Peering Through Polar Ice
Early winter in the Northern Hemisphere marks the start of austral summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and the beginning of the Antarctic field season. Each year, several thousand scientists head to the icy continent to take advantage of the relatively mild, though still very harsh, weather and the 24-hour daylight; the next time the sun will fall below the horizon at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station is February 20, 2015.
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists are among the many researchers currently doing fieldwork in Antarctica. They’re leading and participating in expeditions near, above and on the continent, doing critical studies that will advance understanding of Antarctica’s land and sea processes.
Lamont biogeochemist Sonya Dyhrman is aboard an icebreaking ship, the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer, for one month. In that time she’ll slowly travel south from Punta Arenas, Chile to research sites located off the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Dhyrman, graduate student Harriet Alexander and the other cruise scientists are investigating polar food web dynamics, with a focus on the feeding and swimming behavior of krill, a small shrimp-like crustacean. During the research cruise, Dyhrman and Alexander will collect samples of water and phytoplankton from a number of different sites. Their goal is to understand the physiological ecology of phytoplankton, which form the base of the marine food web in the Southern Ocean, and are a major source of food for krill.
More than two thousand miles south, six scientists from Lamont’s Polar Geophysics Group are at McMurdo Station, a U.S. Antarctic research center located on Ross Island. They’re deploying an ice imaging system, known as IcePod, which consists of ice-penetrating radar, infrared and visible cameras, a laser altimeter and other data-collection instruments. IcePod attaches to a New York Air National Guard LC-130 aircraft and measures, in detail, the ice surface and the ice bed; important data that enables the scientists to track changes in ice sheets and glaciers.
The scientists are testing the instrumentation and training the New York Air National Guard in the deployment and operation of the instrument; this is the first time IcePod is being used in Antarctica. After the testing and training, IcePod will be operated in up to 15 other flights for routine data collection.
Also at McMurdo Station are Lamont geologists Sidney Hemming and Trevor Williams. The two scientists and their colleagues Kathy Licht and Peter Braddock will soon fly to a field site in the remote Thomas Hills, near the Weddell Sea in the Atlantic sector of Antarctica. There they’ll spend four weeks making observations and collecting rock samples from the exposed tills on the edge of the massive Foundation Ice Stream, as well as from the Stephenson Bastion and Whichaway Nunataks.
The group is examining how ice sheets in the Weddell Sea embayment will respond to changing climate, specifically how Antarctic ice retreats and which parts of the ice sheet are most prone to retreat. Understanding the behavior of the Antarctic ice sheets and ice streams provides critical information about climate change and future sea level rise.
Thanks to the Internet and the scientists’ dedication to outreach, it’s possible to join their Antarctic expeditions without donning extreme cold weather gear. Follow the Dyhrman’s cruise activities on Twitter via @DyhrmanLab and #TeamDyhrman, and learn more about their research on the cruise website.
The first dedicated Antarctic Icepod mission was flown out across the center of the Ross Ice Shelf. Ice shelves are thick floating extensions of the ice sheet that form as the ice flows off the continent and into the surrounding ocean. These are critical ice features in Antarctica, bounding a full 44 percent of her coastline, where they serve as a buttress to slow the ice movement off the continent into the ocean.
The Ross Ice Shelf is the largest of the Antarctic ice shelves, measuring just under the size of the state of Texas. It is several hundred meters thick, although most of this is below the water surface. Along the ~ 600 kilometer front edge of the shelf, the ice towers up to 50 meters in height; a sheer vertical wall of white and the iridescent blue of compressed ice.
The goal of the six-and-a-half-hour mission was to test how the Icepod could image the varying processes at the base of the ice shelf and how well the gravimeter would work flying 90m/sec.
