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Image of the Week — Biscuits in the Permafrost

Fig. 1: A network of low-centred ice-wedge polygons (5 to 20 m in diameter) in Adventdalen, Svalbard [Credit: Ben Giles/Matobo Ltd]

In Svalbard, the snow melts to reveal a mysterious honeycomb network of irregular shapes (fig. 1). These shapes may look as though they have been created by a rogue baker with an unusual set of biscuit cutters, but they are in fact distinctive permafrost landforms known as ice-wedge polygons, and they play an important role in the global climate.


Ice-wedge polygons: Nature’s biscuit-cutter

In winter, cracks form when plummeting air temperatures cause the ground to cool and contract. O’Neill and Christiansen (2018) used miniature accelerometers to detect this cracking, and found that it causes tiny earthquakes, with large magnitude accelerations (from 5 g to at least 100 g (where g = normal gravity)!). Water fills the cracks when snow melts. When the temperature drops, the water refreezes and expands, widening the cracks. Over successive winters, the low tensile strength of the ice compared to the surrounding sediment means that cracking tends to reoccur in the ice. As the cycle of cracking, infilling, and refreezing continues over centuries to millennia, ice wedges develop.

Subsurface ice wedge growth causes small changes in the ground surface microtopography. There are linear depressions, known as troughs, above the ice wedges (fig. 2). Adjacent to the troughs, the soil is pushed up into raised rims. From these raised rims, the elevation drops off into the polygon centre, forming low-centred polygons (fig. 2a).

Shaping Arctic landscapes

Permafrost in the Northern hemisphere is warming due to increasing air temperatures (Romanovsky et al. (2010). As air temperatures rise, the active layer (the ground that thaws each summer and refreezes in winter) deepens.

As permafrost with a high ice content thaws out, the ice melts and the ground subsides. On the other hand, permafrost containing no ice does not experience subsidence. Consequently, permafrost thaw can cause differential subsidence in ice-wedge polygon networks. This re-arranges the surface microtopography: ice wedges melt, the rims collapse into the troughs, and the polygons become flat-centred and then eventually high-centred (fig. 2b and c; Lara et al. (2015)). Wedge ice is ~20 % of the uppermost permafrost volume, and so this degradation could have a big impact on the shape of Arctic landscapes.

Are ice wedge polygons climate amplifiers?

Fig. 2: Schematic diagrams of polygon types and features [Credit: Wainwright et al. (2015)].

The transition from low-centred to high-centred ice-wedge polygons affects water distribution across the polygonal ground. The rims of low-centred polygons tend to block water drainage, whereas the troughs facilitate relatively fast and effective drainage of water from the polygonal networks (Liljedahl et al., 2012). So, during summer, the centres of low-centred polygons are frequently flooded with stagnant water, whereas the central mounds of high centred polygons are well drained (and good to sit on at lunchtime!). The contrast in hydrology influences vegetation, surface energy transfer, and biogeochemistry, in turn influencing carbon cycling and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

High-centred polygons can have increased carbon dioxide emissions compared to low-centred polygons, on account of their lower soil moisture, reduced cover of green vascular vegetation and the well-drained soil (Wainwright et al., 2015). On the other hand, once plant growth during peak growing season is accounted for, this can actually cause a net drawdown of carbon dioxide in high-centred polygons (Lara et al., 2015). In contrast, there is general agreement that low-centred polygons are associated with high summer methane flux (Lara et al., 2015; Sachs et al., 2010; Wainwright et al., 2015). This is due to multiple interacting environmental factors. Firstly, low centred polygons have a higher temperature, which increases methane production rates. Secondly, they also have moister soil, which decreases the consumption of methane, owing to the lower oxygen availability. Thirdly, the low-centred polygons often have more vascular plants that help transport the methane away from its production site and up into the atmosphere. Lastly, the low-centred polygons had higher concentrations of aqueous total organic carbon, which provides a good food source for methanogens.

Outlook

As the climate warms, ice wedge polygons will increasingly degrade. The challenge now is to figure out whether the transition from low-centred to high-centred polygons will enhance or mitigate climate warming. This depends on the balance between the uptake and release of methane and carbon dioxide, as well as the rate of transition from high- to low-centred polygons.

