Cryospheric Sciences

Image of the Week

Image of the Week – What’s Hot in the Cryosphere? A 2018 review

Image of the Week – What’s Hot in the Cryosphere? A 2018 review

Every year, humanity understands more and more about a remote and unforgiving component of the Earth system – the cryosphere. 2018 has been no exception, and in this blog post we’ll take a look at some of the biggest scientific findings of cryospheric science in 2018. We will then look forward to 2019 and beyond, to see what the future holds for these rapidly changing climate components.

The Cryosphere at 1.5°C warming

In 2018, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released their report that looked at the impact of 1.5 and 2.0°C of global warming by 2100 on the Earth system. In the Arctic, warming is already in excess of 2.0˚C, driving a very strong decreasing trend in the summer sea-ice extent. The IPCC suggest that sea-ice-free summers will occur once per century at 1.5°C, but this increases to once per decade at 2.0°C. Limiting warming to 1.5˚C will also save 1.5-2.5 million km2 of permafrost thaw (preventing the release of ancient carbon into the atmosphere), 10 cm of sea-level rise contribution from ice sheets and glaciers, and reduce the risk of the irreversible collapse of the ice sheets. Read more about the cryosphere under 1.5°C warming in this previous post.


Mass Balance of the Antarctic Ice Sheet

Compiling 24 independent estimates of mass balance, from a number of different remote sensing and modelling techniques, the IMBIE team produced the best estimate of how Antarctica is responding to continued climate warming. The mass balance refers to the net change in ice mass, accounting for all of the inputs and outputs to the ice. They quantify that ice mass loss from West Antarctica has increased three-fold between 1992 and 2017, largely due to melting from a warmer ocean. On the Antarctic Peninsula, the collapse of ice sheets has led to an increase ice mass loss by a factor of 4. East Antarctica is gaining mass slightly, although this is highly uncertain, by 5 ± 46 billion tonnes per year. Overall, Antarctica has lost 2,720 ± 1,390 billion tonnes of ice in this 25-year time period, and this mass loss is accelerating. Read more about these results in this previous post.

Mass loss from the Antarctic ice sheet is accelerating, largely due to ocean warming impacting West Antarctica. East Antarctica is very slightly gaining mass, but this doesn’t go anywhere near balancing out mass loss across the continent [Credit: NASA Goddard].

A polluted cryosphere

It’s easy to think of the cryosphere as a pristine, beautiful, untouched landscape. However, research from 2018 has shown us that the remoteness of Polar Regions has not protected them from man-made pollution. In one litre of melted Arctic sea-ice, 234 particles of plastic and over 12,000 particles of microplastics were found, which will only go onto adversely impact Arctic wildlife by spreading through the ecosystem. Radioactive material from the Chernobyl accident has also been found to be concentrated in dark sediments found on Swedish glaciers. As these glaciers melt, this concentration of radioactive material may be released in meltwater. In Greenland, lead pollution found in ice cores has provided exciting new insight into wars, plagues and invasions during the Roman Empire.

In 2018, we saw a glimpse of the geological secrets that Greenland hides beneath its ice sheet. However, there is still a hidden world that future field-based campaigns or airborne radar missions will help to unravel [Credit: NASA Goddard].

What secrets is Greenland hiding?

In 2018, we got our best ever look beneath the Greenland ice sheet. Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey and NASA found that the hotspot (a thermal plume in the Earth’s mantle) currently under Iceland was once beneath Greenland, between 80 to 50 million years ago. This hotspot was discovered by studying the magnetism of minerals beneath the ice. Using airplanes, radio waves and sediment that’s washed out from underneath the ice sheet has also revealed a massive 31 kilometre wide meteorite crater underneath Hiawatha glacier. Given it’s beneath three kilometres of ice, the age of this crater is unknown, but given the interest and speculation in connecting this event to an abrupt cooling period 12,000 years ago (the Younger Dryas), we may know very soon.


Blast Off!

