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Image of the Week – Permafrost features disappearing from subarctic peatlands

Image of the Week – Permafrost features disappearing from subarctic peatlands

Some of the most remarkable, marginal features of permafrost – palsas – are degrading and disappearing metre by metre from North European peatlands, and are driven close to extinction by the climate change.


What are these permafrost features?

A palsa is a peat mound with an icy core, which stays frozen throughout summer due to the insulating property of dry peat. These mounds can rise up to 10 metres above the surface of surrounding mire (wet terrain dominated by peat-forming vegetation), and they may occur as just a single palsa, group of palsas or as an extensive, but not very high (ca. 1 to 2 m) peat “platform”. The occurrence of palsas is limited by such factors as: low mean annual air temperature (< 0 °C), low annual precipitation (< 500 mm) and at least 40–50 cm thickness of peat layer, which is needed to sufficiently insulate the core during summer (Seppälä, 2011).

The established theory on palsas formation (Seppälä, 2011) is the following:

  1. The formation of a palsa begins when a part of mire freezes deeper in a windblown area with thinner snow cover, which normally protects the ground below from freezing temperatures.

  2. If the frozen peat doesn’t melt completely during summer, an ice lens forms inside the peat layer resulting in uplifting of the mire surface in this area.

  3. In the following winters, the snow is even more likely to be windblown from the mound, which again fosters deeper penetration of frost and formation of new ice lenses.

  4. As soon as a part of mire rises above the water level, the vegetation starts to change and the peat dries out, which contributes to the survival of the ice core during summers.

 

Breaking of the surface and erosion is a natural “step” for mature palsas, when the permafrost has reached the mineral ground below the peat. The melting of a palsa is a form of thermokarst, i.e. thawing of ice-rich permafrost (see this post for more details about thermokarst).

Block-erosion of peat on ridge-type palsa in Nierivuoma mire in Enontekiö, Finland [Credit: Mariana Verdonen].

Palsa, peat hummock or permafrost plateau?

The terminology used when speaking about these permafrost mounds varies, usually according to the continent the research was conducted on or the background of the authors. The term “palsa” comes from Lapland, and was used by Sami and northern Finns to refer to “hummock rising out of a bog with a core of ice” (Seppälä, 1972). In Fennoscandia, this term is used commonly for all main types: ridges, mounds and plateau palsas, whereas in North America the more common terms are either ‘peat or permafrost plateau’ or ‘wooded palsa’ depending on the shape and vegetation cover of the feature (Luoto et al, 2004).

Degrading permafrost of Fennoscandia

More often than not, one may encounter a desolate sight in North European palsa mires: most of the permafrost mounds are degrading by block erosion and/or melting away as a result of thawing of their frozen core. The vegetation that once was growing on hummocks above the wet mire surface, is now dead black in shallow thermokarst ponds surrounding palsas here and there. Although, in some places the conditions may still be favorable for new palsas to form, the general picture is devastating. Palsas are disappearing in most of their area of existence, and it is happening fast.

Thawing palsas of Nierivuoma captured from drone in July 2018. This peatland sprawls across ~7 km2 and is the largest palsa mire in Finland [Credit: Timo Kumpula].

Why should we care?

As climatic change is likely to increase winter and summer precipitation, and is already notable in rising mean annual air temperatures, palsas are predicted to disappear in Fennoscandia almost completely by the end of the 21st century (Fronzek et al, 2010).

It is noteworthy, that the palsa mire is the only mire and bog habitat that is listed as “critically endangered” in the 2016 European Red List of Habitats. While some other cold climate ecosystems may shift to higher latitudes and altitudes, palsa mires seem to be restricted from developing in higher areas, especially because of the required peat layer thickness (Luoto et al, 2004).

If just the loss of this diverse ecosystem type is not alarming by itself, there are couple of issues that I want to highlight:

  • Thawing of the perennially frozen peat changes the carbon fluxes of palsa mires as carbon previously trapped by permafrost becomes available for decay. As the area of dry peat surface decreases, more carbon is released into the atmosphere in the form of more effective greenhouse gas methane (CH4) instead of carbon dioxide (CO2). Recently, also the effects of permafrost thaw on the emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), which is a strong greenhouse gas, have gained more attention (Marushchak et al, 2011).

  • The heterogeneity formed by variety of mire surfaces, thermokartst ponds and dry palsa mounds creates favorable conditions for species richness in these subarctic environments. In particular, the number and density of bird species seems to be high in the zone of palsa mires compared to more southern mire zones in Fennoscandia, even though no species have been reported to be exclusive to palsa mires (Luoto et al, 2004). This relationship, as well as overall significance of palsa mires for biodiversity is still poorly understood, however.

References

 

Edited by Clara Burgard


Mariana Verdonen is an Early Stage Researcher at the University of Eastern Finland. She focuses on optical, multi-temporal and multiscale remote sensing of environmental changes in Arctic and Subarctic areas. Mariana’s scientific interests are generally in geomorphology, permafrost-landscape dynamics and remote sensing of the Cryosphere. She tweets as @MarianaVerdonen. Contact Email: mariana.verdonen@uef.fi

Ice-hot news: The cryosphere and the 1.5°C target

Ice-hot news: The cryosphere and the 1.5°C target

Every year again, the Conference of Parties takes place, an event where politicians and activists from all over the world meet for two weeks to discuss further actions concerning climate change. In the context the COP24, which started this Monday in Katowice (Poland), let’s revisit an important decision made three years ago, during the COP21 in Paris, and its consequences for the state of the cryosphere…


1.5°C target – what’s that again?

Last October, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report (SR15) on the impacts of a 1.5°C global warming above pre-industrial levels. This target of 1.5°C warming was established during the 21st conference of the parties (COP21), in a document known as the Paris Agreement. In this Agreement, most countries in the World acknowledge that limiting global warming to 1.5°C warming rather than 2°C warming would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

But wait, even though achieving this target is possible, which is not our subject today, what does it mean for our beloved cryosphere? And how does 1.5°C warming make a difference compared to the 2°C warming initially discussed during the COP21 and previous COPs?

A reason why the cryosphere is so difficult to grasp is the nonlinear behaviour of its components. What does this mean ? A good basic example is the transition between water and ice. At 99.9°C, you have water. Go down to 0.1°C and the water is colder, but this is still water. Then go down to -0.1°C and you end up with ice. The transition is very sharp and the system can be deeply affected even for a small change in temperature.

As a main conclusion, studies conducted in the context of SR15 show that, below 1.5°C of global warming, most components of the cryosphere will be slightly affected, while above that level of warming, there is more chance that the system may respond quickly to small temperature changes. In this Ice Hot News, we review the main conclusions of the SR15 concerning ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice and permafrost, answering among others the question if achieving the 1.5°C target would prevent us to trigger the potential nonlinear effects affecting some of them.