Further Reading

Lara, M.J., et al. (2015), Polygonal tundra geomorphological change in response to warming alters future CO2 and CH4 flux on the Barrow Peninsula. Global Change Biology, 21(4), 1634-1651

Liljedahl, A.K., et al. (2016), Pan-Arctic ice-wedge degradation in warming permafrost and its influence on tundra hydrology. Nature Geoscience, 9, 312-316.

Wainwright, H.M., et al. (2015), Identifying multiscale zonation and assessing the relative importance of polygons geomorphology on carbon fluxes in an Arctic tundra ecosystem. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 707-723.

On permafrost instability: Image of the Week – When the dirty cryosphere destabilizes! | EGU Cryosphere Blog

On polygons in wetlands: Polygon ponds at sunset | Geolog

Edited by Joe Cook and Sophie Berger


Eleanor Jones is a NERC PhD student on the EU-JPI LowPerm project based at the University of Sheffield and the University Centre in Svalbard. She is investigating the biogeochemistry of ice-wedge polygon wetlands in Svalbard. She tweets as @ElouJones. Contact Email: eljones3@sheffield.ac.uk

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 – 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 – 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.

Image of the Week – Searching for clues of extraterrestrial life on the Antarctic ice sheet

Fig. 1: A meteorite in the Szabo Bluff region of the Transantarctic mountain range, lying in wait for the 2012 ANSMET team to collect it [Credit: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program / Katherine Joy].

Last week we celebrated Antarctica Day, 50 years after the Antarctic Treaty was signed. This treaty includes an agreement to protect Antarctic ecosystems. But what if, unintentionally, this protection also covered clues of life beyond Earth? In this Image of the Week, we explore how meteorites found in Antarctica are an important piece of the puzzle in the search for extraterrestrial life.


Meteorites in Antarctica

Year after year, teams of scientists from across the globe travel to Antarctica for a variety of scientific endeavours, from glaciologists studying flowing ice to atmospheric scientists examining the composition of the air and biologists studying life on the ice, from penguins to cold-loving microorganisms. Perhaps a less conspicuous group of scientists are the meteorite hunters.

Antarctica is the best place on Earth to find meteorites. Meteorites that fall in this cold, dry desert are spared from the high corrosion rates of warmer, wetter environments, preserving them in relatively pristine condition. They are also much easier to spot mainly due to the contrast between their dark surfaces on the white icy landscape (see our Image of the Week), but also because the combination of Antarctica’s climate, topography and the movement of ice serves to concentrate meteorites, as if lying in wait to be found.

The targeted search for meteorites has taken place annually since the late 1960s, leading to the recovery of over 50,000 specimens from the continent, and counting. The most prolific of these search teams is the US-led Antarctic Search for Meteorites ANSMET), which lay claim to over half of these finds. Comprising only a handful of enthusiasts, this team camps out on the slopes of the Transantarctic Mountains for around 6 weeks hunting for meteorites. The finds include rocks originating from asteroids, the Moon and Mars.

 

Evidence of life in a meteorite?

There has long been a link between meteorites and the potential for life beyond Earth. Perhaps the most famous, or rather infamous, meteorite found in Antarctica is the Alan Hills 84001 meteorite (ALH84001). Found by the 1984 ANSMET team, this meteorite was blasted from the surface of Mars some 17 million years ago as a result of an asteroid or meteorite impact, falling to Earth around 13,000 years ago. This piece of crystallised Martian lava is roughly 4.5 billion years old. The reason for its infamy is the widely publicised claim made a decade after its discovery that it harbours evidence of Martian life [McKay et al 1996]. Specifically, application of high resolution electron microscopy unearthed microstructures comprising magnetite crystals that looked, to the NASA scientist David McKay and his team, like fossilised microbial life, albeit at the nanoscale (see Fig. 2).

Fig.2: A nanoscale magnetite microstructure that was interpreted as fossilised microbial life from Mars [Credit: D McKay (NASA), K. Thomas-Keprta (Lockheed-Martin), R. Zare (Stanford), NASA].

Such a finding of evidence for extraterrestrial life has huge implications for the presence of life beyond Earth, a subject that has captivated humankind since ancient times. This extraordinary claim made headline news across the globe. It even gained acknowledgement by the then US president Bill Clinton. In the words popularised by Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, and this one garnered considerable controversy that endures today. At the time, there was no known process that did not involve life that could result in these types of structures. Subsequent research, triggered by this claim, has since indicated otherwise. The debate rolls on, and it seems we will never really know whether the crystals structures are fossils of Martian life or not, with no conclusive evidence on either side of the argument. Nevertheless, the interest and attention gained through this story kick-started a flurry of hugely successful Mars exploration missions, as well as reinvigorated the search for life beyond Earth.

