Cryospheric Sciences

For Dummies

For Dummies – How do wildfires impact permafrost? [OR.. a story of ice and fire]

Fig 1: A permafrost peatland in the Northwest Territories, Canada, which was burned in 2014. Peatlands are complex, and we are just starting to understand how northern peatlands respond to fire. This picture was taken in 2015, and shows regions which remain charred a year after the fire, with the green areas representing bogs which were too wet to burn. 2014 was a record breaking year, where a total of 3.4 million hectares burned in the region! Similar large fire years have been seen in other areas of Canada, Alaska, Russia, and China in the last few decades. [Credit: Jean Holloway]

Wildfire – like the ones observed in the Northwest Territories, Canada in 2014 (Fig. 1) – is a natural part of permafrost landscapes, but fires are expected to get more frequent and severe as the climate warms. This could accelerate the degradation of permafrost, with negative consequences on the local and global scale! We have a pretty good understanding of how permafrost responds to fire today, but what should we expect as the climate warms and fire regimes change in the future?

What is permafrost anyway?

  • Permafrost is ground that is frozen for two or more consecutive years, and it typically forms in any climate where the mean annual air temperature is less than 0°C.

Fig 2: Permafrost is a mixture of ice, soil and rocks. This is a core of particularly ice-rich permafrost. [Credit: Jean Holloway]

Nerdy terminology break: when you talk about permafrost, it THAWS, it does not MELT. Melting implies phase change from solid to liquid. Permafrost isn’t just made up of ice, it also has soil and rock, which don’t melt when they go above 0°C (Fig 2). When you take a turkey breast out of the freezer it doesn’t turn into a puddle of chicken goo – it thaws! Here is a cool blog post about this issue.

Leftover Turkey Trot

Why the heck should you care about permafrost and fire?

There are three main reasons why we as a society should care about the impacts of fire on permafrost, and permafrost degradation in general. I will go into greater detail in the upcoming sections, but the take home messages are:

  1. Thawing permafrost causes ground settlement which affects local infrastructure.
  2. Post-fire changes to biogeochemistry can alter downstream water quality, which is important for local communities.
  3. Thawing permafrost releases more carbon into the atmosphere, triggering a positive-feedback loop and accelerating global climate change.

Now that I have your attention, let’s learn about some fire and ice!

How does permafrost respond to fire?

Wildfire is a natural and essential component of many permafrost landscapes, including boreal and subarctic forests, but also tundra regions. For some species in the boreal, such as black spruce (Picea mariana) and jack pine (Pinus banksiana), fire is essential because they need it in order to reproduce – they have what are called serotinous cones that open after fire and release their seeds! Fire has been a part of these permafrost landscapes for thousands of years. Changes occur immediately following the disturbance but mostly return to normal (pre-fire) levels after a few decades.

Permafrost is impacted when severe fires destroy the tree canopy and the surface organic layer (a thin layer of dead and decaying plant material, ranging from ~10-50 cm but can be much thicker!) that insulates the ground. Think of it like a blanket that keeps the heat in while you sleep, except the opposite – it keeps the ground cold. Permafrost LOVES the organic layer, because its thermal properties promote permafrost stability. For example, frozen peat has very high thermal conductivity (Fig 3). So, in the winter, it allows the cold air temperatures to penetrate deep into the ground. But… in the summer it is dries out and has low thermal conductivity, which means heat can’t get in. This helps the permafrost stay frozen!

Fig 3: Peat soil (left) and Sphagnum moss (right) favour permafrost presence due to unique thermal properties that help keep the ground cool. [Credit: Jean Holloway]

So, when fires destroy this layer it leaves the permafrost vulnerable to thaw. Further, fires destroy the tree canopy and other vegetation, which shade the ground and intercept the snow, both which protect the permafrost (Fig 4).

Fig 4: Snow trapped up in the tree canopy by coniferous trees at an unburned site near Yellowknife, Canada. This allows cold air to penetrate into the ground and protects the permafrost. [Credit: Jean Holloway]

Some other key factors that impact the permafrost following a fire include:

  • Decreased albedo (albedo is how much a surface reflects sunlight – dark charred surfaces absorb a lot of heat and make the ground warmer)
  • Changes in snow cover
  • Alterations to the surface energy balance (basically, how much energy moves in and out of the ground) and micro-climate
  • Reduction in evapotranspiration and changes in soil moisture (when there is vegetation present it moves water from the soil to the roots and up into the leaves, so when fire destroys the vegetation there is more water left in the ground)

In combination, these changes result in warmer and wetter soils, greater heat moving into the ground, and increased active layer thickness. The active layer is the top of the permafrost which freezes and thaws annually, and usually it is ~1 m deep. But after fire the active layer thickness can increase dramatically, sometimes to 3 m!