Satellites remain one of the most popular methods of monitoring the vast, hostile cryosphere. In 2018, a new generation of earth observation missions launched. ESA’s Sentinel-3B continues the Copernicus programme, monitoring the reflectivity of the ice, elevation and sea-ice thickness. NASA’s GRACE FO mission continues the successful first GRACE mission, which used gravimetry to ‘weigh’ different regions of ice. NASA also launched ICESat-2, which will provide global elevation data at unprecedented spatial resolution on a 91-day repeat orbit. Each satellite is being finely tuned to make sure it’s working exactly as intended, and we’ll get the first science from them in 2019. Stay tuned!

Remote sensing data has provided us with answers to some of the biggest questions in the cryosphere. We use it to help quantify mass loss, sea-level rise and glacial retreat. In 2019, new missions will take our knowledge of cryospheric sciences to new heights! [Credit: Liam Taylor]

A look ahead to 2019

On the ground, getting inside the ice will continue to provide fascinating insights into the history of the cryosphere – from reconstructing winds in sub-Antarctic islands using ice cores, to further insights deep inside the world’s highest glacier. As permafrost continues to thaw, we are likely to hear of more discoveries of woolly mammoths, ancient diseases and carbon release. The IPCC will also publish their special report devoted to The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, which will provide the best overall state of the cryosphere to date. And, of course, the infamously named ‘Boaty McBoatface’ will provide us with incredible data from beneath sea-ice and ice shelves when the RRS Sir David Attenborough is launched. 2018 has been a truly exciting year to be a cryospheric scientist, and 2019 looks set to be another hot one!


Edited by Adam Bateson

Liam Taylor is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and Centre for Polar Observation and Monitoring. His research looks at identifying novel remote sensing methods to monitor mountain glaciers for water resource and hazard management. He is passionate about climate change and science communication to a global audience, as an educator on free online climate courses and through his personal blog. You can find Liam on Twitter.

Image of the Week – Will Santa have to move because of Climate Change?

Santa Claus on the move [Credit: Frank Schwichtenberg, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons]

Because of global warming and polar amplification, temperature rises twice as fast at the North Pole than anywhere else on the planet. Could that be a problem for our beloved Santa Claus, who, according to the legend, lives there? It appears that Santa could very well have to move to one of its second residences before the end of this century. But even if he moves to another place, the smooth running of Christmas could be in jeopardy…

But…. Where does Santa live?

The most famous of Santa’s residence is in Lapland, Finland, at Korvatunturi. But since this area is a little isolated, Finns then moved it near the town of Rovaniemi. For Swedes, it’s in Gesunda, northwest of Stockholm. The Danes, them, are convinced that he lives in Greenland while according to the Americans, he lives in the town of North Pole, Alaska. In Norway, there is even disagreement within the country: some Norwegians believe he lives in Drøback, 50 km south of Oslo while other believe he lives in the Northernmost inhabited town in the world: Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, where Santa even has its own postbox!
Even in the southern hemisphere, Christmas Island claims to be Santa’s second home.

Santa’s huge postbox in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen [Credit: Marie Kotovitch] and Rovaniemi, Finland: the self-proclaimed “official hometown of Santa Claus” [Credit: Pixabay]

It seems that Santa Claus has many places to stay.. But according to the legend, Santa’s real permanent residence is in fact the true North Pole. However, as shown by the Arctic Report Card 2018, the Arctic sea-ice cover continues its declining trends, with this year’s summer extent being the sixth lowest in the satellite record (1979-2018). The latest IPCC 1.5°C warming special report states that “ice-free Arctic Ocean summers are very likely at levels of global warming higher than 2°C” relative to pre-industrials levels. Considering that the world is currently on course for between 2.6 to 4.8°C of warming relative to pre-industrial levels by 2100, Santa’s home is projected to sink into the Arctic Ocean before the end of the current century. It appears it would be time for Santa to start thinking about which one of his second residences he will choose to move to…

Will Santa have to find a new home? [Credit: Pixabay]

Rudolf might be in trouble…

Of course, if he moves away from the melting North Pole, Santa still needs snow at Christmas to be able to take off his sled. But, actually, this could become a problem.
This year, there was still no snow in Rovaniemi, Finland, the self-proclaimed “official hometown of Santa Claus”, by the end of November, making the local tourist attractions very worried. Luckily, it has now snowed there since, but how does this look like for the years to come? According to the latest Arctic Report Card, the long-term trends of terrestrial snow cover are negative.