 

Meteorites as microbial fuel

The ALH840001 is an unusual connection between meteorites and the search for extraterrestrial life. Much subtler, but more wide-reaching, is the potentially important connection between organic-containing meteorites and the existence of life elsewhere. The chondrite class of meteorites originates from the early solar system, specifically from primitive asteroids that formed from the accretion of dust and grains. They are the most common type of meteorite that falls to Earth, and contain a wide array of organic compounds, including nucleotides and amino acids, the so-called building blocks of life. In addition, a number of organic compounds that reside in these meteorites are also common on Earth, and are known to fuel microbial life by serving as a source of energy and nutrients for an array of microorganisms [Nixon et al 2012]. These meteorites have fallen to Earth and Mars for billions of years, since before the emergence and proliferation of life as we understand it. A significant quantity of these meteorites, and the organic matter contained within them, has therefore accumulated on Mars. In fact, owing to the thinner atmosphere of Mars, a larger quantity is expected to have accumulated there than on Earth, and with more of its organic content intact. It is a therefore a distinct possibility that these meteorites may play an important role in the emergence, or even persistence, of life on Mars, if such life has ever existed [Nixon et al 2013].

The search for life on Mars is very much an active pursuit. As we continue this search using robotic spacecraft, such as NASA’s Curiosity rover and the upcoming European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover, we seek to better define whether environments on Mars are habitable for life. But our understanding of habitability on Mars and beyond is defined by our knowledge of the limits of life here on Earth, such as the microbial lifeforms that can make a living on and under the Antarctic ice sheet (see this previous post), but also in terms of the chemical energy able to support life. The search for meteorites on Antarctica has an important role to play here, and long may the hunt continue.

 

References and further reading

Edited by Joe Cook and Clara Burgard


Sophie Nixon is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Geomicrobiology group at the University of Manchester. She completed her PhD in Astrobiology in 2014 at the University of Edinburgh, the subject of which was the feasibility for microbial iron reduction on Mars. Sophie’s research interests since joining the University of Manchester are varied, focussing mainly on the microbiological implications of anthropogenic engineering of the subsurface (e.g. shale gas extraction, nuclear waste disposal), as well as life in extreme environments and the feasibility for life beyond Earth. Contact: sophie.nixon@manchester.ac.uk

Image of the Week – Antarctica Day

Image of the Week – Antarctica Day

Today, 1st December 2017, marks the 58th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. The Antarctic Treaty was motivated by international collaboration in Antarctica in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1957-1958. During the IGY over 50 new bases were established in and around Antarctica by 12 nations- including this one at Halley Bay which was maintained for over a decade before being replaced. These nations signed the Treaty to keep Antarctica as a continent of peace and scientific research. Since 2010, this date has been marked by Antarctica Day, which is used to promote awareness of Antarctica as an international space with benefits for all.


Antarctica as a continent of peace and scientific collaboration

In the year 1957-1958, 67 countries participated in the International Geophysical Year (IGY). This was (a bit confusingly) 18 months of international coordinated observations and data retrieval. The goal was to exploit new tools and techniques to advance science in a huge range of geophysical disciplines. The results, direct and indirect, were widespread. For example it is no coincidence that the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched by the USSR in October 1957, after the USA had announced they would launch a satellite as part of IGY activities.

Fig.2: Territorial claims in Antarctica [Credit: Australian Antarctic Data Centre ]

Expeditions in Antarctica were a major activity of the IGY. Seven countries had territorial claims in Antarctica at the time, some of them overlapping (Fig. 2). To make sure that territorial disputes did not hinder scientific progress, it was established that these political goals for Antarctica would be set aside during the IGY, and scientific goals prioritized. As a result, 12 countries operated around Antarctica during the IGY: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States and USSR. This included those with previous claims as well as those like the USA and USSR who had not previously had activities in Antarctica.