Ice sheets

The two only remaining ice sheets on Earth cover Greenland and Antarctica. If melted, the Greenland ice sheet could make the sea level rise by 7 m, while the Antarctic ice sheet could make it rise by almost 60 m. A recent review paper (Pattyn et al., 2018), not in SR15 because published very recently, shows that keeping the warming at 1.5°C rather than 2°C really makes the differences in terms of sea level rise contribution by the two ice sheets.

Greenland is a cold place, but not that cold. During the Holocene, the surface of the ice sheet always melted in summer but, in the yearly mean, the ice sheet was in equilibrium because summer melt was compensated by winter accumulation. Since the mid-1990s, Greenland’s atmosphere has warmed by about 5°C in winter and 2°C in summer. The ice sheet is thus currently losing mass from above and its surface lowers down. In the future, if the surface lowers too much, this could accelerate the mass loss because the limit altitude between snow and rainfalls may have been crossed, further accelerating the mass loss. The temperature threshold beyond which this process will occur is about 1.8°C, according to the Pattyn et al., 2018 paper.

Antarctica is a very cold continent, much colder than Greenland, but it has been losing mass since the 1990s as well. There, the source of the retreat is the temperature increase of the ocean. The ocean is in contact with the ice shelves, the seaward extensions of the ice sheet in its margins. The warmer ocean has eroded the ice shelves, making them thinner and less resistant to the ice flow coming from the interior. And if you have read the post about the marine ice sheet instability (MISI), you already know that the ice sheet can discharge a lot of ice to the ocean if the bedrock beneath the ice sheet is deeper inland than it is on the margins (called retrograde). MISI is a potential source of nonlinear acceleration of the ice sheet that, along with other nonlinear effects mentioned in the study, could trigger much larger sea level rise contribution from the Antarctic ice sheet above 2 to 2.7°C.

You can find complementary informations to the Pattyn et al., 2018 paper in SR15, sections 3.3.9, 3.5.2.5, 3.6.3.2 and in FAQ 3.1.

Glaciers crossing the transantarctic mountains, one of them ending up to Drygalski ice tongue (left side) in the Ross sea. The ice tongue is an example of those ice shelves that form as grounded ice flows toward the sea from the interior. Ice shelves are weakened by a warmer ocean, which accelerates upstream ice flow [Credit: C. Ritz, PEV/PNRA]

Glaciers

Over the whole globe, the mass of glaciers has decreased since pre-industrial times in 1850, according to Marzeion et al., 2014. At that time, climate change was a mix between human impact and natural variability of climate. Glacier response times to change in climate are typically decades, which means that a change happening, for instance, today, still has consequences on glaciers tens of years after. Today, the retreat of glaciers is thus a mixed response to natural climate variability and current anthropogenic warming. However, since 1850, the anthropogenic warming contribution to the glacier mass loss has increased from a third to more than two third over the last two decades.

Similarly to the Greenland ice sheet, glaciers are prone to undergo an acceleration of ice mass loss wherever the limit altitude where rainfall occurs more often than snowfall is higher and at the same time the glacier surface lowers. However, as opposed to ice sheets, glaciers can be found all over the world under various latitudes, temperature and snow regimes, which makes it difficult to establish a unique temperature above which all the glaciers in the world will shrink faster in a nonlinear way. There are, however, model-based global estimates of ice mass loss over the next century. The paper from Marzeion et al., 2018, shows that under 1.5-2°C of global warming, the glaciers will lose the two thirds of their current mass, and that for a 1°C warming, our current level of warming since pre-industrial times, the glacier are still committed to lose one third of their current mass. This means the actions that we take now to limit climate change won’t be seen for decades.

You can find complementary informations in SR15, sections 3.3.9, 3.6.3.2 and in FAQ 3.1.

Sea ice

As very prominently covered by media and our blog (see this post and this post), the Arctic sea-ice cover has been melting due to the increase in CO2 emissions in past decades. To understand the future evolution of climate, climate models are forced with the expected CO2 emissions for future scenarios. In summer, the results of these climate model simulations show that keeping the warming at 1.5°C instead of 2°C is essential for the Arctic sea-ice cover. While at 1.5°C warming, the Arctic Ocean will be ice-covered most of the time, at 2°C warming, there are much higher chances of a sea-ice free Arctic. In winter, however, the ice cover remains similar in both cases.

In the Antarctic, the situation is less clear. On average, there has been a slight expansion of the sea-ice cover (see this post). This is, however, not a clear trend, but is composed of different trends over the different Antarctic basins. For example, a strong decrease was observed near the Antarctic peninsula and an increase in the Amundsen Sea. The future remains even more uncertain because most climate models do not represent the Antarctic sea-ice cover well. Therefore, no robust prediction could be made for the future.

You can find all references were these results are from and more details in Section 3.3.8 of the SR15. Also, you can find the impact of sea-ice changes on society in Section 3.4.4.7.

Caption: Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean [D. Olonscheck]

Permafrost

Permafrost is ground that is frozen consecutively for two years or more. It covers large areas of the Arctic and the Antarctic and is formed or degraded in response to surface temperatures. Every summer, above-zero temperatures thaw a thin layer at the surface, and below this, we find the boundary to the permafrost. The depth to the permafrost is in semi-equilibrium with the current climate.

The global area underlain by permafrost globally will decrease with warming, and the depth to the permafrost will increase. In a 1.5°C warmer world, permafrost extent is estimated to decrease by 21-37 % compared to today. This would, however, preserve 2 millions km2 more permafrost than in a 2°C warmer world, where 35-47 % of the current permafrost would be lost.

Permafrost stores twice as much carbon (C) as the atmosphere, and permafrost thaw with subsequent release of CO2 and CH4 thus represents a positive feedback mechanism to warming and a potential tipping point. However, according to estimates cited in the special report, the release at 1.5°C warming (0.08-0.16 Gt C per year) and at 2°C warming (0.12-0.25 Gt C per year) does not bring the system at risk of passing this tipping point before 2100. This is partly due to the energy it takes to thaw large amounts of ice and the soil as a medium for heat exchange, which results in a time lag of carbon release.
The response rates of carbon release is, however, a topic for continuous discussion, and the carbon loss to the atmosphere is irreversible, as permafrost carbon storage is a slow process, which has occurred over millennia.

Changes in albedo from increased tree growth in the tundra, which will affect the energy balance at the surface and thus ground temperature, is estimated to be gradual and not be linked to permafrost collapse as long as global warming is held under 2°C.

The above-mentioned estimates and predictions are from the IPCC special report Section 3.5.5.2, 3.5.5.3 and 3.6.3.3.

Slope failure of permafrost soil [Credit: NASA, Wikimedia Commons].

So, in summary…

In summary, what can we say? Although the 1.5°C and 2°C limits were chosen as a consensus between historical claims based on physics and a number that is easy to communicate (see this article), it seems that there are some thresholds for parts of the cryosphere exactly between the two limits. This can have consequences on longer term, e.g. sea-level rise or permanent permafrost loss. Additionally, as the cryosphere experts and lovers that we are here in the blog team, we would mourn the loss of these exceptional landscapes. We therefore strongly hope that the COP24 will bring more solution and cooperation for the future against strengthening of climate change!