Another problem which might complicate Santa’s work was underlined in a study published in 2016. This study showed that reindeers are getting smaller because of warmer Arctic temperatures. How come? During the long winter, reindeers are usually able to find their food (which consists of grasses, lichens and mosses) by brushing aside the snow that covers it. But because of the warmer temperatures, rain now falls on the existing snow cover and freezes. The animals’ diet is thus locked away under a layer of ice. As a result, reindeers are hungry and lose their babies or give birth to much leaner ones. The Arctic Report Card 2018 states that the population of wild reindeer in the Arctic has decreased by more than half in the last two decades.

All this is not going to get better, as Arctic temperatures for the past five years (2014-18) all exceed previous records. According to the Danish Meteorological Institute, in November 2016, Arctic temperatures were reaching an incredible peak at around -5°C while average temperature at this period usually is around -25°C.

Climate change also affects reindeers [Credit: Photo by Red Hat Factory on Unsplash]

Christmas trees also at risk!

You may say that Santa is Santa and that he will be able to find a solution to all these problems. Let’s hope you’re right! But another problem is looming on the horizon: you might soon not be able to welcome Santa in your own home as it should with a beautiful Christmas tree.

Indeed, this summer’s heat waves have strongly affected Christmas tree crops everywhere in Europe. Moreover, a 2015 study shows that native Scandinavian Christmas trees are also affected by climate change, and more specifically by reduced snowfall. The latter acts like an insulation layer which protects the roots from the cold winter.

We hope that this post has made you realize the urgency of the fight against global warming! However, in the meantime, don’t forget that the most important to spend a nice Christmas is the Christmas spirit! We wish you all a very merry Christmas and a wonderful new year!

As a little Christmas gift..

  • If you want to find out the truth about Santa’s real home, you can always check it by yourself by using the Santa Tracker by Google to follow Santa’s Christmas Eve trip and check where he comes back at the end of the night…
  • The highlights of the Arctic Report Card 2018 are summarized in this video.

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard

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.



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:

Image of the Week – Ice-Spy: the launch of ICESat-2

The second generation Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2) from NASA fires 10,000 pulses every second to take elevation measurements up to every 70 cm on-the-ground. This data will offer lots of opportunities for scientists to understand the changing cryosphere in more detail than ever before [Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center].

On September 15th, 2018, at 18:02 local time, NASA launched its newest satellite – the second generation Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2). ICESat-2 only contains one instrument – a space laser that fires 10,000 pulses per second to Earth to measure elevation. Its primary purpose is for monitoring the ever changing cryosphere, so naturally there are plenty of ice enthusiasts that are excited for the data it will provide!

Blast off! ICESat-2 launches successfully from California, on the Delta II Rocket [Credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls].

Space laser?

The space laser is referred to more formally as an ‘altimeter’ (specifically, the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System; ATLAS). Each of the 10,000 pulses per second contain around 20 trillion photons (the elementary unit that makes up light). The instrument works by measuring the time it takes for the photons to travel to Earth, reflect off the surface, and bounce their way back to the receiver. When the land is higher in elevation, there is less distance for the photons to travel, so they arrive back quicker and vice versa. The detector only lets in light at 532 nanometres in the visible spectrum. This means only the target photons are detected and sunlight is filtered out. An on-board clock measures time to a billionth of a second for maximum precision. The 10,000 pulses per second compares to just 40 per second in the original ICESat mission, giving us measurements every 70 cm on-the-ground. ICESat-2 repeats its orbit every 91 days, so we get elevation measurements for everywhere on Earth every 3 months.

What happened to the original ICESat?

