A New Home on the Ice

Our guest blogger today is Chris Linder, a Research Associate at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He is the project manager and field photographer for the National Science Foundation-sponsored Live from the Poles project. Today – in addition to sending us weekly updates -Chris and fellow researcher Dr. Ian Joughin made a live call to our summer campers in the Burke Baker Planetarium; we hope to post the audio from the call here soon. If you’ve got questions of your own, visit us tonight – they’ll be calling us back. For now, here’s more from Chris, from the ice sheet: 

The camp at North Lake

We have been camping on the ice sheet for over a week now, and it’s amazing to think how familiar this environment now seems, especially compared to how foreign it felt when I stepped off the helicopter.

Some of the peculiarities of living on a 3,000-foot thick slab of ice:

- Water: you don’t have to carry a water bottle on a hike, just a cup. The water is the best tasting I’ve ever had.
– Cooking: no refrigeration required! We made a no-bake cheesecake the other night and it was quite a treat. Just left it outside the cook tent to chill…
– Slippery tents: instead of using tent stakes to secure the tents, we use ice screws, which are 6-inch metal screws. The problem is, they heat up in the sun and melt out after a day, so we spend a lot of time repositioning the ice screws.
– No night: this is a tough one—the 24 hours of daylight make it hard to sleep and it’s easy to forget what time it is.

The past week has been a busy one—we typically wake up at 8 a.m. and sometimes don’t finish work until 1-2 a.m. The science team has been working nonstop to refurbish their long-term instruments and survey the terrain by foot and air. They successfully installed two new instrument towers on the shores of the recently drained South Lake, which will measure the weather, icequakes (using a seismometer), and the movement of the ice sheet (using a sensitive GPS). For more information about the tools our science team uses to track moving ice, visit the Polar Discovery tools page

View of a glacial lake from a helicopter

We also completed an hour-long helicopter survey of 20 nearby lakes. An aerial perspective gives you so much information that you can’t get from either the ground or from a satellite.  You can see immediately the water level in a lake, count the number of inflow channels, and see where the lake is draining (if at all).  The weather cleared during the survey and we had magnificent views of the glacial lakes – full ones, empty ones, and draining ones.

On July 16, we disassembled our carefully constructed home at South Lake and packed everything up for a move to North Lake.  Although much of the work will be similar to what we did at South Lake (removing existing instruments, assembling new ones, and field mapping by foot and helicopter), the research team is expecting to see different processes at work here. 

Last year, South Lake drained through a huge downstream channel, while North Lake gushed through a gaping hole called a moulin right in the center of the lake.  This year, new observations at South Lake confirmed that the water primarily drained through a huge crack that ran right through the lake. 

In the coming days, the science team is hoping to piece together this year’s story about North Lake, how it is similar and different from South Lake, how this knowledge can help to understand the thousands of glacial lakes that form on the ice sheet each summer, and what conclusions can be passed along to researchers modeling the global climate. Don’t forget to visit Polar Discovery to see daily photo essays!

Newly installed instrument towers at South Lake

Seven significant changes

Recently, The Houston Museum of Natural Science has been working with the University of New Hampshire to create a new full-dome planetarium show – Ice Worlds (now showing). From the poles of the Earth to the exploration of other ice planets in our solar system, this film explores the state of ice and liquid water throughout the galaxy, and climate changes here on Earth. As part of the Ice Worlds program, we are featuring Ice Bulletins as visitors enter the planetarium theater. If you want to know what’s Hot on the Cold Poles, these are the best current events we have found. 

(We are also fortunate to have blog posts from Chris Linder, a scientist currently studying glacial lakes in Greenland. He will be calling in to the museum for a live-from-the-ice Q&A session on July 21.)

arg20080405.152
Creative Commons License photo credit: Irotzabal

1. Changing global temperatures have caused coastal erosion along the Artic Ocean and can cause increased storm exposure.

Coastal areas with open water have more potential for wave action (as well as flooding and hurricanes) than a frozen shoreline. Studies from 1950-2000 have indicated a warming trend in the Chukchi and southern Beaufort Seas, which corresponds to a decrease in sea ice coverage. Longer, warmer seasons translate to less ice, and more open water, which in turn leads to more waves, floods, and storms.

2. Increase in Russian river discharge to the Arctic Ocean.

The amount of water flowing through rivers to the Arctic Ocean in Eurasia has been increasing over the last 70 years. More recently, (2000-2004) this flow has increased even more. If the trend continues, some scientists predict this could impact the global climate, perhaps leading to the cooling of Northern Europe.

3. Greening of the Arctic “shrubiness”

The warming of the Alaskan Arctic during the past 150 years has accelerated over the last three decades. This is expected to increase vegetation productivity in tundra if shrubs become more abundant; indeed, this transition may already be under way, according to local plot studies and remote sensing.

Perito Moreno
Creative Commons License photo credit: untipografico

4. Acceleration of Greenland ice sheet melt.

Using satellite radar interferometry observations of Greenland, scientists have detected widespread glacier acceleration below 66° north between 1996 and 2000, which rapidly expanded to 70° north in 2005. Accelerated ice discharge in the west and particularly in the east doubled the ice sheet mass deficit in the last decade from 90 to 220 cubic kilometers per year. As more glaciers accelerate farther north, Greenland’s contributions to sea-level rise will continue to increase.

5. Opening of the Northwest passage

The legendary passage was first navigated with great difficulty using a relatively small ship by explorer Roald Amundsen in 1903 to 1906. Predictions for the opening of the Northwest Passage have ranged from 2012 to 2080 at their most conservative. “We’re several decades ahead of schedule right now,” said Mark Serreze, a senior scientist at the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, which monitors the region. Fully navigable, the Northwest Passage will make the trip 4,000 miles shorter for ships traveling between Europe and Asia, allowing them to avoid the Panama Canal. “The notion of coming to an ice-free Arctic Ocean even by 2030 is not totally unreasonable,” Serreze said.

polarbears
Creative Commons License photo credit: myradphotos

6. Polar bears are becoming an endangered species

The US Department of the Interior listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act based on studies claiming the loss of sea ice threatens, and will likely continue to threaten, polar bear habitat. The studies cite differences in sea ice from the fall of 1979 to the fall of 2007 and projected declines in sea ice by the middle of the 21st century. Although some females use snow dens on land for birthing cubs, polar bears are almost completely dependent upon sea ice for their sustenance. Any significant changes in the abundance, distribution, or existence of sea ice will have effects on the number and behavior of these animals and their prey. Canada has listed the polar bear as a “species of concern” since 2002 and is currently conducting a status review as of 2008.

7. Shortening of winter season means less lake ice and shorter time to use ice roads.

The oil industry and support services withdraw water from freshwater lakes and ponds to build ice roads and pads in the Arctic for increased access to remote sites. This technique is important to the oil industry, in that it allows oil field development or maintenance, while avoiding the environmental disturbance associated with construction of gravel roads and pads. The decrease in the time during which ice roads can be used is due to a changing climate. Ice roads are constructed using water from ponds, lakes, and rivers. Rivers themselves are traversed using ice bridges. The industry must have all drilling equipment back to gravel bases before the ice road deteriorates. The season ends when the first ice bridge is washed out. The ice bridge failures are a function of melting further south in the stream’s headwaters.

Learn more:

Breaking news from the Greenland Ice Sheet

Cold Ice & Warm Socks

Titanic and Today