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard and Violaine Coulon


Lionel Favier is a glaciologist and ice-sheet modeller, currently occupying a post-doctoral position at IGE in Grenoble, France. He’s also on twitter.

 

 

 

Laura Helene Rasmussen is a Danish permafrost scientist working at the Center for Permafrost, University of Copenhagen. She has spent many seasons in Greenland, working with the Greenland Ecosystem Monitoring Programme and is interested in Arctic soils as an ecosystem component, their climate sensitivity, functioning and simply understanding what goes on below.

 

 

Clara Burgard is a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg. She investigates the evolution of sea ice in general circulation models (GCMs). There are still biases in the sea-ice representation in GCMs as they tend to underestimate the observed sea-ice retreat. She tries to understand the reasons for these biases. She tweets as @climate_clara.

 

Image of the Week – (Un)boxing the melting under the ice shelves

Image of the Week – (Un)boxing the melting under the ice shelves

The Antarctic ice sheet stores a large amount of water that could potentially add to sea level rise in a warming world (see this post and this post). It is currently losing ice, and the ice loss has been accelerating in the past decades. All this is linked to the melting of ice – not at the surface but at the base, underneath the so-called ice shelves which form the continuation of the Antarctic ice sheet over the ocean. These floating ice shelves (represented in color in our Image of the Week) are melted by ocean water from underneath. How can this process called ‘sub-shelf melting’ be included in ice-sheet models? One simple way is to divide the ice-shelf cavity into a number of ocean boxes. Let’s briefly see how it works.


How to model sub-shelf melting in ice-sheet models?

There are three main ways to do so – which way is most suitable depends on the application:

  1. The most elaborated approach is to use ocean models that resolve ocean dynamics underneath the ice shelves. However, they need a lot of computational power.

  2. As an alternative, simple parameterizations in which melting is a function of the depth of the ice-shelf base can be used. However, such parameterizations are for many applications too simple…

  3. Recently, intermediate approaches that include the basic ocean dynamics have been developed (e.g. Lazeroms et al., 2018; Pelle et al., in review). One such approach is the ocean box model (Olbers and Hellmer, 2010) that we extended for the use in an ice-sheet model. Our extension is called Potsdam Ice-shelf Cavity mOdel (PICO, Reese et al., 2018).

In the following, we take a closer look into the approach of PICO…

“Boxing” the cavity circulation

In Antarctic ice-shelf cavities (i.e. the water below the ice shelves), in general, an overturning circulation transports ocean water from the sea floor along the ice-shelf base towards the calving front (see Figure 2). It is driven by the “ice-pump” (Lewis and Perkin, 1986): ice melting near the grounding line (separation between the grounded ice sheet and the floating ice shelf) reduces the density of the ambient water. It becomes buoyant and rises along the shelf base towards the ocean. Through this process, new water from outside of the ice-shelf cavity is “pumped” along the continental shelf towards the grounding line. This leads to the typical pattern of highest melting near the deep grounding lines and lower melting towards the calving front.

 

Figure 2: Schematic showing the ocean boxes following the ice-shelf base, with the first box B1 near the grounding line, and the last box Bn at the calving front. The arrows indicate the overturning circulation. The ocean water enters the cavity from box B0 which is at depth of the continental shelf, in front of the ice shelf. [Credit: Fig. 1 of Reese et al. (2018)]

 

By dividing the ice-shelf cavity into 2 to 5 ocean boxes, the transport of the overturning circulation is simplified while the sub-shelf melt pattern is captured. The open ocean conditions are simply represented by the ocean reservoir box B0 (Figure 2). And the circulation is driven by the differences in water density between the ocean reservoir (B0 in Figure 2) and the first box near the grounding line (B1 in Figure 2). The model computes sub-shelf melting successively over the ocean boxes, starting near the grounding line.

Sub-shelf melting with PICO

Sub-shelf melting can vary a lot in-between ice shelves (Figure 1). Antarctic ice-shelf cavities can roughly be sorted into two types (Joughin et al., 2012). The first category are the cold cavities in which the ocean water is close to the freezing point and in which sub-shelf melting is generally low, about 0.1 meter per year. The second category are warm cavities which have a temperature of about 1 degree – that does not sound like much, but for an ice shelf, this feels like being in a sauna – and sub-shelf melting can easily exceed 10 meters per year. Small changes in ocean temperatures can hence have large effects on sub-shelf melting. An increase in sub-shelf melting thins the ice shelf, as for example observed in the Amundsen Sea region in West Antarctica (see this post). The ice shelves there are examples for warm cavities, and a cold cavity is, for instance, underneath the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf (see Figure 1 for the specific locations).

In reality, of course, things are much more complicated than simulated by our PICO model. For example, the Coriolis effect can influence ocean circulation in the cavities, sills in the bed can block access of warm water to the grounding line and so on…

Applications of PICO

To summarize, PICO is a simple and efficient modeling tool that can capture the general pattern of sub-shelf melting observed in Antarctica today. Being implemented in the Parallel Ice Sheet Model, it is openly available, so if you got excited about what it can do and want to use it yourself, you’re welcome to download it!

Further reading

Edited by David Docquier


Ronja Reese is a postdoctoral researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany, in the group of Prof. Dr. Ricarda Winkelmann. She investigates ice dynamics in Antarctic with a focus on ice-ocean interactions and ice-shelf buttressing. She developed and implemented PICO together with Ricarda Winkelmann, Torsten Albrecht, Matthias Mengel and Xylar Asay-Davis. Contact Email: ronja.reese@pik-potsdam.de

Image of the Week – Promoting interdisciplinary science in the Arctic: what is IASC?

Image of the Week –  Promoting interdisciplinary science in the Arctic: what is IASC?

The Arctic is one of the fastest changing regions on the Earth, where climate change impacts are felt both earlier and more strongly than elsewhere in the world. As an integral part of the Earth system, the Arctic is shaped by global processes, and in turn, Arctic processes influence the living conditions of hundreds of millions of people at lower latitudes. No one country or community can understand the Arctic alone. Big Arctic science questions require ambitious Arctic science – but researchers sometimes need a little help bridging both national and disciplinary boundaries. That‘s a lofty mission, but how does the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) achieve it? Read on!


How does IASC support science?

Each IASC member country appoints up to two members to each of IASC’s 5 scientific Working Groups (Atmosphere, Cryosphere, Marine, Social & Human, and Terrestrial). These groups allocate IASC‘s scientific funds for small meetings, workshops, and projects. Follow the to see the science priorities of each group, find out about upcoming Working Group activities, and explore the expertise of their members!