Fire changes the hydrology and biogeochemistry of permafrost landscapes

Fires can also have significant effects on the hydrology, biogeochemistry, and soil microbial communities of permafrost landscapes (for a good overview of this, check out: Tank et al., 2018). Fire changes the chemistry of the soil and water in streams and lakes. For example, we know that fire decreases soil acidity AND increases microbial activity (warmer soil temperatures after the fire = happy active microbes). Further, active layer thickening releases solutes, nutrients, and other things that were previously trapped in the frozen ground, allowing them to be transported by water. Sometimes, active layers get very thick and create thawed zones called taliks, which allow water to travel through the previously impermeable frozen ground year round! Studies have shown that aquatic ecosystems recover rapidly following fire but we don’t really know how climate warming and changing fire regimes will affect this in the future.

Lastly, fire changes the ecosystem carbon balance, because the increases in soil temperatures and active layer thickness that happen after fire make previously frozen organic matter available for decomposition by those happy microbes. The microbes eat the organic matter and release carbon into the atmosphere. This results in a positive feedback to climate change – fire thaws permafrost, releasing carbon into the atmosphere, leading to more climate change and warmer temperatures, which leads to more fire and more thawing permafrost, which releases more carbon… and so forth. This is not good! We need better regional sampling of permafrost carbon estimates to be able to predict how bad this is going to be in the future.

How does permafrost recover from fires?

In the past, permafrost in many places have been stable after fire, where changes occur immediately after fire, but return to pre-fire conditions in the next several decades (see, for example, this study: Rocha et al., 2012). This happens because the vegetation undergoes what is called succession, which basically means it regrows. So that organic layer and tree canopy which is so essential for permafrost returns to normal! Factors that determine how permafrost is impacted by fire and how it will recover include landscape position, soil type, organic layer thickness, burn severity, drainage and soil moisture conditions, snow, pre-fire permafrost and vegetation conditions – it’s complicated!! As an example, a poorly drained lowland site with a thick organic layer won’t be as vulnerable to fire as a dry high site with coarse soil.

Fire causes permafrost thaw and thermokarst development

It is important to mention that when ice-rich permafrost thaws following fire we can also get the development of what is called “thermokarst” (If you want to read more about this, see: Gibson et al., 2018). Thermokarst is pitted or irregular landscapes that are formed with ice-rich permafrost thaws and settles (Fig 5). These types of landscapes with thermokarst don’t follow the same post-fire recovery patterns, likely taking much longer to recover to pre-fire conditions (if at all… we don’t really know yet!). In addition, thermokarst changes drainage, can result in forest loss, and can impact infrastructure. We have seen this type of damage after fire (and also following general permafrost thaw) all around the globe: in Alaska, Canada, China, and Russia. In addition, thermokarst can also release large amounts of carbon. However, predictive models don’t take this into account yet – exciting research to expect here in the future!!

Fig 5: Thermokarst that developed after a wildfire at a permafrost site in the Northwest Territories, Canada. You can see the water pooling, which results in even further permafrost degradation. [Credit: Jean Holloway]

Fire, permafrost, and future climate change

So permafrost is impacted by fire, but usually it has been able to recover. HOWEVER, these patterns of permafrost recovery will likely be affected by changing fire regimes. In the Alaskan and Canadian boreal, we are currently seeing more fire than ever before (Here is one of many papers that shows this: Jain et al., 2018), particularly in the western provinces and territories. As global temperatures rise everything gets drier, and there is actually more lightening, which means larger and more severe fires. These fires typically result in more of the organic layer being removed, which leads to greater permafrost thaw. Predictive models indicate that fire in tandem with climate change, will accelerate the disappearance of permafrost. Some sites may still be able to recover, but greater warming results in longer recovery periods, if at all…

And the ability to recover might currently be overestimated: modelling suggests that permafrost in poorly drained landscapes with thick organic layers, such as peatlands, tundra, and other lowland systems, will likely be stable to fire over the long-term. BUT these landscapes are often impacted by thermokarst, and right now our models don’t have the capacity to incorporate the effects of thermokarst on the system. More work needs to be done to understand this!