ICESat launched in 2003 and lasted 7 years before its mission came to an end when its primary instrument stopped functioning. Its final task was to propel itself into Earth’s atmosphere and burn up on re-entry. In its lifetime, ICESat helped us to quantify decreasing Arctic sea-ice thickness, estimate global above ground biomass using forest canopy height and even find lakes beneath Antarctica. It was such a success that, since 2010, NASA have flown planes (Operation IceBridge) over the cryosphere with the same instruments to bridge the gap in the data loss between the two ICESat missions.

Operation IceBridge flies over ice sheets, ice shelves, glaciers and sea-ice to ensure there is no gap in data between the ICESat missions. You can see more of the stunning imagery collected from Operation IceBridge here! [Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center]

What new science will we get from ICESat-2?

The primary purposes of the mission are to measure elevation change of ice sheets, glaciers, sea-ice and the subsequent impacts of sea-level rise. Whereas the original ICESat mission had a single laser beam with 40 pulses per second, ICESat-2 has 6 laser beams with 10,000 pulses per second, which gives an unprecedented level of detail. On the original mission, the orbit may have only provided a single track across a mountain glacier, but the new mission will have significantly more measurements. The higher spatial resolution of ICESat-2 means that the satellite can be used to identify and track icebergs that cross shipping lanes, provide extra measurements of sea-ice thickness for subsistence hunters and detect small topographic changes in potentially active volcanoes. There are many other potential applications of ICESat-2, including for non-cryospheric research, but there will also be many unforeseen applications of the new data that will come about with time.

I’m so excited! When will the first results start coming out?

Whenever satellites are launched with the purpose of earth observation, there is a long period of time when the instruments need to be checked to ensure they are working as intended. NASA will be calibrating ICESat-2 for a few months after launch to ensure the outputs are of the highest possible quality, so don’t expect any publicly available data until early 2019. It’s worth getting it right early in the mission because ICESat-2 has enough fuel on board to last 7 years, so mistakes early on can lead to delays or reduce the overall quality of data collected over the mission. If you can’t wait, however, you can see the first height measurements from Antarctica here!

The first data from NASA’s newest satellite – the second generation Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2). ICESat-2 fires 10,000 pulses every second to take elevation measurements up to every 70 cm on-the-ground. This elevation data shows the first track across the Antarctic ice sheet. Who knows what new science we will discover during its mission! [Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight] Center.

Find out more

Edited by Adam Bateson

Liam Taylor is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and Centre for Polar Observation and Monitoring. His research looks at identifying novel remote sensing methods to monitor mountain glaciers for water resource and hazard management. He is passionate about climate change and science communication to a global audience, as an educator on free online climate courses and through his personal blog. You can find Liam on Twitter.


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:

Image of the Week – Breaking the ice: river ice as a marker of climate change

Figure 1. Dates of ice breakup on Alaskan river reaches wider than 150 m calculated using Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) data. [Credit: Wayana Dolan].

Common images associated with climate change include sad baby polar bears, a small Arctic sea ice extent, retreating glaciers, and increasing severe weather. Though slightly less well-known, river ice is a hydrological system which is directly influenced by air temperature and the amount and type of precipitation, both of which are changing under a warming climate. Ice impacts approximately 60 % of rivers in the Northern Hemisphere and therefore will be a clear indicator of climate change over the coming century.

River ice terminology

First, I think it is important to get some quick vocabulary out of the way. There are three primary variables used to study large-scale trends in river ice:

  • Ice freeze-up: The process of ice accumulation on a river reach (a segment of a river), usually during the autumn or winter.
  • Ice breakup: The process of ice loss from a river segment. Breakup style is often related to a pulse of increased runoff from snow melt, known as the spring flood wave. Thermal breakup occurs when river ice melts prior to the arrival of the spring flood wave. It is a slow and relatively calm process. Alternatively, mechanical breakup occurs when ice on a river has not melted prior to the arrival of the spring flood wave. Mechanical breakups often cause severe ice jam floods, whereas thermal breakups are rarely associated with flooding events. You can observe an example of mechanical ice breakup and associated ice jam flooding in 2018 on the North Saskatchewan River at Petrofka Orchard on the video below [Credit: Planet Labs, Inc.].
  • Ice cover duration: The length of time a river segment is ice-covered between freeze-up and breakup.

