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Image of the Week – Cure from the Cold?

Image of the Week – Cure from the Cold?

Humans rely on antibiotics for survival, but over time they are becoming less effective. So-called ‘superbugs’ are developing resistance to our most important drugs. The key to this global issue may be found in the cryosphere, where extreme microbiologists are hunting for new compounds in the cold that could help us win the war against antimicrobial resistance.


Discovering drugs in Earth’s coldest places

Antimicrobial resistance poses a global threat predicted to cause 10 million deaths per year by 2050.

Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery of penicillin- a compound produced from a fungus had an antimicrobial effect transformed life expectancy in the 20th century and kick-started the antibiotic revolution. Since then, most antibiotic drugs have been extracted from soil-dwelling microbes such as bacteria and fungi.

We can exploit these compounds produced by microbes to limit the growth of other microbes that are harmful to humans. The chemical structure of these compounds forms the basis of most antibiotics used today to treat microbial infections. However, soil has become an exhausted environment for drug discovery and researchers are turning to other environments in the search for new antimicrobial drugs.

One of these environments is the cryosphere, where diverse habitats in snow, glaciers, ice sheets and sea ice are dominated by microbes. Multiple stresses such as low temperature, high UV intensity, limited nutrient availability and variable salinity mean this extreme environment naturally favours only the hardiest microbes. In order to thrive, it is likely that microbes produce a variety of chemical warfare against their competitors, making the cryosphere a potentially rich reserve for bioprospecting new antimicrobial compounds.

Glacier microbes: all grown up!

Cultivation (growing microbes in a nutrient-containing growth medium in the laboratory) is a valuable technique for discovering new antimicrobial drugs because it allows scientists to take microbes from the environment and grow them in controlled conditions. In the cryosphere, glacier microbiologists have previously shown that many of the cultivable bacteria from these environments demonstrate potent antimicrobial activity. At least 219 novel natural products have been discovered thus far in polar organisms. In the face of widespread glacier and ice sheet melting, microbiologists must move quickly to find and cultivate these potential ‘cures from the cold’.

Fig. 2: A range of different single colonies isolated from a dilute sample of cryoconite, collected from the Foxfonna glacier, Svalbard in 2016. Samples have been grown on a range of different growth mediums [Credit: A. Debbonaire].

Microbial wars help humanity

Once bacteria have grown, we can exploit them. Any weaponry they produce to fend off competition can be extracted and tested against other microbes. We can assess their array of weapons by placing the growing bacteria under different stresses and seeing what compounds they produce to counteract it. Moreover, bacteria can be grown alongside other bacteria/fungi, increasing the likelihood that they fight each other by producing new chemical warfare that we can then use (Figure 3).

We can also test how powerful these weapons of microbial war are using a simple 24-hour test. By adding them to known concentrations of harmful bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus (think MRSA) we can then monitor the bacterial growth over time after adding the potential antibiotic compounds. Little growth indicates that the new compounds are wreaking havoc and inhibiting growth – we have a new defence!

Fig. 3: Microbes grown from glacier samples compete with one another in a biochemical arms race [Credit: A. Debbonaire].

Cultivation’s “1% problem”

Cultivation is not the only way to bioprospect in the cold, especially because only 1% of the total microbial diversity of an environment is able to grow on growth media, meaning 99% of that diversity goes undiscovered. Our alternative is a technique known as metagenomics, which has been increasingly applied in the cryosphere over the past few years.

Metagenomics is an expensive but fast method of sequencing all DNA within an environmental sample to identify the microbial population that has been demonstrated to be extremely useful for glacier surface ecosystems and can even now be achieved on-site in extreme locations in the cryosphere in a relatively short time. However, metagenomics will only identify which microbes are present, not necessarily their capability, or more importantly, what compounds they produce when under stress. Both techniques combined are now applicable to exploring the cryosphere and provide the most robust approach to drug discovery in the cryosphere. In the war of microbe versus microbe, metagenomics shows which weapons may, or may not, be used; but cultivation provides a detailed analysis of the battle plan.

In summary…

The battle against drug-resistant microbes may be one of the major challenges facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Traditional sites for drug-discovery are being exhausted and researchers are turning to Earth’s coldest reaches to find stressed-out microbes that could provide us with new weaponry to fight the emerging ‘superbugs’. In this melting biome, researchers must act fast to gather the ‘cures from the cold’, exploiting the microbial life in the cryosphere to tackle a global threat to humanity.

 

Further reading

Edited by Joe Cook and Clara Burgard


Aliyah Debbonaire is a PhD student at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Environmental Microbiology (Aberystwyth University). Her research aims to bioprospect extreme environments for life-saving drug candidates. She tweets as @Gnarliyah.

Image of the Week – Why is ice colourful?

Image of the Week – Why is ice colourful?

When you think of glacier ice, what colour first springs to mind? Maybe white, blue or transparent? Well, glacier ice can, in fact, be mesmerising and multi-coloured! Our image of the week shows thin sections of glacier ice under polarised light. These sections were cut from block samples of two Alpine glaciers in Switzerland (Chli Titlis and Grenzgletscher).  


In these images the individual ice crystals (Fig. 1 ) can be easily distinguished due to the different colours (see previous post about sea ice) and most of them are large (Fig. 1 ) due to the relatively high temperature of the glaciers they originate from; ice crystals grow faster at high temperatures, close to zero!

Now we know the answer to “what is the colour of ice?” can not be simply answered with “transparent”, the obvious follow-up question is:

Why is ice colourful?