Understanding the future of the Arctic means we need to invest in the Arctic researchers of today. Therefore, At least 40% of IASC’s working group funds must be co-spent with another working group, to encourage interdisciplinary projects. Check out upcoming events in 2019 like the Year Of Polar Prediction Arctic Science Workshop, High Latitude Dust Workshop, Snow Science Workshop, and Network on Arctic Glaciology meeting – just to name a few!

What else does IASC do?

IASC convenes the annual Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW), which provides the opportunity for coordination, cooperation and collaboration between the various scientific organizations involved in Arctic research and to economize on travel and time. In addition to IASC meetings, ASSW is a great opportunity to host Arctic science meetings and workshops. ASSW2019 will be in Arkhangelsk, Russia.

IASC influences international Arctic policymakers by being an observer to the Arctic Council and contributing to its work. IASC projects include contributing experts to an assessment on marine plastic pollution in the Arctic, helping coordinate reviews for the first Snow, Water, Ice, and Permafrost Assessment (SWIPA) report, and co-leading the Arctic Data Committee & Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks.

Supporting Early Career Researchers

At least one third of IASC‘s scientific funds must be spent on supporting early career researchers (see the image of the week)! In addition, the IASC Fellowship Program is meant to engage early career researchers in the Working Groups and give them experience in helping lead international and interdisciplinary Arctic science activities. Applications are now open and due by 19 November!

IASC convenes the annual Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW), which provides the opportunity for coordination, cooperation and collaboration between the various scientific organizations involved in Arctic research and to economize on travel and time. In addition to IASC meetings, ASSW is a great opportunity to host Arctic science meetings and workshops. ASSW2019 will be in Arkhangelsk, Russia.

Get Involved!

Do you have a great idea that you think IASC might want to support? Or want to learn more about IASC? Connect with IASC on Facebook, and sign up to receive our monthly newsletter! You are also encouraged to reach out to the relevant national/disciplinary IASC Working Group experts, IASC Council member, and the IASC Secretariat.

Further reading

Edited by Adam Bateson


Allen Pope is the IASC Executive Secretary. IASC scientific funds are provided from national member contributions. The IASC Secretariat in Akureyri, Iceland is supported by Rannís, the Icelandic Centre for Research. The IASC Secretariat is responsible for the day-to-day operations and administration of IASC. Allen also maintains an affiliation as a Research Scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder where he continues research based on remote sensing of glacier mass balance and surface hydrology. You can find out more about Allen and his research at https://about.me/allenpope. He also enjoys sharing and discussing polar science with the public and tweets @PopePolar.

Do clouds affect melting over Antarctic ice shelves?

Schematic showing the effects of cloud microphysics on the radiative properties of clouds for shortwave solar radiation (a & b) and longwave terrestrial radiation (c & d) [Credit: Ella Gilbert].

The Antarctic Peninsula is the ‘canary in the coalmine’ of Antarctic climate change. In the last half-century it has warmed faster than most other places on Earth, and considerable change has consequently been observed in the cryosphere, with several ice shelves collapsing in part or in full. Representing this change in models is difficult because we understand comparatively little about the effect of atmospheric processes on melting in Antarctica, especially clouds, which are the main protagonists of this Image of the Week…


The Antarctic Peninsula: a part of the southern continent that is surrounded by ice shelves, but also a place that has seen rapid and dramatic changes in the last decades. Until recently, the Antarctic Peninsula was one of the most rapidly warming regions on Earth, with annual mean surface temperatures rising by as much as 2.5°C between the 1950s and early 2000s in some places (Turner et al., 2005; 2016).

That warming has been linked to the demise of the region’s ice shelves: since 1947, more than half of the peninsula’s ice shelves have thinned, lost area, or collapsed entirely (Cook & Vaughan, 2010). Most recently, that includes Larsen C, whose area was reduced by 12% in July 2017 following a calving event where an iceberg four times the size of London broke away from the ice shelf. As a result, the ice shelf has slipped down the rankings from the 4th largest ice shelf on the continent to the 5th largest.

 

What makes ice shelves melt?

Evidence suggests that ice shelves on the peninsula are being warmed mostly from the top down by the atmosphere. This is contrary to what’s happening on other Antarctic ice shelves, like those in West Antarctica that are being eroded from beneath by the warming ocean. Atmospheric processes are much more important over peninsula ice shelves than those elsewhere on the continent.

To understand the effect of the atmosphere on melting at the top of ice shelves, we need to know how much energy is entering the surface of the ice shelf, how much is leaving, and use what’s left over to determine whether there’s residual energy available to melt the ice. That’s the general principle of the surface energy balance, and it’s called a ‘balance’ because it is usually just that – the amount of energy flowing into and out of the ice shelf averages out over the course of say, a year, to produce a net zero sum of energy left for melting. However, there are times when this balance can become either negative, leading to growth of the ice shelf, or positive, leading to ice loss via melting.

 

What affects the surface energy balance?

Many different processes influence the surface energy balance, such as weather patterns and atmospheric motion. For instance, when warm, dry air blows over an ice surface, which happens during ‘foehn‘ wind events (German readers will know this means ‘hairdryer’: a descriptive name for the phenomenon!), this can produce a surplus of energy available for melting (Grosvenor et al., 2014; King et al., 2017; Kuipers Munneke et al., 2018). If the surface temperature reaches 0°C, melting occurs.

 

What do clouds have to do with it?

Clouds also greatly influence the surface energy balance by affecting the amount of radiation that reaches the surface. The amount of incoming solar (shortwave) radiation that reaches the surface, and the amount of terrestrial (longwave) radiation that escapes is affected by what stands in the way – clouds. Of course, this obstacle is important for the surface energy balance because it affects the balance between the energy flowing into and out of the surface. However, the fine-scale characteristics of clouds (aka ‘microphysics’) produce different, often interacting and sometimes competing, effects on the surface energy balance, some of which are shown in the schematic above. Examples of these properties include:

  • Water phase (how much ice and liquid there is)
  • Number concentration (how many particles)
  • Particle size
  • Ice crystal shape

The amount of ice and liquid in a cloud can affect how much energy it absorbs, reflects and emits – for instance, the more liquid a cloud contains, the more energy it emits towards the surface, because it is thicker and tends to be warmer than a cloud with lots of ice. However, clouds made up of lots of tiny liquid droplets also tend to be brighter than ice clouds containing larger crystals, which means they reflect more incoming solar radiation back into space. This example is a typical one where different microphysical properties cause competing effects, which makes them difficult to separate from each other.

 

Radiative forcing (RF, solid bars) and Effective radiative forcing (ERF, hatched bars) of climate change during the Industrial Era (1750-2011) [Credit: adapted from IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Figure 8.15: pp. 697].

What do we know about Antarctic clouds?

The short answer is: not that much. Clouds are the largest source of uncertainty in our estimates of global climate change (check out the huge range of error in the estimates of cloud-driven radiative forcing in the figure above, from the IPCC’s most recent report), and the science of Antarctic clouds is even more unclear because we don’t have a great deal of data to base our understanding on. To measure clouds directly, we need to fly through them – a costly and potentially dangerous exercise, especially in Antarctica.