Out of concern for maintaining the scientific legacy of this fantastic year of collaboration, these same 12 countries gathered in 1959 for the “Conference on the Antarctic” in Washington D.C.
The original Treaty had two main components:

  • Antarctica should be used for ‘peaceful means only’. It would not be permitted to establish military bases, carry out military maneuvers, or test weapons.
  • There should be ‘freedom of scientific investigation’. In particular, the Treaty laid out terms of collaboration, such that personnel, information about activities, and the results of scientific observations, should be shared freely.

The Antarctic Treaty covers the area from 60 to 90 degrees south, enclosing the entire Antarctic continent as well as many Antarctic islands and a large area of the Southern Ocean.

 

Future Treaties: Protecting the Environment

The Antarctic Treaty didn’t directly include protections for the environment. However, it did state that future meetings would consider actions related to the Treaty, including those ‘regarding preservation and conservation of living resources in Antarctica’. In the following decades, three major agreements were made to ensure the protection of different aspects of the Antarctic environment.
The first two were the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, in 1972, and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, in 1982.

The third is the ‘Environmental Protocol’ (full and lengthy name “The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty”). This wide-ranging protocol was signed in 1991 and came into force in 1998, and established the Committee for Environmental Protection. The overarching purpose of the protocol is a commitment “to the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems and hereby designate Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science“. It covers all activities in the Antarctic Treaty region, south of 60°S. It lays out reasons for protecting Antarctica – as a home to ecosystems, a unique wilderness, and as a crucial location for scientific research and for understanding the global environment. It outlines types of adverse impact to be avoided; for example, pollution, environmental change, damage to significant locations, and disruption of ecosystems by exploiting them or by introducing foreign species. And, the protocol establishes how such impacts are to be avoided, for example by requiring Environmental Impact Assessments before any activity is carried out.

 

Celebrating the Treaty: Antarctica Day

Inspired by 50 successful years of the Antarctic Treaty, Antarctica Day was launched on the 1st December 2010 and is celebrated on this date each year. Its goals are to celebrate the success of this international coordination treaty and the resulting international peaceful co-operation in Antarctica, raise awareness of the uniqueness of Antarctica, and to encourage conversation and collaboration between students, scientists and officials.

A number of particular activities take place each year. One is an ‘Antarctic flags’ event, organized by the Association of Polar Early Career Researchers (APECS), and currently managed by its UK branch, the UK Polar Network. School children design flags ready for Antarctica Day, which are then proudly displayed by researchers visiting Antarctica over the Antarctic summer (northern hemisphere winter!).

Fig.3: “Los niños de 5to año de la Escuela 163 “Japón” de La Paz- Uruguay”: Antarctica Day 2017 flags designed by school children in Uruguay. [credit: Valentina Cordoba. Provided by Sammie Buzzard.]

If you’re going to Antarctica in the next couple of months and can take a photo of yourself with one of the flags while there, please email education@polarnetwork.org

 

Happy Antarctica day!

 

Further Reading

Edited by Sophie Berger


Caroline Holmes is a postdoctoral researcher at the British Antarctic Survey, UK. She investigates how well sea ice is represented in coupled climate models. The climate models used to project the evolution of the earth system under climate change represent very differing behaviors in terms of the seasonal cycle of sea ice cover at each pole, and trends in the recent past and projected future. Caroline’s work seeks to understand these differing behaviors by examining sea ice processes and atmosphere-ocean-ice linkages. Twitter @CHolmesClimate. Contact Email: calmes@bas.ac.uk

Image of the Week – Ice Stupas: a solution for Himalayan water shortage?

Image of the Week – Ice Stupas: a solution for Himalayan water shortage?

As the world searches for practical innovations that can mitigate the impact of climate change, traditional methods of environmental management can offer inspiration. In Hindu Kush and Karakoram region, local people have been growing, or grafting, glaciers for at least 100 years. Legend has it that artificial glaciers were grown in mountain passes as early as the twelfth century to block the advance of Genghis Khan and the Mongols!


 

What exactly are we talking about?

People in the Himalayas need water for the irrigation of their crops. Naturally, they get this water during the melting period of local glaciers. Glacial melt, however, is insufficient to satisfy the demands in early spring (April-June). Artificial ice structures can increase the availability of water for crop irrigation during this period. They are grown during the winter season preventing the water to waste away into the ocean. The Ice Stupa project is bringing these practices back from the realm of folklore for the everyday use of mountain farmers again.