While ice is, of course, transparent (Fig. 2 ) – when we see it as icicles on the roof, as fern frost on a window or as ice cubes in our gin and tonic, it can have any colour – if you look at it in special light – polarised light (Fig. 3 ).

Figure 2: A thin section of ice (~0.3 mm thick) appears transparent under normal light conditions [Credit: Johanna Kerch]

Linearly polarised light is produced by putting a filter in front of a light source. Before being polarised, the light is an electromagnetic wave that vibrates in many directions. The polarising filter, which looks a bit like a very small picket fence, only lets light through that vibrates in the direction of the “gaps in the fence”. If we have two such filters and put them in a row, but rotate the second filter by 90° no light will come through because polarised light from the first filter will not fit through the gaps at the second filter. However, if we put a very thin slice of glacier ice between the two filters we begin to see the colours!

This effect can be observed because ice is birefringent. This means, that light travelling through the ice is split into two parts by the crystal structure of the ice. To help you understand, we have created this analogy: imagine a pair of children who enter a forest side-by-side and hand-in-hand, but they split up to travel through the forest. One part of the light (one child) can travel faster than the other because, it is interacting less with the crystal lattice (less dense part of the forest) . At the end of their separated journey through the ice sample the two parts of light recombine (children are hand-in-hand again), but because they were travelling at different speeds they will be out of phase, meaning the recombined light will have a different polarisation than it did when it entered the ice after passing through the first polariser (one child will be a bit behind the other, rather than side-by-side). Only in case where the new polarisation is 90° rotated can the light pass through the second filter.

Figure 3: Left: transparent ice thin section (0.3 mm thick) on a glass plate during measurement viewed from the side without polarisers. Right: thin section between two polarisers shows crystals in ice section in different colours [Credit: Johanna Kerch].

However, it gets a bit more complicated, white light is a collection of lots of different waves with different wave lengths,  which corresponds to different colours (shorter wave lengths are bluish, longer wave lengths are reddish and in between there is yellow-green). Each of these wave lengths is split up (as described above) when entering the ice sample. So each wave length has two waves travelling with different speeds (imagine a whole group of children who arrive at the forest in pairs, hand-in-hand, forced to split up to go through the forest single file). After exiting the ice sample, the two parts for each wave length recombine (children are back in pairs), and each pair of of waves, at a given wave length has a new polarisation direction. Not all of them can pass the second filter, only those wave lengths where the new polarisation is 90° rotated. Therefore, instead of white light only light of specific colours completes it’s journey through the second filter, to be seen by the observer – all the other colours are swallowed (all the children that don’t make it are eaten by wild animals in the forest!!). Because different crystals in a slice of glacier ice are oriented in various directions, they exert different amounts of birefringence on the light passing through them, this means they appear in different colours when viewed through the second polarising filter (Fig. 3 ). So…that’s cool and allowed us to make a wild analogy about children in a forest, but why is this scientifically useful?

Polarisation Microscopy

The technique by which we examine the ice between crossed polarisers to map the different crystals is called polarisation microscopy. The multi-coloured images of thin ice slices allow us to understand the orientation of the individual crystals, which is important to understand the mechanical properties of glacier ice – but this is another story, for another blog post.

Right, now we have to go and rescue some children from a forest!

Further Reading

Personal note on outreach:

From my experience in the ice laboratory most people, especially children, are immediately captured by the birefringence effect in ice. It’s a great starting point to get them interested in glaciological issues!

Edited by Emma Smith


Johanna Kerch is a postdoctoral researcher at Alfred-Wegener-Institute in Bremerhaven. Her research focus is on crystal-preferred orientation and microstructure of glacier ice and how it links to other physical properties in ice and the deformation mechanisms in glacier ice. She has studied cold and temperate glacier ice from various sites in the Alps and has recently been involved in making measurements of the physical properties of the EGRIP ice core. She tweets as @JohannaKerch.

Image of the week — Making pancakes

A drifting SWIFT buoy surrounded by new pancake floes. [Credit: Maddie Smith]

It’s pitch black and twenty degrees below zero; so cold that the hairs in your nose freeze. The Arctic Ocean in autumn and winter is inhospitable for both humans and most scientific equipment. This means there are very few close-up observations of sea ice made during these times.

Recently, rapidly declining coverage of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean due to warming climate and the impending likelihood of an ‘ice-free Arctic’ have increased research and interest in the polar regions. But despite the warming trends, every autumn and winter the polar oceans still get cold, dark, and icy. If we want to truly understand how sea ice cover is evolving now and into the future, we need to better understand how it is growing as well as how it is melting.


Nilas or thin sheets of sea ice [Credit: Brocken Inaglory (distributed via Wikimedia Commons) ]

Sea ice formation

Sea ice formation during the autumn and winter is complex. Interactions between ocean waves and sea ice cover determine how far waves penetrate into the ice, and how the sea ice forms in the first place. If the ocean is still, sea ice forms as large, thin sheets called ‘nilas’. If there are waves on the ocean surface, sea ice forms as ‘pancake’ floes – small circular pieces of ice. As the Arctic transitions to a seasonally ice-free state, there are larger and larger areas of open water (fetch) over which ocean surface waves can travel and gain intensity. Over time, with the continued action of waves in the ice, pancake ice floes develop raised edges —  as seen in our image of the week — from repeatedly bumping into each other. Pancake ice is becoming more common in the Arctic, and it is already very common in the Antarctic, where almost all of the sea ice grows and melts every year.