 

Flying through a gap in cloud near Jenny Island on the approach to Rothera research station, on the Antarctic Peninsula, at the end of a data collection flight in November 2017 [Credit: Ella Gilbert].

Filling the gap

In somewhere like Antarctica where we don’t have much observational data, we have to rely on other tools. That’s where computer models can be really useful – so long as we can be confident in the results they produce. Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem. Cloud properties and their effects on the surface energy balance are complex: we know that much. But modelling those properties is even more complex, because we have to simplify things to be able to turn them into computer code.

There is hope though! Recent studies (e.g. Listowski et al., 2017) have shown that models can more realistically represent Antarctic cloud microphysics if they use more sophisticated ‘double moment’ schemes, which are able to simulate more microphysical properties. With more accurate microphysics comes better representation of the surface energy balance, and improved estimates of melt over Antarctic ice shelves.

 

Further reading

  • On the effect of foehn on wintertime melting over Larsen C:

Kuipers Munneke, P., Luckman, A. J., Bevan, S. L., Gilbert, E., Smeets, C. J. P. P., Van Den Broeke, M. R., Wang, W., Zender, C., Hubbard, B., Ashmore, D., Orr, A. King, J. C. (2018). Intense winter surface melt on an Antarctic ice shelf. Geophysical Research Letters 45, 7615–7623. doi:10.1029/2018GL077899

  • On clouds in Antarctica:

Lachlan-Cope, T. (2010). Antarctic clouds. Polar Research 29 (2), 150–158. doi:10.1111/j.1751-8369.2010.00148.x

  • On modelling cloud microphysics over the Antarctic Peninsula:

Listowski, C., & Lachlan-Cope, T. (2017). The Microphysics of Clouds over the Antarctic Peninsula – Part 2: modelling aspects within Polar WRF. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 17, 10195-10221. doi:10.5194/acp-17-10195-2017

Edited by Clara Burgard


Ella Gilbert is a PhD student at the British Antarctic Survey, where she uses climate modelling and observational data to understand the drivers of melt on the Larsen C ice shelf. She’s a big fan of clouds, polar science, and science communication. You can find her on Twitter @Dr_Gilbz, on her website www.larsenc.com, or the old fashioned way by email.

Image of the Week — Cryo Connect: connecting cryosphere scientists and information seekers

Image of the Week — Cryo Connect: connecting cryosphere scientists and information seekers

Communicating scientific findings toward non-experts is a vital part of cryosphere science. However, when it comes to climate change and its impact, the gap between scientific knowledge and human action has never been so evident (see for instance, the publication of the latest IPCC special report). Today, our image of the week features an interview with Cryo Connect, a new initiative for more efficient flow of information between cryosphere scientists and information seekers.


Why have you decided to come up with an initiative like Cryo Connect?

Currently, information seekers such as journalists, policy makers, teachers and stakeholders often resort to internet search engines to find experts for answering specific questions about the cryosphere. Or they return to the same expert they have interacted with in the past. Either way, it is unlikely that they end up receiving information from the expert that knows most about the topic, or even in the preferred language. Some organizations have their own science outreach portals, but a truly global and inclusive network of cryosphere experts willing to provide insights to those seeking information has been lacking. For this reason, we established Cryo Connect.

Number of Cryo Connect experts for each cryospheric component. [Credit: Cryo connect]

How does it work exactly?

Cryo Connect is run as a non-profit organization. We are an official EGU Cryospheric Sciences partner and provide a free, online gateway through which experts and information seekers can reach out. Here, not only can information seekers find answers, but scientists can also actively promote their latest findings, pushing press releases (screened but unmodified by Cryo Connect) towards information seekers. All cryosphere scientists globally can sign up as experts allowing them to boost their visibility (especially with respect to those ranking high on internet search engines), irrespective of their career stage, ethnicity, gender or the languages that they master.

Number of Cryo Connect experts for each cryosphere region. [Credit: Cryo connect]

How has Cryo Connect been doing so far?
Although still in our first year, by October 2018 Cryo Connect has already grown to a community of 98 experts based in 22 countries across the planet. Together, they can provide information on all components of all cryospheric regions in the world – in 19 different languages! Researchers make up about two-fifths of the expert database, while PhD students, senior researchers and professors each constitute a ⅕ part. Lots of knowledge to go around.

Career stage of Cryo Connect experts. [Credit: Cryo connect]

What’s the take-home message for scientists?

That all cryosphere scientists around the globe are invited to sign up as a Cryo Connect expert to increase their visibility to the media and other information seekers. The platform works best, and attracts more information seekers with an even larger expert population from all corners of the planet. And don’t forget to tweet about your latest peer-reviewed publication using the @CryoConnect Twitter handle for increased media exposure!

Edited by Sophie Berger


Cryo-connect is an initiative run by Dirk van As, Faezeh Nick, William Colgan and Inka Koch

Image of the Week – Greenland’s fjords: critical zones for mixing

Image of the Week – Greenland’s fjords: critical zones for mixing

One of the most challenging research questions to address in the Arctic is how freshwater discharge from Greenland’s largest glaciers affects the biogeochemistry of the ocean. Just getting close to the calving fronts of these large marine-terminating glaciers is difficult. Fjords, hundreds of kilometers long and full of icebergs which shift with the wind and roll as they melt, make the commute a little difficult. Navigating these fjords to within a few kilometers of Greenland’s largest glaciers requires a combination of luck, skillful handling of small boats and a ‘fortune favors the brave’ attitude to sampling which would probably upset even the most relaxed of University Health and Safety Officers. The limited field data we have from Greenland’s fjords must therefore be combined with other data sources in order to understand what happens between glaciers and the ocean.


The Challenge

The amount of freshwater discharged from the Greenland ice sheet into the ocean increases in response to climate change. This may affect both the fisheries which support the island’s economy and the carbon sink associated with fjord systems – the largest per unit surface area in the ocean. As a consequence, we need to assess how exactly this cold freshwater will affect the ocean. To do so requires collaboration of scientists with different backgrounds:

  • glaciologists, to understand the different components of freshwater released (ice melt, surface runoff, subglacial discharge),

  • physicists, to understand the fate of freshwater within a dynamic water column,

  • chemists, to understand how the availability of resources shifts in response to increasing freshwater

  • biologists, to understand the net effects of multiple physio-chemical changes to the environment on living organisms.

In the context of climate change it is also always worth remembering that the increase in Greenland ice sheet discharge occurs alongside other changes in the Arctic, such as the disappearance of sea ice and warming of the atmosphere and ocean. Thus, we really must unleash 4-dimensional thinking in order to understand the processes that are currently at work in the whole Arctic.

