Cryospheric Sciences

Surface mass balance

Image of the Week – Seven weeks in Antarctica [and how to study its surface mass balance]

Figure 1 – Drone picture of our field camp in the Princess Ragnhild coastal region, East Antarctica. [Credit: Nander Wever]

After only two months of PhD at the Laboratoire de Glaciologie of the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB, Belgium), I had the chance to participate in an ice core drilling campaign in the Princess Ragnhild coastal region, East Antarctica, during seven weeks in December 2018 – January 2019 for the Mass2Ant project. Our goal was to collect ice cores to better evaluate the evolution of the surface mass balance in the Antarctic Ice sheet. Despite the sometimes-uncomfortable weather conditions, the ins and outs of the fieldwork and the absence of friends and family, these seven weeks in Antarctica were a wonderful experience…


Mass2Ant is the acronym of the project: “East Antarctic surface mass balance in the Anthropocene: observations and multiscale modelling”. This project aims to better understand the processes controlling the surface mass balance in East Antarctica, its variability in the recent past and, ultimately, improve the projections of mass balance changes of the East Antarctic ice sheet.

What exactly is the surface mass balance?

The mass balance of an ice sheet (see Fig. 2) is the net balance between the mass gained by snow accumulation and the loss of mass by melting (either at the surface or under the floating ice shelves) and calving (breaking off of icebergs at the ice shelves fronts).

The surface mass balance on the other hand only considers the surface of the ice sheet. It is thus, for a given location, the difference between:

  • incoming mass: snowfall, and
  • outgoing mass, due to melting processes (fusion and sublimation), meltwater runoff and transport or erosion by wind at the ice sheet interface.

Figure 2 – Representation of the mass balance of an ice sheet [Credit: Figure adapted from NASA, Wikimedia Commons].

Overall, the ice sheet mass balance – the principal indicator of the “health state” of an ice sheet – is the balance between the surface mass balance, iceberg calving and basal melt under the ice shelves. A good evaluation of these three factors is thus essential to better quantify the evolution of the Antarctic mass balance under anthropogenic warming and therefore its contribution to future sea level rise.

However, the surface mass balance is characterized by strong temporal and spatial variations (see Figure 3) and is poorly constrained. In order to improve future projections for Antarctica, it is essential to better assess the variability of the Antarctic surface mass balance by directly collecting data in the field. Within this framework, the goal of the Mass2Ant project is to study the surface mass balance in the Princess Ragnhild coastal region (marked in the Figure 3).

Figure 3 – Surface mass balance (1989-2009) from RACMO2 (a regional climate model) of Antarctica (left) and Greenland (right) in kg/m².yr. Contour levels (dashed) are shown every 500 m. Black dot is the approximative position of the drilling site on the Tison Ice Rise. [Credit: adapted from Figure 1 of van den Broeke et al. (2011)].

Collecting the data [or how can we use ice cores to infer surface mass balance?]

Surface mass balance can be determined by analyzing ice core records. As a part of our expedition, ice cores were collected on the summit of the so-called “Tison Ice Rise” (a non-official name) – 70°S 21°E, near the Belgian Princess Elisabeth Station. We drilled to a depth of 260.1 m, which we expect to date back to the 15th century.
The drilling system, named the Eclipse drill, contains a motor on top of a drill barrel – which is composed of an inner barrel that cuts the ice core with 3 knives and collects it and an outer barrel (a tube) that collects the chips created. Due to the overlaying ice, pressure increases very quickly with depth. Deep ice cores are thus subject to much higher pressure than the atmospheric pressure. In order to reduce these strong pressure differences as the ice core is brought to the surface, drilling fluid was poured in the boreholes, a technique called “wet-drilling”. This was the first time the wet-drilling technique was used by our team, and it significantly improved the quality of our ice cores compared to the traditional method used during the previous campaigns!

Figure 4 – A part of our team in the drilling tent. An ice core can be observed in the inner barrel of the drilling system. A wooden box is placed on top of the trench, under the drill barrel to collect the chips contained in the outer barrel. [Credit: Hugues Goosse]

The 329 collected ice cores will be analyzed in our lab in Brussels. More specifically, we will focus on

  • the water stable isotopes: the seasonal cycle of stable isotopes of water in ice will be used for relative dating of the ice core;
  • the major ions (Na+, nssSO4, Na+/SO42-, NO3…) present in the ice: the reconstruction of the seasonal cycle of these ions allows us to refine the isotopic dating and therefore infer the annual snow/firn/ice thickness.
  • the conductivity of the ice, which also shows a clear seasonal signal used for dating. Moreover, the conductivity signal is also reacting to localized extra inputs – for example from past volcanic eruptions – therefore providing an absolute dating, which reduces our dating method uncertainties.