Now that we know these key phrases, let’s get to the good stuff!

Why should you care about river ice?

Shifts in river ice cover duration can be used as an indicator for Arctic climate change due to its relationship with air temperature and precipitation (Prowse et al. 2002). Hotter air temperatures generally relate to earlier ice breakup, later ice freeze-up, and shorter ice cover duration. These trends in breakup and freeze-up have been observed over the past 150 years on multiple rivers in the Northern Hemisphere by Magnuson et al. 2000. Many arctic communities rely on ice roads, which often travel across frozen rivers, lakes, and wetlands. These roads are important for transporting food, fuel, and mining equipment, to predominately first nations people. They are also commonly used by people who live subsistence-based lifestyles for hunting and trapping during the winter months. If ice cover duration shortens, these roads will be stable for a shorter period each winter. Alternatively, longer ice-free seasons would allow for decreased shipping costs in many boreal and Arctic regions, which currently use ice breaking to clear shipping pathways (Prowse et al. 2011). Another trend observed in several large Arctic rivers is a shift from mechanical breakup to thermal breakup (Cooley & Pavelsky, 2016). While this change could lead to a decrease in ice jam flood damage to hydropower and other infrastructure, it could also cause a dramatic decrease in sediment and nutrient transport to near-river Arctic ecosystems such as floodplains and deltas.

Recent research has shown ice cover trends to be geographically complex and dependent upon variables such as air temperature, basin size, and precipitation (Bennett & Prowse, 2010; Prowse et al. 2002; Rokaya et al. 2018). However, many of these trends are poorly understood on a pan-Arctic scale.

How do we measure changes in river ice?

From the early-1980s through the mid-2000s, satellites missions such as Landsat and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) began allowing researchers to study ice on rivers in inaccessible areas. However, computing power limited the size and scale of rivers which could be observed. More recently, data processing through platforms like Google Earth Engine allow river ice to be studied on a much larger scale.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) has a working group which makes use of these new programs to study changes in pan-Arctic river and lake ice. My current project seeks to quantify historical river ice breakup and freeze-up using MODIS. We have developed an ice detection algorithm that has successfully been applied to all river reaches in Alaska wider than 150 m, limited by the 250 m spatial resolution of MODIS (Figure 1). Note that our detection algorithm can be applied to rivers which are slightly sub-pixel in width. I am currently working on calculating trends in this dataset and the expansion of the algorithm to pan-Arctic rivers, so that we can better identify which regions in the Arctic are changing the fastest. A quick glance at the dataset reveals that ice breakup is highly variable through time and space, even between upstream and downstream reaches of the same river. Internal variation in breakup dates within a given river may be caused by temperature gradients along the river profile, changes in elevation, as well as variation in the amount and type of precipitation. Additionally, preliminary work by UNC postdoctoral researcher Xiao Yang uses Google Earth Engine, Landsat, and MERRA-2 data to globally model river ice (Figure 2). This model can be applied to future climate change scenarios to see how river ice will change as the temperature warms. Keep an eye out for this paper in the next few months!

Figure 2. Preliminary results from modelling global river ice coverage using Landsat imagery, latitude, longitude, and surface air temperatures from MERRA-2. Colors refer to the percentage of the total river length in each area that is ice-covered each month (aggregated from 1984 to 2018) [Credit: Xiao Yang].

Future outlook

River ice cover duration is expected to shorten as the climate warms. Shifts in ice breakup and freeze-up processes can impact sediment and nutrient delivery, Arctic transportation and hunting, and ice-related hazards. However, our preliminary results show that river ice breakup varies both spatially and temporally throughout Alaska (Figure 1). Ongoing research at UNC will allow researchers to identify areas of the pan-Arctic which are most vulnerable to river ice-related change.

Further resources

Edited by Scott Watson

Wayana Dolan is a current M.S. student and future Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (USA) working with Dr. Tamlin Pavelsky. Her current research involves using remote sensing to study large-scale changes in river ice. She is passionate about any project that allows her to do Arctic fieldwork. Dolan also works with the WinSPIRE program – a summer research internship for female high school students in North Carolina. You can contact her by email or on twitter as @wayana_dolan.