 

How it works

An artificial glacier is built following a simple technique. Water is piped away from high altitude reservoirs (glacial lakes or streams) in winter. Further downstream, the water is allowed to “leave” the pipe. Due to gravity, the pressure that has built up on the way forces the water to leave the pipe as a water fountain. In contact with subzero temperatures, the water fountain freezes, building a huge cone of ice. In its final form, this artificial glacier looks like a traditional buddhist building, hence the name “stupa“. In the following video, you can get a better visual idea of the process!

 

 

An ice stupa is needed for crop irrigation. The water contained in the stupa should therefore also be released during the right time of the year. To this purpose, it is also designed to conserve water in ice form as long into the summer as possible. It can then, as it melts, provide irrigation to the fields until the real glacial melt waters are sufficient in June. Since these ice cones extend vertically upwards towards the sun, they receive less of the sun’s energy per unit of volume of water stored. Hence, they will take much longer to melt compared to an artificial glacier of the same volume formed horizontally on a flat surface.

 

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard


Suryanarayanan Balasubramanian is a mathematician who has been managing the Ice Stupa Project for the past three years. He studies the life cycle of Ice Stupas through field measurements and dynamic models. He is currently developing the project in Peru, Switzerland, Nepal and India. Contact Email: gayashiva91@gmail.com

Back to the Front – Larsen C Ice Shelf in the Aftermath of Iceberg A68!

Back to the Front – Larsen C Ice Shelf in the Aftermath of Iceberg A68!

Much of the Antarctic continent is fringed by ice shelves. An ice shelf is the floating extension of a terrestrial ice mass and, as such, is an important ‘middleman’ that regulates the delivery of ice from land into the ocean: for much of Antarctica, ice that passes from land into the sea does so via ice shelves. I’ve been conducting geophysical experiments on ice for over a decade, using mostly seismic and radar methods to determine the physical condition of ice and its wider system, but it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve been using these methods on ice shelves. The importance of ice shelf processes is becoming more widely recognised in glaciological circles: after hearing one of my seminars last year, a glaciology professor told me that he was revising his previous opinion that ice shelves were largely ‘passengers’ in the grand scheme of things and this recognition is becoming more common. Slowly, we are coming to appreciate that ice shelves have their own specific dynamics and, moreover, that they are the drivers of change on other ice masses.


The MIDAS Project

In 2015, I joined the MIDAS project – led by Swansea and Aberystwyth Universities and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council – dedicated to investigating the effects of a warming climate on the Larsen C ice shelf in West Antarctica (Fig. 1). My role was to to assist with geophysical surveys (Fig. 2) on the ice shelf – but more about that later!

Figure 2: Adam Booth overseeing seismic surveys on the Larsen C ice
shelf in 2015 [Credit: Suzanne Bevan].

Larsen C is located towards the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, and is one of a number of “Larsen neighbours” that fringe its eastern cost. MIDAS turns out to have been an extremely timely study, culminating in 2017 just as Larsen C hit the headlines by calving one of the largest icebergs – termed A68 – ever recorded. On 12th July 2017, 12% of the Larsen C area was sliced away by a sporadically-propagating rift through the eastern edge of the shelf, resulting in an iceberg with 5800 km2 area (two Luxembourgs, one Delaware, one-quarter Wales…). As of 14th October 2017 (Fig. 1), A68 is drifting into the Weddell Sea, with open ocean between it and Larsen C. See our previous post “Ice ice bergy” to find out more about how and why ice berg movement is monitored.

The aftermath of A68

As colossal as A68 (Fig, 1) is, its record-breaking statistics are only (hnnngh…) the tip of the iceberg, and of greater significance is the potential response of what remains of Larsen C. This potential is best appreciated by considering what happened to Larsen B, a northern neighbour of Larsen C. In early 2002, over 3000 km2 of Larsen B Ice Shelf underwent a catastrophic collapse, disintegrating into thousands of smaller icebergs (and immortalised in the music of the band British Sea Power). Rewind seven years further back, to 1995: Larsen B calved an enormous iceberg, exceeding 1700 m2 in area. An ominous extrapolation from this is that large iceberg calving somehow preconditions ice shelves to instability, and several models of Larsen C evolution suggest that it could follow Larsen B’s lead and become more vulnerable to collapse over the coming years.

The enormous mass of the intact ice shelf acts like a dam that blocks the delivery of terrestrial ice into the ocean, and the disappearance of the ice shelf removes so-called ‘backstress’ – essentially ‘breaking the dam’.