The gravimeter is a new addition to the Icepod suite of instruments. Housed separately inside the plane, the gravimeter requires a very stable platform. The instrument will be critical for determining the water depth beneath the Ross Ice Shelf, the least explored piece of ocean floor on our planet. The plan was to cross the front of the ice shelf towards Roosevelt Island, then fly inland until the plane crossed the J9 site where the first hole through the ice shelf was drilled in the early 1970s as part of the Ross Ice Shelf Project (RISP). Icepod would then fly back toward McMurdo along a line where there are plans for another science project to drill next year.
The collected radar data showed remarkable variability over the ice. Crossing over Roosevelt Island, the change from floating shelf ice to marginal crevasses (deep cuts or openings in the ice) to ice sitting directly on the bedrock was imaged. The variation in the reflection from the bottom of the ice probably represented the different processes occurring at the ice sheet base. In some places there was evidence of ice being added to the bottom of the shelf.
When the RISP team, which included Lamont’s Stan Jacobs, drilled through J9 in the 1970s, they found refrozen ice with a structure that resembled waffles. That team also captured pictures of fish beneath the ice shelf, demonstrating that the area below was not the wasteland that it was originally believed to be. Icepod overflew the best fishing hole on the Ross Ice Shelf while the team looked at the pictures of the bright-eyed fish in the Science paper, and smiled. It is almost 50 years later, and while we have a much better understanding of Antarctica, there remains so much that is unexplored.
Icepod and the LC-130 returned to Willie Field and began immediately to plan for the next flight.
For more on the IcePod project: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/res/pi/icepod/
Migrating south in the winter is a behavior that Antarctic scientists share with many species of birds, although the scientists fly just a bit further south. For the IcePod team, it was time to join the migration so they could test their equipment in the most challenging environment the Earth has to offer. After three “equipment shake down” trips to Greenland over the last two years, 20 hours of flight time have been set aside for flights in Antarctica, part of the final hurdle in the commissioning of the pod.
The team arrived early this month at McMurdo Base on a large C-17 to –14°F weather and beautiful clear blue sky as the plane touched down on the Pegasus Blue Ice Runway. The first few days were spent in training for everything from driving trucks in the cold to being environmentally sensitive to the Antarctic microbes to a crash course on interpreting the complex way trash is handled in Antarctica — an impressive 60 percent of everything is recycled.
The gear arrived soon after the team… first the gravity meter, borrowed from New Zealand, wrapped in a warm, manly pinkish quilt. With many boxes being stacked in the aircraft, the color was selected for its high visibility to assist with quick location and unloading. The IcePod and the equipment rack had paused on their trip down in Pago Pago, arriving a few days after the rest of the gear, but it was all quickly set up and humming in a bright yellow and blue rack tent next to the Willy Airfield on the Ross Ice Shelf. While waiting to fly, a GPS was installed on top of the tent, and equipment was set up to test performance. Both the GPS and the gravity meter measured the movement of the ice shelf as it shifted up and down on the tide ~ 1 meter a day. In addition to the rhythmic up/down movement, the tent, the airfield and the ice shelf are all moving northwards at 30 cm or 1 foot a day.
Finally, IcePod was cleared to fly and complete her first Antarctic survey mission installed on a Pole Tanker mission flying on Skier 95. The flight was delayed as the C-17 practiced airdrops over the South Pole runway, but as soon as the C-17 was out of the way, icePod took off and headed south.
Low elevation data was collected on the way out to make sure the C-17 was clear. All the instruments worked in the flight across the very flat Ross Ice Shelf, then over the Transantarctic Mountains and across the spectacular East Antarctic Ice Sheet.
The low angle of the sun made the mountains, crevasses and wind scour areas stand out beautifully in the imagery. The deep radar imaged the structure of the Ross Ice Shelf even from 21,000 feet. The infra-red camera showed the variable temperature of the different types of ice in the Beardmore Glacier and the high plateau. The gravity meter that had rolled in on the speed pallet was extremely stable. At the South Pole, Skier 95 offloaded fuel while the IcePod team made a quick trip to the actual pole.
The flight was a success – data collected on an opportune flight and fuel delivered.