Image of the Week – Karthaus Summer School 2018

Beautiful and cozy Golden Rose hotel on the left; blissful and small Italian village, Karthaus, on the right [Credit: Rohi Muthyala].

Nearly every year since the late 90s, during the summer, the picturesque Karthaus has hosted 10-day glaciology course. This school is a platform for glaciologists to explore, learn and expand their knowledge base. This helps researchers become multi-faceted: to view glaciology from the perspective of those specializing in other backgrounds such as hydrology, geomorphology, oceanography, etc. which complement one another in defining glaciology. Along with the intense course work, one can wholeheartedly cherish the exotic food, cozy resort, spellbinding views and delicious wine!

Time to learn

Day used to start at 8 am with a healthy breakfast and then we head out to Katharinaberg to attend the lectures. Morning session of the course composed of four lectures with coffee breaks in between to keep us alert. These lectures were on a gamut of topics including numerical and analytical modeling, continuum mechanics, glacier hydrology, mass balance of the ice sheets, thermodynamics of ice, geophysical methods, geodynamics, ice core analysis, polar oceanography and geomorphology, etc. Lectures began with basics in every topic and gradually evolved into complex concepts, enabling students understand the subject better, irrespective of their specialization. After four hours of lectures, we, surrounded by lustrous green hills, enjoyed a delicious three-course lunch.

Afternoon session was all about application of the concepts learned in the morning into numerical exercises and group projects. We were divided into 12 groups to work as a team for a group project. Each group was assigned a topic and a teacher to work with. Results from the group projects presented on the last day of the course, astonished me by the level of research we could accomplish in 10 days, showing the amount of knowledge gained through the program.

Outdoor afternoon session in Kartharinaberg [Credit: F. Pattyn]

After school

School ended at 5 pm, leaving us with ample time to relax before dinner. While some students enjoyed it hiking, trail running and chilling in the sauna, I spent this time exploring Karthaus with a bunch of friends I made at the school and tried to capture the beauty of nature with my camera. Then was the best part of the evenings – a five-course dinner with lots of wine and stories from our fellow glaciologists. I have never had such an exotic five-course meal, which was so tasty that I couldn’t help but overeat. To top the delicious food, we had musical performances by Frank Pattyn and Johannes Oerlemans. I was amazed to know that most of the teachers have their own specialty with an instrument and that it’s a tradition at Karthaus to enjoy the evenings with their performances. After a two-hour long dinner, we moved to the bar next to the restaurant and continued our entertainment with games, wine and chatting. I wished there were more than 24 hours in a day to spend at Karthaus. This summer school is a complete package of education and entertainment.

Dinners at karthaus, with 5-course meal, wine and music (Frank Pattyn on Piano and Johannes Oerlemans on Bass) [Credit: Rohi Muthyala]

Entertainment after dinner with wine, games, chatting and as you can see, some map reading as well. Apparently, this year students are the most solemn group ever [Credit: Rohi Muthyala].

Adding to the fun, in the middle of the course, we had a day-off that most of us spent by going on an excursion to the Otztal Alps. A bus ride to Kuzras, a cable car to the top of Hochjochferner and hike down into the valley led us to the edge of the glacier where some stepped onto a glacier and/or entered an ice cave for the first time in their life. We stopped by Bellavista (Schonne Aussicht hut) for a hot meal and drinks before hiking higher onto the Italian Alps. Though we had been lucky with perfect clear skies throughout the course, we got a cloudy weather on our day-off to the Alps. Nonetheless, the experience of going well above the clouds in the cable car was the best start for the day.

Hiking on a cloudy day from the top of Hochjochferner gletscher to bellavista [Credit: Rohi Muthyala].