The seasonality of these signals will allow us to infer the yearly ice thicknesses (see this post). By taking into account the deformation of the ice, we will then be able to reconstruct the evolution of the surface mass balance in the Princess Ragnhild Coast region since the 15th century.

Life in the field

What was a typical day like for us? In fact, it strongly depended on the team to which you belonged as we were divided into two groups:

  • The “day group” was working on measurements such as snow density and radar analyses and worked roughly between 8 AM and 8 PM.
  • The second group – the drilling team, including me – worked during nights (between 9 PM and 9 AM) because of the too high temperatures during day, which would lead to ice core melt.

The drilling team adapted quite easily to this timing as the sun was shining 24 hours a day. In order to spend a common moment, a joint meal was organized every day at 8.30 AM, with some of us having their dinner while others were having breakfast.
The everyday life mainly occurred in two equipped containers. The first container was our living space, which we used as kitchen, dining room and working space. The second container consisted of a cloakroom, the toilets and the bathroom (with a real shower, a luxury in the field!). Each of us had a tent to sleep, with adapted sleeping bag, making it quite comfortable. As we stayed 5 weeks at the drilling site, we spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve on the field. It was a good occasion to eat fondue while sharing some fun stories and jokes (Fig. 5).

Figure 5 – Christmas time spent together, giving presents and eating fondue. [Credit: Nander Wever]

Why should you too go to Antarctica?

I’ll keep many memories of the time we all spent together, but also of the amazing landscapes and the calm and peacefulness of this white immensity… Despite the sometimes-uncomfortable weather conditions (a full week of whiteout days, lucky us!), this unique experience was wonderful! I’ve learned so much, from a scientific but also personal point of view. It was also a chance to participate in the collection of the samples that I will study during the next four years of my PhD. Before I left for Antarctica, someone told me that “When you went to Antarctica once, you usually want to go again”. Well, that’s definitely true for me!

Many thanks to belspo for funding this project, to the International Polar Foundation and Princess Elisabeth Antarctica staffs for the work both in Cape Town and in the station, and last but not least, thanks to the Mass2Ant team in the field that made this experience an amazing adventure.

Further reading

Edited by Violaine Coulon

Sarah Wauthy is a PhD student at Laboratoire de Glaciologie, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. Her PhD is part of the Mass2Ant project and aims at determining paleo-accumulation in the region of the Princess Ragnhild Coast (Dronning Maud Land, East Antarctica) as well as the paleo-extension of sea ice before and across the Anthropocene transition (ca. last 3 centuries), by performing high-resolution multiparametric analyses on ice cores collected during field campaigns.

Image of the Week – A high-resolution picture of Greenland’s surface mass balance

Image of the Week – A high-resolution picture of Greenland’s surface mass balance

The Greenland ice sheet – the world’s second largest ice mass – stores about one tenth of the Earth’s freshwater. If totally melted, this would rise global sea level by 7.4 m, affecting low-lying regions worldwide. Since the 1990s, the warmer atmosphere and ocean have increased the melt at the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, accelerating the ice loss through increased runoff of meltwater and iceberg discharge in the ocean.

Simulating the climate with a regional model

To understand the causes of the recent ice loss acceleration in Greenland, we use the Regional Atmospheric Climate Model RACMO2.3 (Noël et al. 2015) that simulates the evolution of the surface mass balance, that is the difference between mass gain from snowfall and mass loss from sublimation, drifting snow erosion and meltwater runoff. Using this data set, we identify three different regions on the ice sheet (Fig. 1):

  • the inland accumulation zone (blue) where Greenland gains mass at the surface as snowfall exceeds sublimation and runoff,

  • the ablation zone (red) at the ice sheet margins which loses mass as meltwater runoff exceeds snowfall.

  • the equilibrium line (white) that separates these two areas.

From 11 km to 1 km : downscaling RACMO2.3

To cover large areas while overcoming time-consuming computations, RACMO2.3 is run at a relatively coarse horizontal resolution of 11 km for the period 1958-2015. At this resolution, the model does not resolve small glaciated bodies (Fig. 2a), such as narrow marginal glaciers (few km wide) and small peripheral ice caps (ice masses detached from the big ice sheet). Yet, these areas contribute significantly to ongoing sea-level rise. To solve this, we developed a downscaling algorithm (Noël et al., 2016) that reprojects the original RACMO2.3 output on a 1 km ice mask and topography derived from the Greenland Ice Mapping Project (GIMP) digital elevation model (Howat et al., 2014). The downscaled product accurately reproduces the large mass loss rates in narrow ablation zones, marginal outlet glaciers, and peripheral ice caps (Fig. 2b).