Recent work around Greenland has shown that one particularly important factor in determining how a glacier affects downstream marine ecosystems is whether it terminates on land or in the ocean. When a glacier sits in the ocean and releases meltwater at depth, this cold freshwater rapidly mixes with deep nutrient-rich seawater. This buoyant mix, known as an upwelling plume, rises upwards in the water column. These buoyant plumes act as a ‘nutrient pump’ bringing macronutrients from deep seawater to the surface and thus driving quite pronounced summertime phytoplankton blooms. Around Greenland, these blooms are quite remarkable. Summertime productivity in the open Atlantic is generally quite limited, while the main time of year when phytoplankton bloom is spring. In several of Greenland’s fjords, however, phytoplankton bloom over the meltwater season (around May-September). Understanding how these upwelling-driven blooms operate, and more importantly how they will change in the future, is a formidable challenge. There is an almost complete lack of either physical or biogeochemical data within a few kilometers of most large marine-terminating glaciers and thus our ability to quantify the relationship between discharge and downstream productivity is limited.

Contrasting effects of meltwater around Greenland depending on where the glacier terminates with respect to sea-level. [Credit: Fig 3 from Hopwood et al., (2018)].

Modelling what we cannot measure

Fortunately however, the field of subglacial discharge modelling is relatively well advanced. Since the 1950s, plume models have been used to describe reasonably well the subglacial discharge downstream of glaciers. Whilst all of Greenland’s glacier fjords are unique, we can at least model the processes that underpin the ‘nutrient pump’ leading to such unusual summertime productivity around Greenland.

One thing is particularly clear from the use of these models. The depth at which a glacier sits in the water column is a major factor for the magnitude of the upwelling effect. If a glacier retreats inland, this is generally bad news for downstream marine productivity. As marine-terminating glaciers retreat, the nutrient pump rapidly collapses if the glacier moves into shallower water – irrespective of what happens to the volume of discharged meltwater. For a majority of Greenland’s glaciers for which the topography under the glacier has been characterised, this will be indeed the case under climate change: as the glaciers retreat inland, their grounding lines will get shallower and shallower. The ‘nutrient pump’ associated with each one will therefore also diminish.

Outlook

There are still many things we don’t know about environmental change around Greenland, as our almost complete lack of data outside the meltwater season and very close to marine-terminating glacier termini still hinders our understanding of some critical processes. Only by adopting more inter-disciplinary methods of working and deploying new technology will these data-deficiencies be addressed.

Further reading

 

Edited by Sophie Berger and Clara Burgard


Mark Hopwood is a postdoc at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Germany. He investigates how environmental changes, such as increasing freshwater discharge in the Arctic or declining oxygen in the tropics, affect the availability of nutrients to biota in the marine environment. By using a combination of fieldwork and targeted process studies the main goal is to identify and quantify biogeochemical feedbacks that act to amplify or dampen the response of marine biota to perturbations. He tweets as @Markinthelab. Contact Email: m.hopwood@geomar.de

Image of the Week – Oh Sheet!

Image of the Week – Oh Sheet!

The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are major players in future sea level rise. Still, there is a lot about these ice sheets we do not understand. Under the umbrella of the World Climate Research Programme, the international scientific community is coming together to improve ice sheet modelling efforts to better grasp the implications of climate change for ice sheet evolution, and consequently, sea level rise…


What are ice sheets?

An ice sheet is a massive chunk of glacier ice that sits on land – covering an area greater than 50,000 square kilometres (or 1.6 times the size of Belgium) by the official definition. Currently, the only two ice sheets on Earth are in Antarctica and Greenland. Ice in ice sheets flows from inland toward the coast under gravity. Due to the geothermal heat flux, ice sheets are usually warmer at the base than on the surface. When basal melting occurs, the melted water lubricates the ice sheet and accelerates the ice flow, forming fast-flowing ice streams. When ice flows down a coastline into the ocean, it may float due to buoyancy. The floating slab of ice is called an ice shelf (see these previous posts for more on ice shelves). The boundary that separates the grounded ice and floating ice is called the grounding line.

 

Why do we care about ice sheets?

The most uncertain potential source of future sea level rise is the contribution from ice sheets. According to observations, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have contributed approximately 7.5 and 4 mm of sea level rise respectively over the 1992-2011 period, and the contribution is accelerating. Knowing how the ice sheets will behave under future emission scenarios is crucial for risk assessment and policy-making (see this previous post for more on Antarctic ice sheets).

In addition to the direct impact on sea level rise, ice sheets interact with other components of the climate system. For example, ice discharge affects ocean circulation and marine biogeochemistry; changes in orography influence the atmosphere condition and circulation. In turn, the ice sheets gain mass primarily from snow fall, and lose mass through surface melting, surface sublimation, basal melting and ice discharge to the ocean, which are influenced by atmospheric and oceanographic processes. In Antarctica, the mass loss due to basal melting and iceberg calving is larger than snowfall accumulation. The Greenland Ice Sheet is also losing mass through iceberg calving and surface water runoff.

 

What’s CMIP?

Global coupled climate models are developed by different groups of scientists around the world to improve our understanding of the climate system. These models are highly complex, representing interactions between the ocean, atmosphere, land surface and cryosphere on global grids. The Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP) is a collaborative framework which provides a standard experimental protocol for the different models. The protocol includes a range of greenhouse gas emissions scenarios for future climate projections. Model output is made publicly available and forms the basis for assessments such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. The latest phase (CMIP6) is underway now.

 

What’s ISMIP6?

Ice sheets were considered as passive elements of the climate system previously and were not explicitly included in the CMIP process. However, observations of the rapid mass loss associated with dynamic change in ice sheets highlight the need to couple ice sheets to climate models. New developments in ice sheet modelling allow previously-omitted key processes which affect ice sheet dynamics on decadal timescales, such as grounding-line migration and basal lubrication, to be simulated with higher confidence.

ISMIP6 is an international effort designed to ensure that projections from ice sheet models are compatible with the CMIP6 process, bringing together scientists from over twenty institutions (Fig. 2). It aims to improve sea level projections, exploring sea level contribution from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets in a changing climate and investigating interactions between ice sheets and the climate system.

 

ISMIP6 Experiments

As shown in Figure 1, the objectives of ISMIP6 rely on three distinct modeling efforts:

  1. CMIP atmosphere-ocean general circulation models (AOGCM) without an ice sheet component
  2. standalone dynamic ice sheet models (ISMs) that are driven by forcing provided by CMIP
  3. fully coupled atmosphere-ocean-ice sheet models (AOGCM-ISMs).

 

In the first phase, ISMIP6 will compare output from different ice sheet models run in ‘standalone’ or ‘offline coupled’ mode. This means that they receive forcings from the climate model components like the ocean and atmosphere without feeding back. These experiments will be used to explore the uncertainty associated with ice sheets physics, dynamics and numerical implementation. In particular, ISMIP6 is currently focused on gaining insight into the uncertainty in ice sheet evolution resulting from the choice of initialization methods (the initMIP efforts for the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets) and understanding the response of the Antarctic ice sheet to a total loss of the ice shelves (ABUMIP).