Then what? Well, ice shelves are in stress communication with their terrestrial tributaries, therefore processes affecting the shelf can propagate back to the supply glaciers. The enormous mass of the intact ice shelf acts like a dam that blocks the delivery of terrestrial ice into the ocean, and the disappearance of the ice shelf removes so-called ‘backstress’ – essentially ‘breaking the dam’. In the aftermath of Larsen B’s collapse, its tributary glaciers were seen to accelerate, thereby delivering more of their ice into the Weddell Sea. It is this aftermath that we are particularly concerned about, since it’s the accelerated tributaries that promote accelerated sea-level rise. Ice shelf collapse has little immediate impact on sea-level: since it is already floating, the shelf displaces all the water that it ever will. But, in moving more ice from the land to the sea, we risk increased sea levels and, with them, the associated socio-economic consequences.

How can we improve our predictions?

Figure 3: Computational model of the changed stress state, Δτuu, of Larsen C following the calving of A68 (output from BISICLES model, from Stephen Cornford, Swansea University). The stress change is keenly felt at the calving front, but also propagates further upstream [Credit: Stephen Cornford]

A key limitation in our ability to predict the evolution of Larsen C is a lack of observational evidence of how ice shelf stresses evolve in the short-term aftermath of a major calving event. These calving events are rare: we simply haven’t had much opportunity to investigate them, so while our computer predictions are based on valid physics (e.g., Fig. 3) it would be valuable to have actual observations to constrain them. Powerful satellite methods are available for tracking the behaviour of the shelf but these provide only the surface response; Larsen C is around 200 m thick at its calving front so there is plenty of ice that is hidden away from the satellite ‘eye in the sky’, but that is still adapting to the new stress regime. So how can we “see” into the ice?

To address this, we’ve recently been awarded an “Urgency Grant” – Response to the A68 Calving Event (RA68CE) – from NERC to send a fieldcrew to the Larsen C ice shelf, involving researchers from Leeds, Swansea and Aberystwyth, together with the British Geological and British Antarctic Surveys.

Figure 4: Emma Pearce and Dr Jim White preparing seismic equipment – intrepid geophysicists ready to wrap-up warm for field deployment on Larsen C! [Credit: Adam Booth]

The field team – Jim White and Emma Pearce (Fig. 4) – will undertake seismic and radar surveys at two main sites (Fig. 3) to assess the new stress regime around the Larsen C calving front. One of these sites is being reoccupied after seismic surveying in 2008-9, during the Swansea-led SOLIS project, allowing us to make a long-term comparison. These, and two other sites, will also be instrumented with EMLID REACH GPS sensors, to track small-scale ice movements than can’t be captured in the satellite data. The field observations will be supplied to a team of glacial modellers at Swansea University, to allow them to improve future predictions (e.g. Fig. 3), while their remote sensing team continues to monitor the evolving stress state at surface.

It’s truly exciting to be coordinating the first deployment, post A68, on Larsen C. Our data should provide a unique missing piece from the predictive jigsaw of Larsen C’s evolution, ultimately improving our understanding of the causes and effects of large-scale iceberg calving – both for Larsen C and beyond!

 

For ice-hot news from the field, follow Emma Pearce on twitter: @emm_pearce

 

Edited by Emma Smith


Further Reading

  • More information on Larsen C at the project MIDAS website
  • Learn more about ice shelf evolution with the Ice Flows game – eduction by stealth! Also check out the EGU Cryoblog post about it!
  • Borstad et al., 2017; Fracture propagation and stability of ice shelves governed by ice shelf heterogeneity; Geophysical Research Letters, 44, 4186-4194.
  • Wuite et al., 2015; Evolution of surface velocities and ice discharge of Larsen B outlet glaciers from 1995 to 2013. The Cryosphere, 9, 957-969.
  • Cornford et al., 2013; Adaptive mesh, finite volume modelling of marine ice sheets; Journal of Computational Physics, 232, 1, 529-549.

Adam Booth is a lecturer in Exploration Geophysics at the University of Leeds, UK. He is the PI on the NERC-funded project “Ice shelf response to large iceberg calving” (NE/R012334/1). After obtaining his PhD from the University of Leeds in 2008, he held postdoctoral positions at Swansea University and Imperial College London, in which he worked with diverse research applications of near-surface geophysics. He tweets as: @Geophysics_Adam