For more on the IcePod project: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/res/pi/icepod/
144 miles separates Kangerlussuaq from Raven Camp. Not far really, just 144 miles – like traveling from the southern tip of New York City up to Albany. Flying at 270 knots we can be there in about half an hour, no time at all, and yet to the casual observer they seem worlds apart.
Kanger sits nestled in the arm of Sondrestrom Fjord, where over the years Russell Glacier has found the soft belly in the rock base, wearing the surface down flat and pushing the rock flour out to sea. Currently the tip of Russell Glacier is a full 20 kms (14 mi) up the fjord. In the summer months, as research teams move through the village, glacial meltwater fills the carved channel that borders the small town.
Meltwater Rushing Behind Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
“Summer meltwater from Russell Glacier rushes around the edge of Kangerlussuaq.”
Although modest in size by our standards, Kangerlussuaq is a transportation hub for Greenland, and has a steady year-round population of ~500 residents.
Raven Camp sits high up on the Greenland Ice Sheet on a frozen bed of ice, almost 2 kms thick (~1 mi) and millions of years in the making. At almost 7,000 feet of elevation, no seasonal change will bring a rushing river or a population to match that of Kangerlussuaq, but summer research does bring an influx of summer scientists, swelling the population beyond the posted total of 2. With a handful of tents and collapsible housing structures, Raven Camp is a “summer town.”
Today we fly to Raven Camp to complete a survey grid over the ice landing strip. A year ago the camp staff detected several cracks (crevasses) in the ice running perpendicular to the airstrip. Crevasses are to be expected around the edges of an ice sheet, where the ice is faster flowing, however, at this elevation and this far inland it is more unusual. Published data for ice movement in this area shows at the base the ice is moving about 2.5 cm a day, while at the surface ice is moving closer to 7 cm a day. It is no surprise that the ice at the base moves more slowly, a result of the increased friction at the bed causing the ice to stick and slow.
Currently measuring only 10 cms across, it certainly doesn’t seem that this could cause much trouble. But if the crevasses are deep and continue to widen, they will threaten the landing strip. A team of scientists has been collecting measurements on the ground to see if these rates are changing (2013 polarfield blog1); our job is to survey the area with our instruments. The Shallow Ice Radar and the infrared camera collect the depth of the cracks and the temperature differences as the cracks move deeper into the ice. Pulling all this data together will help us understand what is happening to the ice in this area.
Our flight grid will be flown low, at 1,000 ft. above the ice surface, one third our normal survey elevation. Two East/West lines are flown perpendicular to the landing strip at 600 meters apart. Then three tie lines are flown parallel to the runway at 100 meters apart.
Once the grid is complete, we land on the airstrip, testing the seal on the pod door and collecting some camp cargo. The landing is smooth.
Temperatures today at Raven are a warm 1°C. The snow has lost some of the crispness we had experienced when we had landed in April to install a GPS on the ice. The pod is inspected. The camp looks all but abandoned, yet a snow vehicle appears with cargo that is stashed and secured for transit. While the cargo is loaded, we snap a quick IcePod team photo.
The new eight-bladed propellers on Skier 92 do their job and the take-off is smooth for our return to Kangerlussuaq, just 144 miles, 30 minutes of transit, and yet seemingly worlds apart.
1 For more on the science being collected on the ground on ice movement: http://www.polarfield.com/blog/tag/greenland-ice-cap/
For more on IcePod: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu
When the New York Air National Guard travels to Kangerlussuaq, they toss in a few fishing poles with the baggage for whatever few hours of free time might be available. A favored pastime for this location’s summer assignments means the local lakes are well known by the crew, so when we sat down to map out the flight plan, a request for locating lakes met with an easy nod. No problem at all. It took only seconds to register that our definition of lakes might differ from theirs.
We are interested in lakes atop the ice sheet surface, places where the ice sheet melt is puddled into lakes of various sizes. It is in locations like these lakes where water, with its darker color, absorbs more heat from the sun than the surrounding white ice surface. This process can contribute to more melt, and in some instances the water finds a weak “joint” in the ice and drains right down to the bottom. Both the extent of the ponding and this process are of interest to the science community in better understanding the ice sheet.