Further Reading

Jean Holloway is a PhD student at the University of Ottawa, in Ottawa, Canada. Her research interests surround the impacts of fire on discontinuous permafrost in the Northwest Territories, Canada. She uses a variety of techniques to investigate this, including monitoring ground temperatures, conducting annual geophysical surveys, and applying thermal modelling to predict future change. Contact e-mail:


Ice Cores “For Dummies”

Ice Cores “For Dummies”

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

Ice sheets, archives of our past

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

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

…We drill ice cores – of course!

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

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

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

Where to drill an ice core for the best record?

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

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

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

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

What does an ice core actually record?

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

Annual layers, past snowfall and past temperatures!

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

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

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

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

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

Atmospheric gas

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

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

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

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

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

Other climate proxies

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

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

Current knowledge from ice-core records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Emma Smith and Sophie Berger

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

Sea Level “For Dummies”

Sea Level “For Dummies”

Looking out over the sea on a quiet day with no wind, the word “flat” would certainly pop up in your mind to describe the sea surface. However, this serene view of a flat sea surface is far from accurate at the global scale.

The apparent simplicity behind the concept of sea level hides more complex science that we hope to explain in a simple manner in today’s “For Dummies” post, which will give you the keys to understand the important aspects of past sea change, and an ability to look into and understand how sea level is a key factor in the future.

Everyone will be familiar with news stories about current sea level rise, but it can be very confusing to understand what this means in real terms; how fast it is happening and why we should care about it anyway. So to begin with, let’s have a look at what we mean by sea level?

Sea Level – It’s all about gravity!

[Read More]

Water Masses “For Dummies”

Water Masses “For Dummies”

Polar surface water, circumpolar deep water, dense shelf water, North Atlantic deep water, Antarctic bottom water… These names pop in most discussions about the ice-ocean interaction and how this will change in a warming climate, but what do they refer to?

In our second “For Dummies” article, we shall give you a brief introduction to the concept of “water mass”, explain how to differentiate water from more water, and why you would even need to do so.

Global heat budget and the need for an ocean circulation

The global climate is driven by differences between the incoming shortwave radiation and the outgoing longwave radiation (Fig. 1):

  • In the tropics, there is a surplus of energy: the Sun brings more heat, all year-round, than what is radiated out;
  • At the poles in contrast, there is a net deficit: more energy is leaving than is coming from the Sun (who is absent in winter).

The global ocean and atmosphere circulations act to reduce this imbalance, by transporting the excess heat from the tropics to the pole. Here we will focus on the global ocean circulation only, since this post is written by an oceanographer, but similar principles also apply to atmospheric circulation.

Fig 1 :Earth’s latitudinal radiation bugdet, The tropics show a surplus of energy that compensates the Poles’ deficit[Credit: National Oceanograpy Center

Fig 1 :Earth’s latitudinal radiation bugdet, The tropics show a surplus of energy that compensates the Poles’ deficit [Credit: National Oceanograpy Center].

The global ocean circulation

In a nutshell, surface waters bring heat towards the poles where they cool down, sink to the abyss, and return towards the tropics as deep waters where they can go back to the surface..…

We talk about “the global ocean circulation” because although the Earth officially has five oceans, they are not totally separate bodies of water. In fact, the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, Pacific and Southern oceans are interconnected, with water circulating and moving between them. How does this happen?

The global ocean circulation has two components:

  • The wind-driven circulation, fast but limited to a few hundred metres below the surface of the ocean (read more about it here for example);
  • And the thermohaline circulation (shown on Fig. 2), slower but which affects the whole depth of the ocean.

Today’s post focuses on the latter, since we will talk about water properties. The thermohaline circulation, also called density-driven circulation, depends on two water properties:

  • The temperature (‘thermo’) is mostly controlled by heat exchange with the atmosphere or the ice. Cold water has a high density.
  • The salinity (‘haline’) can be modified by evaporation, precipitation, or addition of fresh water from melted glaciers/ice sheets or rivers. Salty water has a high density.
Fig 2- The global thermohaline circulation shows warm surface currents in red, cold deep currents in blue. Deep waters form in the North Atlantic and Southern oceans. [Credit: NASA]

Fig 2- The global thermohaline circulation shows warm surface currents in red, cold deep currents in blue. Deep waters form in the North Atlantic and Southern oceans [Credit: NASA].

Roughly speaking, a water mass is any drop of the ocean within a specific range of temperature and salinity, and hence specific density. Some water masses are found at particular locations or seasons, while others can be found all around the globe, all the time. Since density sets the depth (density MUST always increase with depth), water masses will lie and travel at particular depth levels.