Fig. 2: Surface mass balance (SMB) of central east Greenland a) modelled by RACMO2.3 at 11 km, b) downscaled to 1 km (1958-2015). The 1 km product (b) resolves the large mass loss rates over marginal outlet glaciers [Credit: Brice Noël].


The high-resolution data set has been successfully evaluated using in situ measurements and independent satellite records derived from ICESat/CryoSat-2 (Noël et al., 2016, 2017). Recently, the downscaling method has also been applied to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, for which a similar product is now also available on request.

Endangered peripheral ice caps

Using the new 1 km data set (Fig. 1), we identified 1997 as a tipping point for the mass balance of Greenland’s peripheral ice caps (Noël et al., 2017). Before 1997, ablation (red) and accumulation zones (blue) were in approximate balance, and the ice caps remained stable (Fig. 3a). After 1997, the accumulation zone retreated to the highest sectors of the ice caps and the mass loss accelerated (Fig. 3b). This mass loss acceleration was already reported by ICESat/CryoSat-2 satellite measurements, but no clear explanation was provided. The 1 km surface mass balance provides a valuable tool to identify the processes that triggered this recent mass loss acceleration.

Fig. 3: Surface mass balance of Hans Tausen ice cap and surrounding small ice bodies in northern Greenland before (a) and after the tipping point in 1997 (b). Since 1997, the accumulation zone (blue) has shrunk and the ablation zone (red) has grown further inland, tripling the pre-1997 mass loss [Credit: Brice Noël].


Greenland ice caps are located in relatively dry regions where summer melt (ME) nominally exceeds winter snowfall (PR). To sustain the ice caps, refreezing of meltwater (RF) in the snow is therefore a key process. The snow acts as a “sponge” that buffers a large amount of meltwater which refreezes in winter. The remaining meltwater runs off to the ocean (RU) and contributes to mass loss (Fig. 4a).

Before 1997, the snow in the interior of these ice caps could compensate for additional melt by refreezing more meltwater. In 1997, following decades of increased melt, the snow became saturated with refrozen meltwater, so that any additional summer melt was forced to run off to the ocean (Fig. 4b), tripling the mass loss.

Fig. 4: Surface processes on an ice cap: the ice cap gains mass from precipitation (PR), in the form of rain and snow. a) In healthy conditions (e.g. before 1997), meltwater (ME) is partially refrozen (RF) inside the snow layer and the remainder runs off (RU) to the ocean. The mass of the ice cap is constant when the amount of precipitation equals the amount of meltwater that runs off. b) When the firn layer is saturated with refrozen meltwater, additional meltwater can no longer be refrozen, causing all meltwater to run off to the ocean. In this case, the ice cap loses mass, because the amount of precipitation is smaller than the amount of meltwater that runs off [Credit: Brice Noël].

  In 1997, following decades of increased melt, the snow became saturated with refrozen meltwater, so that any additional summer melt was forced to run off to the ocean, tripling the mass loss.

We call this a “tipping point” as it would take decades to regrow a new, healthy snow layer over these ice caps that could buffer enough summer meltwater again. In a warmer climate, rainfall will increase at the expense of snowfall, further hampering the formation of a new snow cover. In the absence of refreezing, these ice caps will undergo irreversible mass loss.

What about the Greenland ice sheet?

For now, the big Greenland ice sheet is still safe as snow in the extensive inland accumulation zone still buffers most of the summer melt (Fig. 1). At the current rate of mass loss (~300 Gt per year), it would still take 10,000 years to melt the ice sheet completely (van den Broeke et al., 2016). However, the tipping point reached for the peripheral ice caps must be regarded as an alarm-signal for the Greenland ice sheet in the near future, if temperatures continue to increase.

Data availability

The daily, 1 km Surface Mass Balance product (1958-2015) is available on request without conditions for the Greenland ice sheet, the peripheral ice caps and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Further reading

Edited by Sophie Berger

Brice Noël is a PhD Student at IMAU (Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research at Utrecht University), Netherlands. He simulates the climate of the Arctic region, including the ice masses of Greenland, Svalbard, Iceland and the Canadian Arctic, using the regional climate model RACMO2. His main focus is to identify snow/ice processes affecting the surface mass balance of these ice-covered regions. He tweets as: @BricepyNoel Contact Email:

An Antarctic Road Trip

An Antarctic Road Trip

Working in the Arctic and Antarctic presents its own challenges. It is perhaps easy to imagine how a station situated close to the coast is resupplied: during the summer, one or more ships will arrive bringing fuel, food and equipment, but what about stations inland? Flying in supplies by aircraft is expensive and, in the case of large quantities of fuel, unsustainable. Besides, many stations are closed during the winter season, so there is nowhere for a plane to land until the skiway has been reestablished. The answer is of course that you drive. In other words, you go on a polar road trip, and one such road trip is the traverse that starts every year from the German Neumayer III station. The route is almost 800km long and it typically takes the traverse team 10 days to make their way across the East Antarctic Ice Sheet to their goal: Kohnen station at 75 degrees S, 0 degrees W and 2.9km altitude.