Nilas vs pancakes

Nilas and pancake sea ice are different at the crystal level (see previous post), and regions of pancake ice and nilas of the same age may have different average ice thickness and ice concentration. As a result, the interaction of the ocean and atmosphere in these two ice types may be very different. Gaps of open water between pancake ice floes allow heat fluxes to be exchanged between the ocean and atmosphere – which can have very different temperatures during winter. Nilas and pancakes also interact with waves differently – nilas might simply flex with a low-intensity wave field, or break into pieces if disturbed by large waves, while pancakes bob around in waves, causing a viscous damping of the wave field. The two ice types have very different floe sizes (see previous posts here and here). Nilas is by definition is a large, uniform sheet of ice; pancake floes are initially very small and grow laterally as more frazil crystals in the ocean adhere to their sides, and multiple floes weld together into sheets of cemented pancakes.

How to make observations?

Sea ice models have only recently begun to be able to separate different sizes of sea ice. This allows more accurate inclusion of growth and melt processes that occur with the different sea ice types. However, observations of how sea ice floe size changes during freeze-up are required to inform these new models, and these observations have never been made before. Pancake sea ice floes are often around only 10 cm in diameter initially, which is far too small to observe by satellite. This means that observations of pancake growth need to be made close-up, but the dynamic ocean conditions in which pancakes are created makes it difficult to deploy instruments in-situ. So how can we observe pancake sea ice in this challenging environment?

In a recent paper (Roach et al, 2018), we used drifting wave buoys, called SWIFTs, to capture the growth of sea ice floes in the Arctic Ocean. SWIFTs are unique platforms (see image of the week) which drift in step with sea ice floes, recording air temperature, water temperature, ocean wave data and – crucially for sea ice – images of the surrounding ice. Analysis of the series of images captured has provided the first-ever measurements of pancake freezing processes in the field, giving unique insight into how pancake floes evolve over time as a result of wave and freezing conditions. This dataset has been compared with theoretical predictions to help inform the next generation of sea ice models. The new models will allow researchers to investigate whether describing physical processes that occur on the scale of centimetres is important for prediction of the polar climate system.

Edited by Sophie Berger


Lettie Roach is a PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington and the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand. Her project is on the representation of sea ice in large-scale models, including model development, model-observation comparisons and observation of small-scale sea ice processes.  

 

 

 

Maddie Smith is a PhD student at the Applied Physics Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, United States. She uses observations to improve understanding of air-sea interactions in polar, ice-covered oceans.

Image of the Week – Super-cool colours of icebergs

Image of the Week – Super-cool colours of icebergs

It is Easter weekend! And as we do not want you to forget about our beloved cryosphere, we provide you with a picture nearly as colourful as the Easter eggs: very blue icebergs! What makes them so special? This is what this Image of the Week is about…


What are icebergs made of?

Fig.2: An iceberg with ‘scallop’ indentations [Credit: Stephen Warren].

Icebergs are chunks of ice which break off from land ice, such as glaciers or ice sheets (as you’ll know if you remember our previous post on icebergs). This means that they are mostly made up of glacial ice, which is frozen freshwater from accumulated snowfall. However, in some places where ice sheets extend to the coastline, making an ice shelf, icebergs can be made up of a different type of ice too.

 

Ice shelves can descend far down into the ocean. Seawater in contact with the ice at depth in the ocean is cooled to the freezing temperature. Because the freezing temperature decreases with decreasing pressure, if the seawater moves upwards in the ocean, it will have a temperature lower than the freezing temperature at that depth. That means it’s super-cooled – the seawater temperature is below the freezing temperature, but it hasn’t become a solid. The seawater cannot last for long in this state and freezes to the base of ice shelves as marine ice, which is seawater frozen at depth. The marine ice can help stabilize the ice shelf as it is less susceptible to fractures than glacial ice. Icebergs that calve from Antarctic ice shelves can sometimes be mixtures of glacial ice (on the top) and marine ice (on the bottom).

 

What can icebergs tell us?

Icebergs which tip over can tell us about processes that happen at the base of ice shelves. For example, scallops on the ice (the small indentations that can be seen in the second picture) can show the size of turbulent ocean eddies in the ocean at the ice shelf base. Basal cavities or channels show where oceanic melt had a large impact. Any colours visible in the iceberg can also give us information.

Fig.3: Marine ice containing organic matter, giving a greenish appearance [Credit: Stephen Warren].

Why are icebergs different colours?

Like snow (see this previous post), different types of ice appear different colours. A typical iceberg is white because it is covered with dense snow, and snowflakes reflect all wavelengths of ice equally. The albedo of snow, which is the proportion of the incident light or radiation that is reflected by a surface, is very high (nearly 1). Glacial ice is compressed snow, meaning it has fewer light-scattering air bubbles, so light can penetrate deeper than in snow, and more yellows and reds from the visible spectrum are absorbed. This results in a bubbly blue colour, with a slightly lower albedo than snow. Marine ice does not have bubbles, but light can be scattered by cracks, resulting in clear blue ice (see our Image of the Week). However, if the seawater from which the marine ice was formed contained organic matter, like algae and plankton, the resulting marine ice can have a yellowish or even green appearance (Fig. 3). If the marine ice formed near the base of an ice shelf where it meets the sea floor, it could contain sediment, giving it a dirty or black appearance.