The model output of the initMIP simulations for Greenland is now publicly available.

Fig. 2: Participants of ISMIP6 standalone ice sheet modeling.

 

ISMIP6 workshop

Regular meetings are organised to update and facilitate communication between the participants. The most recent workshop was hosted in the Netherlands during 11 – 13 September 2018. The topic of the workshop was “Developing process-based projections of the ice sheets’ contribution to future sea level.” Participants aimed to evaluate the output of the CMIP6 climate models and obtain forcing for standalone ice sheet model experiments. During the workshop, scientists made progress on establishing the experimental protocols for the ice sheet model simulations that will be discussed in the IPCC sixth assessment report.

Fig.3: Participants in the ISMIP6 workshop in Leiden, Netherlands [Credit: Heiko Goelzer]

Further reading

Edited by Lettie Roach and Clara Burgard


Sainan Sun does her postdoctoral research with Frank Pattyn at Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). She achieved her doctoral degree in 2014, majoring in ice sheet modeling at Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China. In her PhD study, she applied the BISICLES ice sheet model to Pine island glacier, Aurora drainage basin and Lambert-Amery drainage basin to describe the dynamical response of the Antarctic ice sheet to perturbations in boundary conditions. For the project at ULB, she aims to investigate the ice shelf features based on data acquired in Roi Baudouin ice shelf, Antarctica, and to estimate the potential instability of the Antarctic ice sheet using the f.ETISh ice sheet model. Contact Email: sainsun@ulb.ac.be

Image of the Week – Climbing Everest and highlighting science in the mountains

Image of the Week – Climbing Everest and highlighting science in the mountains

Dr Melanie Windridge, a physicist and mountaineer, successfully summited Mount Everest earlier this year and has been working on an outreach programme to encourage young people’s interest in science and technology. Read about her summit climb, extreme temperatures, and the science supporting high-altitude mountaineering in our Image of the Week.


It’s bigger than it looks! Experiencing the majesty of Everest

In April/May this year I climbed Mount Everest. To the top. It was two months of patient toil but in surroundings so majestic, impressive and inspiring. The Western Cwm (an amphitheatre-like valley shaped by glacial erosion) is vast, the summit ridge is steep and Khumbu Glacier was fascinating in itself. Our base camp was on the glacier and it changed daily in subtle ways – the ice melted, the rocks moved, the paths morphed. And the icefall was slightly different each time I passed through – the route changing through a collapsed area, a crevasse widening, or the rope buried by ice-block debris fallen from above. It’s a wonderful, interesting place and I am grateful to have experienced it. You can read more about the climb on my personal blog.

Fig.2: The view up the Western Cwm from Camp 1. Lhotse can be seen in the distance and the summit of Everest mid-left. [Credit: Melanie Windridge].

Everest, of course, is extreme. It is steep almost everywhere, so you barely get a let-up anywhere beyond the Western Cwm. The temperature differences are extreme too – it is extremely hot or extremely cold. I took a couple of temperature loggers with me to the summit (one in a base-layer pocket under my down suit and one in an outer pocket of my rucksack). You can see from the graph of summit night (the climb from Camp 4 to the summit of Everest) (Fig. 3) how the temperature varied by tens of degrees.  Since climbers dress for the coldest temperatures, this can be quite uncomfortable when the sun comes out.  The temperature on summit night got down to about -25°C, but during the day it rose to 10 degrees or more so that we were sweating into our down suits.

 

Fig.3: Graph showing the readings from two separate temperature loggers on summit night – one in a base-layer pocket under the down suit (Down suit temperature) and one in an outer pocket of the rucksack (Air temperature). The temperature rises quickly after sunrise, which was experienced on the summit [Credit: Melanie Windridge and Scott Watson].

Sharing the Science of the Summit

It was science that really got me interested in Everest, when I realised that the main reason the British had succeeded in 1953 but hadn’t in the 1920s and 30s was because of scientific understanding and the state of technology. But so often we don’t talk about the science that supports us in these great endeavours; instead we put it all down to the strength of the human spirit. I think we need to talk about both.

As part of my climb, I have been working on an outreach project to highlight how science and technology have improved safety and performance on Everest. I have made Science of Everest videos for the Institute of Physics YouTube channel and will be giving public talks. I wanted to show how science supports us and what has improved in recent decades to contribute to the falling death rate on Everest.

In the video series I look at changes in weather forecasting, communications, oxygen, medicine and clothing. We also consider risk and preparation – videos that went out before I left for Everest – because, as a scientist, I looked into past data to see how I could give myself the best chance of reaching the summit and returning safely.

 

 

Communication has improved not only because we have a greater variety than was available to the first ascentionists or the early commercial climbers (we have satellite phones, mobile/cell-phones and WiFi now), but also because everything is a lot smaller. Electronic components have greatly reduced in size so that radios used on the mountain now are small and handheld in comparison to the bulky sets of the 1950s (see video above).

 

 

Of course, the implication of the project is wider than just Everest. I am interested in the importance of science and exploration in general. For me, Everest is an icon of exploration – the way that human curiosity, ingenuity, determination and endurance come together to drive us forward. Reaching into the unknown is good for us, on a societal level and on a personal level. I hope to give an appreciation of the value of science in our lives, give students an insight into interesting careers that use science, and show the value of doing things that scare us!

 

Further reading

Edited by Scott Watson and Clara Burgard


Dr Melanie Windridge is a physicist, speaker, writer… with a taste for adventure. She is Communications Consultant for fusion start-up Tokamak Energy, author of “Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights” and is currently working on a book about Mount Everest.
Website: www.melaniewindridge.co.uk (see the Science & Exploration blog to read about the Everest climb)
Twitter @m_windridge, Facebook /DrMelanieWindridge, Instagram @m_windridge
Science of Everest videos on the Institute of Physics YouTube channel http://bit.ly/EverestVids

Image of the Week – Stuck in the ice: could it have been predicted?

Image of the Week –  Stuck in the ice: could it have been predicted?

Expeditions in the Southern Ocean are invaluable opportunities to learn more about this fascinating but remote region of the world. However, sending vessels to navigate the hostile Antarctic waters is an expensive endeavor, not only financially but also from a human perspective. When vessels are forced to turn back due to hazardous conditions or, even worse, become stuck in the ice (as shown in our Image of the Week), a mission full of expectations can quickly turn into a nightmare. Hence there is an increasing demand for reliable information on the navigability of the Southern Ocean a few weeks to a few months in advance. This information could support the final decision whether to start the journey or not, and would allow minimizing the associated risks.


What’s the problem?

In late February 2018, the British vessel RRS James Clark Ross was heading to the Eastern Antarctic Peninsula to investigate the consequences of the calving of a massive iceberg from the Larsen C ice shelf. Unfortunately the vessel had to turn back before reaching its goal due to the unexpected presence of thick sea ice in the region. This story is not unusual. During Christmas 2013, a Russian ship named the Akademik Shokalskiy also got stuck in several meters of Antarctic sea ice. Ironically, one of the rescuing vessels itself (the Chinese Xuě Lóng) got trapped in the ice as well. To prevent such events from happening again, we need to be able to predict the upcoming sea-ice conditions. Can sea-ice conditions be forecast at seasonal time scales? If so, how?