This year I got the chance to join the traverse and do a bit of science along the way with my colleague Anna Winter. Read below for a riveting tale of hardships, drilling and bamboo poles!

Map of our traverse route starting at the Neumayer III station on the coast. Credit: Anna Winter.

Who is holding up the traverse?

If you were to look at the traverse from above, you would see six large “Pisten bullies” pulling several sledges, each leaving a track across the ice sheet. However, you would also see two people on a tiny vehicle; a skidoo with two small sledges. Some times the skidoo will be in front of the traverse train, but often it will be trailing behind, and you would definitely notice that the people on the skidoo are stopping frequently. The two people are Anna and myself. We had set out to investigate how much snow is falling in this part of the Antarctic, and to do this we used a range of equipment from highly advanced radar instruments to bamboo sticks and a measurement tape.

Drilling into the past

The Antarctic ice sheet has a long memory. When snow falls, the old snow is buried, so when you drill down into the surface you go back in time and can look into the past. This is how we know what the climate was like in the past. Drilling an ice core all the way to the bottom of Antarctica takes a very long time: often 3 – 5 years or more, but since we want to know something about the very recent changes, we do not have to drill very far.

Drilling a firn core requires patience, focus and sturdy gloves. Credit: Anna Winter.

Drilling a firn core requires patience, focus and sturdy gloves. Credit: Anna Winter.

On the 31st of January the traverse stopped a bit earlier than usual, and while the drivers tended to the vehicles and the cook prepared the New Years Eve dinner, We started drilling a firn core (firn is old snow that is not ice yet) with the help of Alexander and Torsten. In order to drill a firn core,  you need a drill that can capture the firn inside, a small engine for powering the drill and several extensions so you can go as deep as you like (see photo). It is not an easy process and many things can go wrong. For example, it should not be too warm when you drill. A few metres into the snow the temperature is no longer the same as the air, but instead it is the average annual temperature. Since we are drilling in the summer time this means that the firn we retrieve will be maybe 20 degrees colder than the temperature at the surface. When the drill comes up the metal gets warm and the core will get stuck inside the drill. A real nightmare! This is also the reason why we drilled during the evening even if that cut our New Years Eve celebrations short. Fortunately, we did manage to get a break and enjoyed a delicious New Years Eve meal, before finishing the drilling ten minutes before midnight. We celebrated the success of the drilling and the New Year with a whisky, before the cores were packed in boxes so they can be shipped to Germany for more analyses at the Alfred Wegener Institute.

Measuring a the height of a bamboo pole includes high-technology equipment, namely, another bamboo pole with peanut-can and a measurer tape stuck to it. Credit: Nanna B. Karlsson.

Measuring a the height of a bamboo pole includes high-technology equipment, namely, another bamboo pole with peanut-can and a measurer tape stuck to it. Credit: Nanna B. Karlsson.

The endless row of bamboos

So, how do the bamboo poles fit in the picture? The firn core tells us a lot about the snowfall in the place where it was drilled, but we also want to know what is happening along the route of the traverse, and what is happening right now. Therefore, last year, bamboo poles were set up every 1km along the first part of the traverse. Our task was to increase the number of bamboo poles to one pole every 500m. We also measured the height of the old poles, and compared it to their original height. The further we got from the coast, the taller the bamboo poles were. This is what we expected since we know that very little snow falls in these parts of Antarctica, maybe less than half a metre a year! From our measurements, we now know directly how much snow has fallen since last year. Next year, other people will measure the height of the old bamboo poles and the new ones we put up, and we will know even more about the snowfall. It is a laborious and hard process: the traverse route is almost 800km so it is almost an endless row of bamboo poles. If only they could be seen from space they would make an impressive sight.

This blog post was originally brought on the website of the Alfred Wegener Institute in German. You can see more photos and read the originals here and here.

Tea break with Kottas Mountains in the background. For once we were ahead of the rest of the traverse. Credit: Anna Winter.

Tea break with Kottas Mountains in the background. For once we were ahead of the rest of the traverse. Credit: Anna Winter.

(Edited by Sophie Berger and Emma Smith)