So the colour of icebergs can tell us something about how ice was formed hundreds of metres below the ocean surface. You could even say that was super-cool…

Further reading

  • Warren, S. G., C. S. Roesler, V. I. Morgan, R. E. Brandt, I. D. Goodwin, and I. Allison (1993), Green icebergs formed by freezing of organic-rich seawater to the base of Antarctic ice shelves, J. Geophys. Res., 98(C4), 6921–6928, doi:10.1029/92JC02751.
  • Morozov, E.G., Marchenko, A.V. & Fomin, Y.V. Izv. (2015): Supercooled water near the Glacier front in Spitsbergen, Atmos. Ocean. Phys. 51(2), 203-207. https://doi.org/10.1134/S0001433815020115
  • Image of the Week – Ice Ice Bergy
  • Image of the Week – Fifty shades of snow

This post is based on a talk by Stephen Warren presented at AMOS-ICSHMO2018

Edited by Clara Burgard


Lettie Roach is a PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington and the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand. Her project is on the representation of sea ice in large-scale models, including model development, model-observation comparisons and observation of small-scale sea ice processes.  

 

Image of the Week – Geothermal heat flux in Antarctica: do we really know anything?

Spatial distributions of geothermal heat flux: (A) Pollard et al. (2005) constant values, (B) Shapiro and Ritzwoller (2004): seismic model, (C) Fox Maule et al. (2005): magnetic measurements, (D) Purucker (2013): magnetic measurements, (E) An et al. (2015): seismic model and (F) Martos et al. (2017): high resolution magnetic measurements. The color scale is truncated at 30 and 80 mW m-2. The black line locates the grounding line. Note, (B)-(F) are in order of publication from oldest to most recent. [Credit: Brice Van Liefferinge, (2018), PhD thesis]

Geothermal heat flux is the major unknown when we evaluate the temperature and the presence/absence of water at the bed of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. This information is crucial for the Beyond Epica Oldest Ice project, which aims to find a continuous ice core spanning 1.5 million years (see this previous post). A lot of work has been done* to determine geothermal heat flux under the entire Antarctic Ice Sheet, and all conclude that additional direct measurements are necessary to refine basal conditions! However direct measurements are difficult to obtain, due to the thick layer of ice that covers the bedrock. Our new image of the week goes over what we currently know about the geothermal heat flux in Antarctica and presents the five data sets that currently exist. But first, let’s see where this heat flux come from?


What determines geothermal heat flux and how can we estimate it?

Heat flux measured at the surface of the Earth has two sources: (i) primordial heat remaining from when the Earth formed and (ii) contemporary-sourced heat coming from radioactive isotopes present in the mantle and the crust. This heat, concentrated in the Earth’s centre, can propagate to the surface through both conduction in the solid earth (inner core and crust) and convection in the liquid-viscous earth (outer core, lower and upper mantles). The net heat flux to reach the surface of the crust and penetrate the overlying ice is what we refer to as the ‘geothermal heat flux’. Wherever the crust is thinner, convection in the mantle can transfer heat more efficiently to the surface. In those locations, the net geothermal heat flux is higher, and vice versa. At mid-ocean ridges and in active volcanic areas, the heat can be delivered almost directly to the surface by advection (i.e. by the movement of magma), therefore leading to a higher net surface geothermal heat flux (think of Iceland, where the shallow crust allows them to take advantage of geothermal heat flux directly).

As a result, we know that the geology determines the magnitude of the geothermal heat flux and the geology is not homogeneous underneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet:  West Antarctica and East Antarctica are significantly distinct in their crustal rock formation processes and ages.

Nowadays, five independent global geothermal heat flux data sets exist: Shapiro and Ritzwoller, (2004); Fox Maule et al., (2005); Purucker, (2013); An et al., (2015); Martos et al., (2017) (see image of the week). All geothermal heat flux data sets compiled and currently used have been inferred from the properties of the crust and the upper mantle, as geology dictates the magnitude of geothermal heat flux spatially. Let’s see together how the estimation of geothermal heat flux has evolved over the years….

Using constant values (Panel A)

The simplest method, which consists in using a constant value of geothermal heat flux over the entire continent, was common at first and is still sometimes used (e.g. sensitivity tests and model intercomparison projects) as it facilitates model inter-comparisons. Pollard et al. (2005), in panel A, used bands of constant geothermal heat flux values (70, 60, 55 and 41 mW m-2), with geothermal heat flux decreasing from West Antarctica to East Antarctica, consistent with the known geology.

2004, a seismic model (Panel B)

Shapiro and Ritzwoller (2004) are the first to propose a geothermal heat flux distribution map based on seismic methods, and not strictly on rock composition. They extrapolate the geothermal heat flux from a global seismic model of the crust and the upper mantle which is an analysis of seismicity all over the world. Regions of the globe are grouped by their similarity in seismic structure. Assuming that a certain magnitude of seismicity represents a certain geothermal heat flux value, they assign geothermal heat flux value to regions where geothermal heat flux cannot be directly measured by using geothermal heat flux data from regions of similar seismicity. The geothermal heat flux spatial distribution obtained, with values up to 80 mW m-2 in West Antarctica and 48 mW m-2 in East Antarctica, agrees with that of Pollard et al. (2005). However, errors associated with this method are quite large, reaching 50% of the geothermal heat flux value.

 

2005, magnetic measurements (Panel C)

A year later, Fox Maule et al. (2005) derive a geothermal heat flux map based on satellite magnetic measurements and a thermal model. The objective is to determine the depth to the Curie temperature, the temperature at which a material loses its permanent magnetic properties. They set the Curie temperature to 580 °C, while the temperature at the ice-bedrock interface is set at 0 °C. Satellite magnetic measurements allow the calculation of the depth of each of these boundaries. The geothermal heat flux is then obtained using a thermal model of the crust between the depth of the two boundary temperatures. This method also has a large associated error, 60% of the geothermal heat flux value for the East Antarctic interior.