A quick and dirty oceanography guide

Water masses are formed.

Some are the result of the mixing of other water masses. The others start at the water surface, where they exchange gas (notably oxygen and carbon) with the atmosphere. When a water mass becomes denser than the waters below it , for example, if it is cooled by the wind or ice, it sinks to its corresponding depth within the ocean.

Fig 3- The bathymetry of the Arctic Ocean forces dense (deep) water masses to enter the region via Fram Strait whereas lighter (shallower) waters can go through the Barents Sea [Credit: adapted from IBCAO bathymetry map, Jakobsson et al., 2012 ].

Water masses move all around the globe…

…provided their density allows it. The vertical distribution of density in the ocean must be “stably stratified”, which means that the density increases with depth. In practice, that means that dense waters cannot climb up a shallow bathymetric feature but have to find a way around it. For example to enter the Arctic Ocean (Fig 3), a dense water mass has no choice but to go via Fram Strait, whereas a less dense one can go via the Barents Trough. Similarly, there is a depth limit of about 500 m to reach the northwestern Greenland glaciers.

Water masses retain their properties

Or rather, not all these properties change considerably with space and time. We are not talking only about temperature and salinity, but also about gas and chemical concentrations. It is then possible to track a water mass as it travels around the globe or watch its evolution with time.

You should use T-S diagrams

Visualising water properties can either be done with one graph showing how the temperature varies with depth plus another one for the salinity (multiplied by the number of locations to be observed at the same time); or all of this information can be combined on one image (as done on Fig. 4). This image is called a T-S diagram it and shows how the temperature (T) varies as a function of the salinity (S). It is customary to also draw the lines of constant density (the ‘isopycnals’, black on Fig. 3). These isopycnals give information about the types of mixing happening and the stratification, but we will talk about that in another post.

Fig 4 - an example of how to combine several profiles (top) into a T-S diagram, for one of the randomly selected Arctic historical points that I work with.[Credit: C. Heuzé]

Fig 4 – an example of how to combine several profiles (top) into a T-S diagram, for one of the randomly selected Arctic historical points that I work with [Credit: C. Heuzé].

Because each water mass occupies a very specific region of the T-S diagram (see Fig 5 for an example in the Atlantic), identifying them is relatively easy once you have plotted your data on such diagrams.

Fig 5 – example of a reference T-S diagram with the different water masses of the Atlantic Ocean. Water massed are labelled by their acronym (e.g. AABW= Antarctic Bottom Water) [Credit: after Emery and Meincke (1986)]

Why do ocean water masses matter to the cryosphere?

  • Marine ice sheet instability, and more generally basal melting, is caused by warm dense waters melting floating glaciers from below; how dense the water mass is determines whether it can even reach the glacier.
  • Sea ice formation and melting can be largely affected by water masses moving up and down, especially is those going up are warm.

But there’s a reason why we always talk about “ice-ocean” interactions: it’s not just the ocean acting on the ice, but also the ice impacting the ocean:

  • The densest water mass in the world, Antarctic Bottom Water, forms in the middle of winter if a hole in the sea-ice cover opens (that is called a polynya), suddenly exposing the relatively warm ocean to the extremely cold atmosphere. The resulting strong heat loss and the increased salinity as sea ice reforms make this water sink straight to the bottom;
  • On the other hand, deep water formation can be stopped by the cryosphere: paleorecord evidence showed that it happened in the North Atlantic due to surging ice sheet / marine ice sheet instability (so called Heinrich events) or meltwater floods (Younger Dryas);
  • Less dramatically, icebergs, ice shelves or even sea ice, can cool or freshen water masses they meet, forming “modified” water masses (for example “modified Atlantic Water”),

Each aspect of these interactions is already experiencing climate change and is much more complex than this brief overview… but that will be the topic of another post!

Further reading

 Edited by Sophie Berger and Emma Smith

Marine Ice Sheet Instability “For Dummies”

Marine Ice Sheet Instability “For Dummies”

MISI is a term that is often thrown into dicussions and papers which talk about the contribution of Antarctica to sea-level rise but what does it actually mean and why do we care about it?

MISI stands for Marine Ice Sheet Instability. In this article, we are going to attempt to explain this term to you and also show you why it is so important.


