Ice shelf collapse has been in the news recently on account of fears of a large crack in the Larsen C Ice Shelf generating a huge iceberg.  Though the exact causes for crack generation on ice shelves remain unclear, new research presented by British Antarctic Survey scientists at the conference in Vienna highlighted that föhn winds accelerate melting at the ice shelf surface.  They also supply water which, as it drains into the cracks, deepens and widens them.

Meanwhile, deep under ocean waters, great gouge marks left behind on the seafloor as ancient icebergs dragged along seabed sediments have been collected into an Atlas of Submarine Glacial Landforms, published by the Geological Society of London. The collection of maps sheds light on the past behaviour of ice and can give clues as to how scientists might expect ice sheets to respond to a changing climate.

Drumlins (elongate hills aligned with the ice flow direction) from the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea. Credit: Atlas of Submarine Glacial Landforms/BAS

Closer to the Earth’s surface, groundwater also attracted its fair share of attention throughout the meeting. It’s hardly surprising considering groundwater is one of the greatest resources on the planet, globally supplying approximately 40% of the water used for irrigation of crops and providing drinking water for billions around the world. ‘Fossil’ groundwater, which accumulated 12,000 years ago was once thought to be buried too deep below the Earth’s surface to be under threat from modern contaminants, but a new study presented during the General Assembly has discovered otherwise.

Up to 85% of the water stored in the upper 1 km of the Earth’s outermost rocky layer contains fossil groundwater. After sampling some 10,000 wells, researchers found that up to half contained tritium, a signature of much younger waters. Their presence means that present-day pollutants carried in the younger waters can infiltrate fossil groundwater. The study recommends this risk is considered when managing the use of fossil waters in the future.

Links we liked

News from elsewhere

The spectacular end to the Cassini mission has featured regularly in this month’s bulletins.

During its 13 years in orbit, Cassini has shed light on Saturn’s complex ring system, discovered new moons and taken measurements of the planet’s magnetosphere. On September 15th,  the  mission will end when the probe burns up in Saturn’s atmosphere.

On 22 April, the final close flyby of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, propelled the Cassini spacecraft across the planet’s main rings and into its Grand Finale series of orbits. This marks the start of the final and most audacious phase of the mission as the spacecraft dives between the innermost rings of Saturn and the outer atmosphere of the planet to explore a region never before visited; the first of 22 ring plane crossings took place on 26 April.You can watch a new movie which shows the view as the spacecraft swooped over Saturn during the dive here.

For an overview of highlights from the mission and updates from the ring-grazing orbits that began in November 2016 watch this webstream from a press conference with European Space Agency scientists at the General Assembly last week.

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Imaggeo on Mondays: An epic ‘house’ move across the ice

Imaggeo on Mondays: An epic ‘house’ move across the ice

In 2008 the NEEM Deep Ice Core Project was initiated by 14 partner countries in Northwestern Greenland (camp position 77.45°N 51.06°W) with the aim to drill from the very top of the  Greenland ice cap to its base; obtaining  ice from as far back as the last interglacial period- the Eemian – some 130,000 years old.

At the start of the 2008 field season, the NEEM camp consisted of a single heavy-duty tent, some vehicles, and a skiway. Over the summer months, the facilities could host up to 30 researchers at a time. Extra heavy duty tents were built to accommodate everyone comfortably. However to further ease the work of the many researchers who contributed to the project over several years and to create a common space, ‘the dome’ was build. Spread over three stories, the round black building included a kitchen and eating space on the ground floor, a working and relaxing area on the first floor for and a top floor for observing weather conditions before incoming flights.

After three summers of drilling through the icecap, bedrock was reached in 2010 and the Eemian ice was secured.

The 2011 season was spent on surface programs and some drilling into bedrock. Finally, in 2012 the deep ice core drilling project NEEM was terminated and camp was dismantelled.  Most of the heavy equipment was left on the NEEM site with supplies and equipment stored inside the main dome, in two garages, and on seven heavy sleds. The large dome was put on skis with the intention of moving it to the next drilling site, though exactly where was yet to be determined and  funds also needed to be secured.

In 2015, a group of 12 people, including myself, travelled back to the NEEM site. We packed down the the garages and stored them on sledges, we removed 3 years’ worth of accumulated snow (~1.5 m) from the sledges packed in 2012 and from the 45 ton main dome, and finally made the whole lot ready for moving.  Using specialist snowploughs (known as a PistenBully, sponsored by NSF ) we relocated to our new drilling site, EastGRIP at the North East Greenland Ice Stream (NEGIS).

The trip began on Monday 18th May in the afternoon. Progress was slow. By 20.30 the traverse consisting of 8 vehicles had traveled 24 km along the ice flow divide towards the south-east, towing an incredible  143 tonnes worth of equipment, not including the weight of the vehicles themselves.

After an arduous eight day traverse, on 26th May the convoy made the last 53 km of the journey and arrived at EastGRIP in the afternoon. On arrival, the team only had 3000 litres of fuel left, which would have only supported the traverse for one more day. The total route travelled was 449 km.

The focus of the work at the new ice core camp at EastGRIP is different to that of the NEEM project. While the overall aim is to also drill to the bottom of the Greenland ice sheet, this time the goal is to understand the fast flowing ice at NEGIS.

Ice streams, such as NEGIS, are responsible for draining a significant fraction of the ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet. By drilling to the bottom of the ice sheet the project hopes to gain new and fundamental information on ice stream dynamics, thereby improving the understanding of how ice streams will contribute to future sea-level change. The drilled core will also provide a new record of past climatic conditions from the northeastern part of the Greenland Ice Sheet which will be analysed at numerous laboratories worldwide. Similar to NEEM the 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.

By Helle Astrid Kjær, researcher at the Niels Bohr Institute,  University of Copenhagen


Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at


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