2013, reanalysis of magnetic measurements (Panel D)

In 2013, Purucker updates the Fox Maule et al. (2005) geothermal heat flux map with new magnetic data. The spatial geothermal heat flux pattern obtained still retains the characteristic pattern of low values in West Antarctica and high values in East Antarctica, but predicts lower absolute values for East Antarctica and around the West Antarctic coast.

2015, new seismic model (Panel E)

More recently, An et al. (2015) derive a new geothermal heat flux distribution based on seismic velocities. The method is similar to that used by Shapiro and Ritzwoller (2004). They analyse the Earth’s mantle properties using a new 3D crustal shear velocity model to calculate crustal temperatures and the surface geothermal heat flux. However, their spatial distribution of geothermal heat flux differs quite a bit from the other data sets, particularly in East Antarctica where geothermal heat flux values differ by 10 mW m-2 from those of Shapiro and Ritzwoller (2004). An et al. (2015) find very low geothermal heat flux values at the domes, which is good news for the search of Oldest Ice, but rather high overall values for East Antarctica compared to the other data sets. They explain that the model is invalid for geothermal heat flux values exceeding 90 mW m-2. But such high values should only impact young crust areas, mainly West Antarctica and therefore the variability observed in East Antarctica cannot be explained.

2017, high resolution magnetic measurements (Panel F)

In 2017, Martos et al. provide a high resolution geothermal heat flux map based on the spectral analysis of airborne magnetic data. They use a compilation of all existing airborne magnetic data to determine the depth to the Curie temperature and infer the geothermal heat flux using a thermal model. Their continent-wide spatial distribution of geothermal heat flux obtained agrees with previous studies, but they show higher overall magnitudes of geothermal heat flux including East Antarctica. They report an error of 10 mW m-2 which is interestingly smaller than for the other data sets. However, their data set does not take into account point measurements of geothermal heat flux. The same year, Goodge (2017) calculates an average geothermal heat flux value of 48 mW m-2 for East Antarctica with a standard deviation of 13.6 mW m from the analysis of clasts in the region between Dome A and the Ross Sea. A geothermal heat flux value of 48 mW m-2 is consistent with the mean value of the data sets described above.

All in all

To sum up, although all geothermal heat flux data sets agree on continent scales (with higher values under the West Antarctic ice sheet and lower values under East Antarctica), there is a lot of variability in the predicted geothermal heat flux from one data set to the next on smaller scales. A lot of work remains to be done …

* (e.g. Shapiro and Ritzwoller, 2004; Fox Maule et al., 2005; Purucker, 2013; An et al., 2015; Fisher et al., 2015; Parrenin et al., 2017; Seroussi et al., 2017; Martos et al., 2017; Goodge, 2017)

References

Van Liefferinge, B., Pattyn, F., Cavitte, M. G. P., Karlsson, N. B., Young, D. A., Sutter, J., and Eisen, O.: Promising Oldest Ice sites in East Antarctica based on thermodynamical modelling, The Cryosphere Discuss., https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-2017-276, in review, 2018.

Van Liefferinge, B. Thermal state uncertainty assessment of glaciers and ice sheets: Detecting promising Oldest Ice sites in Antarctica, PhD thesis, Université libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, 2018.

Edited by Sophie Berger


Brice Van Liefferinge  has just earned his PhD at the Laboratoire de Glaciology, Universite Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. His research focuses on the basal conditions of the ice sheets. He tweets as @bvlieffe.

Image of the Week – Broccoli on Kilimanjaro!

Image of the Week – Broccoli on Kilimanjaro!

On the plateau of Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, the remnants of a glacier can be found and the ice from that glacier contains a rather interesting feature – Broccoli! Not the vegetable, but bubbles that look a lot like it. Our Image of the Week shows some of these strange “Broccoli Bubbles”. Read on to find out more about where these were found and how we can see them.


Figure 2: Kilimanjaro northern ice field, Tanzania, 5800 m a.s.l. Red arrow indicates where ice samples were collected [Credit: Adapted from a Google Earth image]

There is not much ice left on the mountain plateau of Kilimanjaro (Fig. 2), the highest mountain in Africa (5895 m a.s.l.), which is also a dormant volcano. Very likely the last remnants of glacier ice will have gone soon (Thompson et al., 2009). However, a recent expedition to Kilimanjaro’s Northern Ice Field in 2015 (Bohleber et al., 2017) brought home some ice block samples cut with a chain saw from the accessible southern ice cliff 5800 m a.s.l. (red arrow, Fig. 2) . These block were then studied in  ice laboratory at AWI in Germany and an interesting observation was made…Broccoli bubbles!

These irregularly shaped bubbles, which look like broccoli, were seen in the polished ice slabs using close-up photography and an LASM (Large Area Scan Macroscope). This type of bubble intrigued scientists as it is certainly not a common one! When looking from above onto a horizontal section the broccoli bubbles appear to have pointy tips (Fig. 3.), which are all directed towards the glacier face.

Figure 3: “Broccoli” bubbles seen from above. RHS: A horizontal section of ice, area in image is approx. 2 cm high, image is a close-up photograph with a metal plate in the background. The pointed tips of the bubbles (up in this photo) are directed towards the ice cliff face (from which the samples were taken). LHS: Large Area Scan Macroscope (LASM) cross-section through the sample (LHS). The black pore spaces are the Broccoli bubbles [Credit: Johanna Kerch].