The Antarctic Ice Sheet represents the largest potential source of future sea-level rise: if all its ice melted, sea level would rise by about 60 m (Vaughan et al., 2013). According to satellite observations, the Antarctic Ice Sheet has lost 1350 Gt (gigatonnes) of ice between 1992 and 2011 (1 Gt = 1000 million tonnes), equivalent to an increase in sea level of 3.75 mm or 0.00375 m (Shepherd et al., 2012). 3.75 mm does not seem a lot but imagine that this sea-level rise is evenly spread over all the oceans on Earth, i.e. over a surface of about 360 million km², leading to a total volume of about 1350 km³, i.e. 1350 Gt of water… The loss over this period is mainly due to increased ice discharge into the ocean in two rapidly changing regions: West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula (Figure 1, blue and orange curves respectively).

Figure 1: Cumulative ice mass changes (left axis) and equivalent sea-level contribution (right axis) of the different Antarctic regions based on different satellite observations (ERS-1/2, Envisat, ICESat, GRACE) from 1992 to 2011 (source: adapted from Fig. 5 of Shepherd et al., 2012 ) with addition of inset: Antarctic map showing the different regions ( source )

What are the projections for the future?

Figure 2: Ice velocity of the glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment, West Antarctica, using ERS-1/2 radar data in winter 1996. The grounding line (boundary between ice sheet and ice shelf) is shown for 1992, 1994, 1996, 2000 and 2011 (source: Fig. 1 of Rignot et al., 2014 ).

Figure 2: Ice velocity of the glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment, West Antarctica, using ERS-1/2 radar data in winter 1996. The grounding line (boundary between ice sheet and ice shelf) is shown for 1992, 1994, 1996, 2000 and 2011 (source: Fig. 1 of Rignot et al., 2014 ).

According to model projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global mean sea level will rise by 0.26 to 0.82 m during the twenty-first century (Church et al., 2013). The contribution from the Antarctic Ice Sheet in those projections will be about 0.05 m (or 50 mm) sea-level equivalent, i.e. 10% of the global projected sea-level rise, with other contributions coming from thermal expansion (40 %), glaciers (25 %), Greenland Ice Sheet (17 %) and land water storage (8 %).

The contribution from Antarctica compared to other contributions does not seem huge, however there is a high uncertainty coming from the possible instability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. According to theoretical (Weertman, 1974; Schoof, 2007) and recent modeling results (e.g. Favier et al., 2014; Joughin et al., 2014), this region could be subject to marine ice sheet instability (MISI), which could lead to considerable and rapid ice discharge from Antarctica. Satellite observations show that MISI may be under way in the Amundsen Sea Embayment (Rignot et al., 2014), where some of the fastest flowing glaciers on Earth are located, e.g. Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers (Figure 2). So what exactly is MISI?

What is marine ice sheet instability (MISI)?


Figure 3: Antarctic map of ice sheet (blue), ice shelves (orange) and islands/ice rises (green) based on satellite data (ICESat and MODIS). The grounding line is the separation between the ice sheet and the ice shelves. Units on X and Y axes are km (source: NASA ).

Figure 3: Antarctic map of ice sheet (blue), ice shelves (orange) and islands/ice rises (green) based on satellite data (ICESat and MODIS). The grounding line is the separation between the ice sheet and the ice shelves. Units on X and Y axes are km (source: NASA ).

To understand the concept of MISI, it is important to define both ‘marine ice sheet’ and ‘grounding line’:


  • A marine ice sheet is an ice sheet sitting on a bedrock that is below sea level, for example the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
  • The grounding line is the boundary between the ice sheet, sitting on land, and the floating ice shelves (Figure 3 for a view from above and Figure 4 for a side view). The position and migration of this grounding line control the stability of a marine ice sheet.



The MISI hypothesis states that when the bedrock slopes down from the coast towards the interior of the marine ice sheet, which is the case in large parts of West Antarctica, the grounding line is not stable (in the absence of back forces provided by ice shelves, see next section for more details). To explain this concept, let us take the schematic example shown in Figure 4:

  1. The grounding line is initially located on a bedrock sill (Figure 4a). This position is stable: the ice flux at the grounding line, which is the amount of ice passing through the grounding line per unit time, matches the total upstream accumulation.
  2. A perturbation is applied at the grounding line, e.g. through the incursion of warm Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW, red arrow in Figure 4) below the ice shelf as observed in the Amundsen Sea Embayment.
  3. These warm waters lead to basal melting at the grounding line, ice-shelf thinning and glacier acceleration, resulting in an inland retreat of the grounding line.
  4. The grounding line is then located on a bedrock that slopes downward inland (Figure 4b), i.e. an unstable position where the ice column at the grounding line is thicker than previously (Figure 4a). The theory shows that ice flux at the grounding line is strongly dependent on ice thickness there (Weertman, 1974; Schoof, 2007), so a thicker ice leads to a higher ice flux.
  5. Then, the grounding line is forced to retreat since the ice flux at the grounding line is higher than the upstream accumulation.
  6. This is a positive feedback and the retreat only stops once a new stable position is reached (e.g. a bedrock high), where both ice flux at the grounding line and upstream accumulation match.
Figure 4: Schematic representation of the marine ice sheet instability (MISI) with (a) an initial stable grounding-line position and (b) an unstable grounding-line position after the incursion of warm Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW) below the ice shelf (source: Fig. 3 of Hanna et al., 2013 ).

Figure 4: Schematic representation of the marine ice sheet instability (MISI) with (a) an initial stable grounding-line position and (b) an unstable grounding-line position after the incursion of warm Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW) below the ice shelf (source: Fig. 3 of Hanna et al., 2013 ).

  • In summary, the MISI hypothesis describes the condition where a marine ice sheet is unstable due to being grounded below sea level on land that is sloping downward from the coast to the interior of the ice sheet.
  • This configuration leads to potential rapid retreat of the grounding line and speed up of ice flow from the interior of the continent into the oceans.

Is there evidence that MISI is happening right now?


Figure 5: Buttressing provided by Larsen C ice shelf, Antarctic Peninsula, based on a model simulation (Elmer/Ice). Buttressing values range between 0 (no buttressing) and 1 (high buttressing). The red contour shows the buttressing=0.3 isoline. Observed ice velocity is also shown (source: Fig. 2 of Fürst et al., 2016 ).

Figure 5: Buttressing provided by Larsen C ice shelf, Antarctic Peninsula, based on a model simulation (Elmer/Ice). Buttressing values range between 0 (no buttressing) and 1 (high buttressing). The red contour shows the buttressing=0.3 isoline. Observed ice velocity is also shown (source: Fig. 2 of Fürst et al., 2016 ).

In reality, the grounding line is often stabilized by an ice shelf that is laterally confined by side walls (see Figure 5, where Bawden and Gipps ice rises confine Larsen C ice shelf) or by an ice shelf that has a contact with a locally grounded feature (Figure 6). Both cases transmit a back force towards the ice sheet, the ‘buttressing effect’, which stabilizes the grounding line (Goldberg et al., 2009; Gudmundsson, 2013) even if the configuration is unstable, i.e. in the case of a grounding line located on a bedrock sloping down towards the interior (Figure 4b).


However, in the last two decades, the grounding lines of the glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment (Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers for example) retreated with rates of 1 to 2 km per year, in regions of bedrock sloping down towards the ice sheet interior (Rignot et al., 2014). The trigger of these grounding-line retreats is the incursion of warm CDW penetrating deeply into cavities below the ice shelves (Jacobs et al., 2011), carrying important amounts of heat that melt the base of ice shelves (Figure 4). Increased basal melt rates have led to ice-shelf thinning, which has reduced the ice-shelf buttressing effect and increased ice discharge. All of this has led to grounding-line retreat. The exact cause of CDW changes is not clearly known but these incursions are probably linked to changes in local wind stress (Steig et al., 2012) rather than an actual warming of CDW.



Figure 6: Schematic representation of ice-shelf buttressing by a local pinning point (source: courtesy of R. Drews ).

Figure 6: Schematic representation of ice-shelf buttressing by a local pinning point (source: courtesy of R. Drews ).

There is currently no major obstacle to these grounding line retreats. Therefore, the Amundsen Sea Embayment is probably experiencing MISI and glaciers will continue to retreat if no stabilization is reached. This sector of West Antarctica contains enough ice to raise global sea level by 1.2 m.


What can we do about it?

MISI is probably ongoing in some parts of Antarctica and sea level could rise more than previously estimated if the grounding lines of the glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment continue to retreat so fast. This could have catastrophic impacts on populations living close to the coasts, for example more frequent flooding of coastal cities, enhanced coastal erosion or changes in water quality.

Thus, it is important to continue monitoring the changes happening in Antarctica, and particularly in West Antarctica. This will allow us to better understand and project future sea-level rise from this region, as well as better adapt the cities of tomorrow.

Edited by Clara Burgard and Emma Smith

DavidDavid 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.