 

Antarctic sea ice, the Year of Polar Prediction and SIPN South

To prevent accidents and unforeseen problems, one goal of the Year Of Polar Prediction is to enhance environmental forecasting capabilities from operational (hours to days) to tactical (weeks to months) time scales in high latitude regions. Several studies support the notion that Antarctic sea ice may be predictable a few months ahead, at least in certain regions (Holland et al. 2017, Chen and Yuan 2004, Holland et al. 2013, Marchi et al. 2018).

To investigate further the predictability of Antarctic sea ice, the Sea Ice Prediction Network South (SIPN South) was launched in 2017. It is a two-year international project endorsed by the YOPP. SIPN South pursues three strategic objectives:

  • Hosting seasonal outlooks of Antarctic sea ice to better understand the sources of sea-ice predictability and the origins of systematic forecast errors in different types of models.
  • Providing news and information on the current state of Antarctic sea ice, disseminating research to a wider audience and reporting ongoing field campaigns.
  • Coordinating realistic seasonal prediction exercises to investigate the potential use of this information for users and customers, primarily ships navigating in the region.

 

February 2018 seasonal sea-ice forecasts

As a first major milestone, SIPN South provided coordinated forecasts of sea ice for February 2018. February is the month with the smallest sea-ice area in the Antarctic, and therefore most of the shipping traffic in the region happens around that time. Participants were asked to provide an estimation of sea-ice coverage (area, concentration) for each day of February 2018, and were asked to issue their predictions by mid-December 2017. 13 research groups participated in this first forecasting experiment, following different approaches: several groups used fully coupled climate dynamical models, while others applied statistical regression methods to predict future ice conditions.

As we all know, the weather is unpredictable beyond a few days. However, previous research has suggested that the statistics of weather (its mean, its variability) can potentially be predicted from months to decades, due to the coupling of the atmosphere with “slower” components of the climate system like the ocean. To reflect this and to accurately estimate the statistics of weather, groups tend to provide not just one forecast, but several of them. These “ensembles” of forecasts provided by each group therefore represent all possible states of the atmosphere, ocean and ice that may prevail in February 2018 – given the known initial conditions of December.

The results of the coordinated experiment are shown in Figure 2. The February mean sea-ice area is shown for each group (colors), along with two actual observational references (black). Bear in mind that the forecast data were issued two months before the actual target date! Here, the forecasts are expressed as anomalies with respect to a reference climatology. All forecasts tend to overestimate the February sea ice area in the Ross Sea. A reason for this wrong estimation might be a very unusual cyclone, which passed over the Ross Sea around the 20th of January 2018 (i.e., between the time the forecasts were issued and the period for verification). This cyclone brought relatively warm air into the region. Furthermore it fractured the ice, opening more areas of open water and possibly increasing the effect of the ice-albedo feedback. Events like this one are not individually predictable several weeks in advance, but a well-designed forecasting system should at least account for this possibility. Despite running ensembles of forecasts, the sea-ice reduction in the Ross Sea was not captured by most forecasts. This may point towards a common and systematic deficiency in these prediction systems.

Figure 2: February 2018 mean regional sea-ice area anomaly (compared to 1979-2014 observed climatology) by longitude, for the 13 submissions, with observed estimates given in black. Solid lines show the ensemble mean for each contribution, with transparent shading indicating the ensemble range (min-max) [Credit: F. Massonnet].

Communicating climate information

Sea-ice area, as shown in Fig. 2, is a primary parameter used by scientists to quantify ice presence in a given region. It is also a useful number to diagnose model-data mismatch. However, sea-ice area is of little use for those who actually need climate information. For someone operating a vessel, the important information is how likely that vessel is to encounter sea ice in a given region for a given day in February. Information from Fig. 2, while certainly useful to scientists, is meaningless to those willing to extract practical information for navigation.

Alongside the work to understand fundamental drivers of sea-ice predictability in order to eventually improve the predictions, it is necessary to consider how potential users will interact with the forecasts. As explained above, climate forecasts are probabilistic in nature. Communicating probabilistic information to a non-trained audience is always a challenging task: for example, how would you interpret a forecast saying that there is a 50% chance of rain for tomorrow?

To reflect the irreducible uncertainty of climate forecasts (see previous section), sea-ice forecasts are generally expressed in terms of sea-ice probability, i.e. the probability that a given region of the Southern Ocean has sea-ice concentration larger than 15%. This probability is derived for each day and each grid cell from the ensemble forecasts contributed by each group (Fig. 3). If well calibrated, this type of information can be useful to those planning operations weeks in advance. For example, all but one model had forecast a high (>80%) probability of ice presence in the Larsen C area (eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula) where the RRS James Clark Ross got stuck five months ago. That is, there was a high risk, according to those forecasts, that ice would be present in that area in February. Of course, this does not mean that navigation would have been impossible (ice breakers can still operate in icy waters, provided the ice is thin), but these forecasts provided a first-order warning that there was a significant risk of encountering hazardous ice conditions there.

Figure 3: Probability of sea-ice presence for 15th February 2018, as forecasted by the five groups that submitted daily sea-ice concentration information. The sea-ice edge as observed by two products is shown in white. The probability of presence for a given day corresponds to the fraction of ensemble members that simulate sea-ice concentration larger than 15% in a given grid cell for that day. A dynamic animation of the figure showing all 28 days of February is available on the SIPN South website. [Credit: F. Massonnet]

Forecasting February 2019

The core phase of the Year of Polar Prediction entails “Special Observing Periods”, that is, intensive efforts to monitor the Arctic and Antarctic regions but also to enhance modeling activities (see this previous post). The (unique) Special Observing Period in the Southern Ocean will take place between mid-November 2018 and mid-February 2019. A new call for contributions will be launched by SIPN South to collect sea-ice forecasts for austral summer 2019, hoping that the first exercise in 2018 will raise the interest of even more research groups. A key question will be to assess whether the systems will be able to forecast better the sea-ice conditions in the challenging Ross Sea area, where most forecasts failed. Better insights will hopefully be gained in tracing the origin of systematic model error and lead to an improvement of Antarctic sea ice predictions within the next decade. As reliable climate information is crucially needed in this remote but important region of the world, future efforts to predict Antarctic sea ice will be very welcome!

 

Further reading

Edited by Adam Bateson and Clara Burgard

 


François Massonnet is a F.R.S.-FNRS Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Université catholique de Louvain and scientific collaborator at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (Spain). He is assessing climate models as tools to understand (retrospectively and prospectively) polar climate variability and beyond. He tweets as @FMassonnet. Contact Email: francois.massonnet@uclouvain.be