Another type of bubble makes also an appearance: the disk- or bowl-shaped bubble (Fig. 1). It is rather regular but not rounded. Instead it is flattened on one or both sides and a little angular, maybe even leaning towards a hexagonal shape. Disk bubbles found close together are oriented in the same direction, one explanation for this could be that the crystal orientation of the ice (the way the ice crystal align during ice flow) plays a role in the bubble formation.

How do the broccoli and disk bubbles evolve? Although we suspect it has something to do with the temperate ice and some temperature gradient at the ice cliff, we do not know for certain. Nonetheless, it is a marvellous thing to discover – before the Kilimanjaro glacier ice is gone for good!

Edited by Emma Smith


Johanna Kerch is a postdoctoral researcher at Alfred-Wegener-Institute in Bremerhaven. Her research focus is on crystal-preferred orientation and microstructure of glacier ice and how it links to other physical properties in ice and the deformation mechanisms in glacier ice. She has studied cold and temperate glacier ice from various sites in the Alps and has recently been involved in making measurements of the physical properties of the EGRIP ice core. She tweets as @JohannaKerch.

Image of the Week – The colors of sea ice

Image of the Week – The colors of sea ice

The Oscars 2018 might be over, but we have something for you that is just as cool or even cooler (often cooler than -20°C)! Our Image of the Week shows thin sections of sea ice photographed under polarized light, highlighting individual ice crystals in different colors, and is taken from a short video that we made. Read more about what this picture shows and watch the movie about how we got these colorful pictures…


Sea ice can vary in salinity

Sea ice forms differently than fresh water ice due to its salt content. When sea water begins to freeze, the ice crystals aren’t able to incorporate salt into their structure and hence reject salt into the surrounding water. This increases the density of the remaining sea water which sinks (see this previous post). Some salty water gets trapped between the crystals though. This water will also slowly freeze, always rejecting the salts into the remaining water. The saltier the water, the lower its freezing point. This means the remnant very salty water, which we call brine, remains liquid even at temperatures below -20oC!

Sea ice crystals can vary in shape

The first layer of sea ice is typically granular – the crystals are small and round, with a diameter around one centimeter. This is because this layer is formed in open seas, where the crystals which go on to form this layer are spun and broken up by surface waves. This granular structure includes lots of ‘pockets’ of trapped brine. Under this surface ice layer, which is typically 10-30 cm thick, ice starts growing in more sheltered conditions. Such sea ice is columnar. The crystals are flat and elongated – like layers in a vertical cake. The brine is trapped between these layers in brine channels. When ice is relatively warm, for example shortly after freezing or before it starts melting, such channels are wide and can be connected. Brine can then escape from them at the lower end into the ocean. The channels also allow small, hardy microscopic plants and animals to travel through the ice. Often air bubbles are trapped in them too.

Sea ice can vary in how it looks too!

The size and form of sea ice crystals – sea ice texture – impacts various properties of the sea ice including its salt content, density and suitability as a habitat. It also influences the optical properties of ice, however. While pure water ice is transparent (see this previous post), sea ice appears milky. That is because of brine channels and bubbles between the crystals.

When looking at large regions of sea ice from space by sensors mounted on satellites, sea ice texture will be important too. Visible light has a short wavelength and this means it only penetrates into the top millimeter of ice. Images collected in the visible light range (see this previous post) will show features dominated by the surface properties of the ice. In comparison, microwaves have a longer wavelength and can penetrate deeper into the ice. Hence imagery of the sea ice cover collected in the microwave spectrum of light (see this previous post) will display features influenced by the internal structure of the sea ice in addition to the surface features.

 

The video below shows how the sea ice samples are analyzed for texture and how we got the colorful pictures for our Image of the Week…

 

Further reading

Edited by Adam Bateson and Clara Burgard


Polona Itkin is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute, Tromsø. She investigates the sea ice dynamics of the Arctic Ocean and its connection to the sea ice thickness. In her work she combines the information from in-site observations, remote sensing and numerical modeling. Polona is part of the social media project ‘oceanseaiceNPI’ – a group of scientists that communicates their knowledge through social media channels: Instagram.com/OceanSeaIceNPI, Twitter.com/OceanSeaIceNPI, Facebook.com/OceanSeaIceNPI, contact Email: polona.itkin@npolar.no

Image of the Week – A Hole-y Occurrence, the reappearance of the Weddell Polynya

Image of the Week – A Hole-y Occurrence, the reappearance of the Weddell Polynya

REMARK: If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, please make sure you’ve voted for it in EGU blog competition (2nd choice in the list)!

During both the austral winters of 2016 and 2017, a famous feature of the Antarctic sea-ice cover was observed once again, 40 years after its first observed occurrence: the Weddell Polynya! The sea-ice cover exhibited a huge hole (of around 2600 km2 up to 80,000 km2 at its peak!), as shown on our Image of the Week. What makes this event so unique and special?


Why does the Weddell Polynya form?

The Weddell Polynya is an open ocean polynya (a large hole in the sea ice, see this previous post), observed in the Weddell Sea (see Fig.2). It was first observed in the 1970s but then did not form for a very long time, until 2016 and 2017…

 

Fig. 2: Map of the sea ice distribution around Antarctica on 25th of September 2017, derived from satellite data. The red circle marks the actual Weddell Polynya [Credit: Modified from meereisportal.de]

In the Southern Ocean, warm saline water masses underlie cold, fresh surface water masses. The upper cold fresh layer acts like a lid, insulating the warmer deep waters from the cold atmosphere. While coastal polynyas (see this previous post) are caused by coastal winds, open ocean polynyas are more mysteriously formed as it is not as clear what causes the warm deep water to be mixed upwards. In the case of the Weddell polynya, it forms above an underwater mountain range, the Maud Rise. This ridge is an obstacle to the water flow and can therefore enhance vertical mixing of the deeper warm saline water masses. The warm water that reaches the surface melts any overlying sea ice, and large amounts of heat is lost from the ocean surface to the atmosphere (see Fig. 3).