All in all

This summer school would be an intense and beneficial experience for students in all stages of education. Be it a beginner in glaciology or an experienced final year Ph.D. student, I think the course has a lot to offer to every student. Especially to the students with no glaciology background, this could be a place to learn the basics and understand how to look for answers you are trying to find. With three years of experience going to Greenland for research as an Arctic hydrologist, I was still ignorant in some concepts (such as geomorphology, geodynamics, thermodynamics, etc) that are not directly related to my dissertation. This program opened paths for understanding those concepts in a productive way. I highly recommend this summer program to every graduate student studying glaciology and especially to those who are not from Europe, with few opportunities such as this to learn the basics in wide range of topics from glaciology.

Another best outcome of this course was the opportunity to interact with fellow students and build a network for future collaborations. AGU and EGU have been mostly exclusive, and this provided an opportunity for me (from an American university) to get to know my fellow researchers from other parts of the world. I would also like to highlight the women participation in this course (roughly 50%) and appreciate the organizing committee’s effort to encourage more women in this field. Huge thanks to the organizing committee and all the teachers for their effort in making this an incredible experience. Special thanks to the convener, Johannes Oerlemans, for coordinating such a quintessential summer school.

Class photo in Katharinaberg [Credit : W.J. van de Berg]

Edited by Violaine Coulon

Rohi Muthyala is a PhD candidate from Rutgers University (New Jersey, USA), working with Asa Rennermalm. Muthyala comes from a multidisciplinary background of atmospheric, environmental sciences and geography, and currently focuses her research on Arctic hydrology and hydrological modeling. Objective of her dissertation is to model surface hydrological processes influencing the transport of meltwater over the surface of Greenland ice sheet.

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 He also enjoys sharing and discussing polar science with the public and tweets @PopePolar.

Image of the Week – Alien-iced

Image of the Week – Alien-iced

What do Chile and Jupiter’s moon Europa have in common? If you like astronomy, you may reply “space missions!” – Chile’s dry air and clear skies make it an ideal location for telescopes like the VLT or ALMA, while Europa’s inferred subsurface ocean will be studied by the upcoming mission to Jupiter JUICE, due to launch in 2022. But Chile’s high altitude Atacama desert and Europa’s frozen surface also have another feature in common, as you can see in this Image of the Week: ice spikes!   

Penitentes is the word

The official name of these ice spikes is “Penitentes”, Spanish for penitents. Why? As you might see (with quite some imagination) on the Image of the Week, there is some resemblance with a kneeling and praying procession.

Fields of penitentes ranging from a few centimetres to five metres can be found above 4000 m altitude both in the Andes and Himalayas, the only places on Earth where the right conditions exist for their formation. Because although it looks as if the snow is just blown into penitentes by unidirectional winds, in reality everything is due to thermodynamics…

I promise I will not write the equations this time (see this previous post); instead, I invite you to read them in this paper. In summary, penitentes form where snow is in contact with very dry and very cold air. As the sun shines, the snow absorbs the energy and heats up from inside, so much and so fast that the only way to be rid of that heat is by changing phase, directly from solid to water vapour (this is called sublimation). Since snow is anything but a smooth surface, sun rays will in fact be more concentrated at given locations on the snow, so that sublimation occurs only at specific points. But it is a self-amplifying mechanism: sublimation will leave a little crater behind in the snow, whose shape will concentrate even more the sun rays and lead to further sublimation. And this is how the penitentes get their shape.


Penitentes and the Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment (APEX) telescope. Photo: Babak Tafreshi/ ESO

Where is the link with Europa?

Hopefully by now, you are happy because you have just learnt about yet another weird-but-wonderful cryospheric phenomenon on Earth. But, remember how the post was about about Europa in the beginning? This is because researchers have recently analysed data from the past mission to Jupiter Galileo that might suggest that the conditions are right on Europa for penitentes to exist. They had to use the careful phrasing because the data resolution was not good enough to see the actual individual penitentes and had instead to rely on their thermic signature.

As reported in the media storm of these last two weeks (see here, here or here for example), this is an important discovery for the planning of future space missions. Which landing site to use? Play it safe and land far from these ice blades, or go and study them but risk destroying your lander? Either way, we shall continue reporting about the cryosphere, from this world and beyond…

Reference/Further reading


Edited by Clara Burgard

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, or the old fashioned way by email.