 

Fig. 3: Schematic of polynya formation. The Weddell polynya is an open ocean polynya [Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center].

 

Why do we care about the Weddell Polynya?

Overturning and mixing of the water column in the Weddell Polynya forms cold, dense Antarctic Bottom Water, releasing heat stored in the ocean to the atmosphere in the process. Antarctic Bottom Water is formed in the Southern Ocean (predominantly in the Ross and Weddell Seas) and flows northwards, forming the lower branch of the overturning circulation which transports heat from the equator to the poles (see Fig. 4). Antarctic Bottom Water also carries oxygen to the rest of the Earth’s deep oceans. The absence of the Weddell polynya could reduce the formation rate of Antarctic Bottom water, which could weaken the lower branch of the overturning circulation.

Fig.4: Schematic of the overturning (thermohaline) circulation. Deep water formation sites are marked by yellow ovals. Modified from: Rahmstorf, 2002 [©Springer Nature. Used with permission.]

How often does the Weddell Polynya form?

The last time the Weddell Polynya was observed was during the austral winters of 1974 to 1976 (see Fig. 5). It was then absent for nearly 40 years (!) up until austral winter 2016. In a modelling study, de Lavergne et al. 2014 suggested that the Weddell Polynya used to be more common before anthropogenic CO2 emissions started rising at a fast pace. The increased surface freshwater input from melting glaciers and ice sheets, and increased precipitation (as climate change increases the hydrological cycle) have freshened the surface ocean. This freshwater acts again as a lid on top of the warm deeper waters, preventing open ocean convection, reducing the production of Antarctic Bottom Water.

Fig. 5: Color-coded sea ice concentration maps derived from passive microwave satellite data in the Weddell Sea region from the 1970s. The Weddell Polynya is the extensive area of open water (in blue) [Credit: Gordon et al., 2007, ©American Meteorological Society. Used with permission.].

The reappearance of the Weddell Polynya over the past two winters despite the increased surface freshwater input suggests that other natural sources of variability may be currently masking this predicted trend towards less open ocean deep convection. Latif et al. 2013 put forward a theory describing centennial scale variability of Weddell Sea open ocean deep convection, as seen in climate models. In this theory, there are two modes of operation, one where there is no open ocean convection and the Weddell Polynya is not present. In this situation, sea surface temperatures are cold and the deep ocean is warm, and there is relatively large amount of sea ice. The heat at depth increases with time, as it is insulated by the sea ice and freshwater lid. Then, eventually, the deep water becomes warm enough that the stratification is decreased sufficiently so that open water convection begins again, forming the Weddell Polynya. This process continues until the heat reservoir depletes and surface freshwater forcing switches off the deep convection. Models show that the timescale of this variability is set by the stratification, and models with stronger stratification tend to vary on longer timescale, as the heat needs to build up more in order to overcome the stratification.

 

In the end, the Weddell Polynya is still surrounded by some mystery… Only the next decades will bring us more insight into the true reasons for the appearance and disappearance of the Weddell Polynya…

 

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard


Rebecca Frew is a PhD student at the University of Reading (UK). She investigates the importance of feedbacks between the sea ice, atmosphere and ocean for the Antarctic sea ice cover using a hierarchy of climate models. In particular, she is looking at the how the importance of different feedbacks may vary between different regions of the Southern Ocean.
Contact: r.frew@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Image of the Week – The world in a grain of cryoconite

Fig 1: A single grain of cryoconite (top left) is home to a microscopic city of microbes, revealed here by chlorophyll fluorescence microscopy – a technique that causes photosynthesising microbes to emit light (top right) and portable DNA sequencing (bottom panel) [credit: Arwyn Edwards]

Microbes growing on glaciers are recognized for their importance in accelerating glacier melting by darkening their surface and for maintaining biogeochemical cycles in Earth’s largest freshwater ecosystem. However, the microbial biodiversity of glaciers remains mysterious. Today, new DNA sequencing techniques are helping to reveal glaciers as icy hotspots of biodiversity.


To see a world in a grain of…cryoconite

Earth’s glaciers and ice sheets are among its most impressive features, yet this majesty conceals their microscopic riches. We must turn to the microscope and the DNA sequencer to reveal the natural history of glaciers. Rather than a grain of sand, this world lies hidden in a grain of cryoconite. Cryoconite ecosystems are microbe-mineral aggregates which darken the surface of glaciers world-wide which – along with algae – enhance absorption of solar energy and promote glacier melting through so-called bioalbedo feedbacks. Microscopy studies from the late 19th and early 20th century reveal that a diverse range of algae, cyanobacteria, heterotrophic bacteria, protists, fungi and even tardigrades live within cryoconite, but it is only in the last decade that we have started to resolve the genetic diversity of life within cryoconite.

From glaciers to genomes…and back again

Considering glaciers are Earth’s largest freshwater ecosystems, we know very little about the genetic diversity of their inhabitants. Of all known glaciers, fewer than 0.05% have any form of DNA datasets associated with them. Such DNA datasets are commonplace for other environments, as demonstrated by the Earth Microbiome Project. From the limited studies performed, it appears the microbial ecosystems of glaciers are no less diverse than temperate environments: even dark, cold and isolated subglacial lakes harbour thousands of bacterial species. As climatic warming increasingly threatens glaciers, unpicking the interactions between microbes and melt is vital, as is establishing the extent to which glacier biodiversity is threatened. Sequencing microbial genomes from glacial ecosystems is therefore urgent.

Fig 2: Preserving microbial samples from cryoconite for return to the author’s home lab is a conventional approach to studying genetic diversity on glaciers, but the portability of MinION DNA sequencing brings the lab to the field [Credit: Arwyn Edwards].

A DNA sequencer in your rucksack

Such genetic studies have required the collection of samples from glaciers and their return to state-of-the-art laboratories equipped with high throughput DNA sequencers. However, new, portable DNA sequencers are being trialled on cryoconite to permit sequencing of DNA in field labs. Using a pocket-sized DNA sequencer called a MinION connected to the USB port of a laptop, it is possible to extract, sequence and analyse microbial genomes while still in the field. While Nanopore DNA sequencing using MinION devices are increasingly applied to medical emergencies such as Ebola or antibiotic resistance, their highly portable nature means that glacier scientists will be able to collect and analyse microbial genomes while in the field, making the genetic diversity of glaciers accessible.

Who’s who in cryoconite?

Using MinION for DNA sequencing in a field lab at the UK Arctic Station in Ny Ålesund, it was possible to generate rapid profiles of microbial diversity in cryoconite. So who lives in Arctic cryoconite? The most abundant bacterial group identified is a close match to Phormidesmis priestleyi, a filamentous cyanobacterium responsible for engineering the growth of cryoconite grains on Arctic glaciers. In Figure 1 above, Phormidesmis is visible as the bright red, chlorophyll-rich filaments binding together the cryoconite grain. Other cyanobacteria are present, including a species matching sequences from Phormidium autumnale found in an Antarctic lake. However, MinION sequencing is useful in revealing less charismatic microbes. Also abundant within the community are members of the Polaromonas genus. Found in both cold and highly polluted environments worldwide, Polaromonas bacteria are highly flexible in their lifestyles, able to adapt to using highly poisonous compounds as food sources, or even anoxygenic phototrophy (photosynthesis without using water or producing oxygen) on alpine glaciers. Cryoconite sequences matching DNA from Methylibium found in Tibetan permafrost also hint at the need for flexible metabolism to survive on glacier surfaces. Finally, Ferruginibacter sequences best matching DNA data from iron-rich dust aggregates forming on snow in the Japanese mountains suggest that cold-tolerant iron cycling may be occurring within cryoconite.

In a grain of cryoconite, we see relatives of cyanobacteria from Arctic glaciers, but also Antarctic lakes, metabolically flexible bacteria found in cold and contaminated environments, and even bacteria living by respiring iron on snow in the Japanese mountains. We see a world.

Edited by Joe Cook and Sophie Berger


Dr Arwyn Edwards is a Senior Lecturer in Biology at Aberystwyth University and the present Royal Geographic Society’s Walters Kundert Arctic Fellow. His research on genomic diversity in glacial environments is supported by the Leverhulme Trust.

Image of the week – Skiing, a myth for our grandchildren?

Image of the week – Skiing, a myth for our grandchildren?

Ski or water ski? Carnival season is typically when many drive straight to the mountains to indulge in their favorite winter sport. However, by the end of the century, models seem to predict a very different future for Carnival, with a drastic reduction in the number of snow days we get per year. This could render winter skiing something of the past, a bedtime story we tell our grandchildren at night…


Christoph Marty and colleagues investigated two Swiss regions reputed for their great skiing resorts and show that the number of snow days (defined as a day with at least 5 cm of snow on the ground) could go down to zero by 2100, if fuel emissions and economic growth continue at present-day levels, and this scenario is less dramatic than the IPCC’s most pessimistic climate change scenario (Marty et al., 2017). They show that temperature change will have the strongest influence on snow cover. Using snow depth as representative for snow volume, they predict that snow depth maxima will all be lower than today’s except for snow at elevations of 3000 m and higher. This implies that even industrially-sized stations like Avoriaz in the French Alps, with a top elevation of 2466 m, will soon suffer from very short ski seasons.

Marty et al. (2017) predict a 70% reduction in total snow volume by 2100 for the two Swiss regions, with no snow left for elevations below 500 m and only 50% snow volume left above 3000 m. Only in an intervention-type scenario where global temperatures are restricted to a warming of 2ºC since the pre-industrial period, can we expect snow reduction to be limited to 30% after the middle of the century.

Recent work by Raftery et al (2017) shows that a 2ºC warming threshold is likely beyond our reach, however limiting global temperature rise, even above the 2ºC target, could help stabilize snow volume loss over the next century. We hold our future in our hands!

Further reading/references

  • Marty, C., Schlögl, S., Bavay, M. and Lehning, M., 2017. How much can we save? Impact of different emission scenarios on future snow cover in the Alps. The Cryosphere, 11(1), p.517.
  • Raftery, A.E., Zimmer, A., Frierson, D.M., Startz, R. and Liu, P., 2017. Less than 2 C warming by 2100 unlikely. Nature Climate Change, 7(9), p.637.
  • Less snow and a shorter ski season in the Alps | EGU Press release

Edited by Sophie Berger


Marie Cavitte just finished her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, Institute for Geophysics (USA) where she studied the paleo history of East Antarctica’s interior using airborne radar isochrone data. She is involved in the Beyond EPICA Oldest Ice European project to recover 1.5 million-year-old ice. She tweets as @mariecavitte.