The guard is quick to assure us, no problem, these too can be located!
It was an “optics day,” where our focus is on the cameras in IcePod. Using both our Bobcat (visible wavelength) and our (IR) infrared cameras, we will image surface lakes and the meandering meltwater channels on the ice sheet surface, and then fly over a few of the southwest fjords to image meltwater as it plumes at the calving edge of the ice sheet. This is a day that Chris Zappa, our resident oceanographer and optics expert, has been waiting patiently for. The weather is perfect, the sky crystal clear, and the instruments are humming. We are ready to go.
The surface of the ice sheet barely resembles our April visit. Large lakes, some a mile across, are printed along the ice sheet surface, as if a skipping stone has skimmed along the surface leaving pockets of water in its wake.
These ice surface lakes are viewed more cautiously than our lakes back home, as they pose a threat of suddenly emptying through a “moulin” or drainage tube. Moulins transfer water from the surface to the bottom of the ice sheet in short order, circumventing a process that could otherwise take many thousands of years. Cutting across the surface in various patterns, meandering channels carry the melting surface water into these catchment pools. On the ice sheet these channels are the equivalent of streams from our home communities. Back home they collect runoff and drain into freshwater lakes. Here they serve the same function but are more striking, as there are no plants to screen them.
The cameras work furiously. The Bobcat, is a 29-megapixel camera. The IR samples at 100 frames per second. Both cameras collect a staggering 60 gigabytes a second. Images play across the screen showing the temperature contrasts as we move over the surface features.
We move from the ice sheet to the coastline, where rugged mountains circle Greenland’s perimeter like a crown. Fjords cut through in many areas, allowing deeply stacked ice in the interior to move off the land. Today we are flying down small “arms” of Godthaab Fjord with a focus on their leading edges, where the ice meets the Atlantic water. We are interested in how the IR camera can be used to track thermal plumes at the interface of the cold glacier meltwater and the warmer ocean water. Combining both the Bobcat and the IR cameras allows sediment plumes to be tracked moving through the fjord. Sediment should warm faster than the surrounding water, and may be transferring more heat into the system. Both will tell us about circulation, mixing and transit of the glacial meltwater systems.
Flying back down the fjord we pass over a small fishing town perched on the edge of the water. There is no apparent movement below. Perhaps they have gone fishing?
For more about the IcePod project: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icepod
Even the most skilled of English language lipreaders are only able to tease apart about 30 percent of the information being shared. I learned this reading a recent article (Kolb, 20131). The author, herself deaf, went on to note that in some transmissions the information capture is higher while in others there is nothing collected. An average of 30 percent information transfer…most of us seek more information, we are curious beings. I don’t know anyone who is happy to sit comfortably saying “yes we know 30 percent, that is good enough.”
I am surrounded by question posers, information seekers, hypothesis formers – scientists are an inquisitive bunch for sure – and that is how we find ourselves back in Greenland in July seeking to learn more about the information operating underneath and deep inside this changing ice sheet, and testing just what our IcePod instruments are capable of telling us. Thirty percent is well in excess of what we currently know about ice sheets and their processes, but every line flown and piece of data collected and analyzed builds upon our current understanding.
Prior to arriving at the base for the morning, flight plans were laid well in advance. Discussions threaded through the series of meetings leading up to our return to Kangerlssuaq, piecing together the right combination of flights that would focus on testing instruments and addressing the science. Instrument range, elevation, seasonal snow conditions, old radar lines all are factored in. Once in Greenland we must weave weather and instrument issues into our planning. Weather is cloudy and reports suggest an improvement during the week, so we will shelve our camera testing for the minute and focus on instruments designed to penetrate through the clouds. Today our flight will focus on tuning our Deep Ice Radar System (DICE).
Located at the crest of the ice sheet the elevation is just over 10,500 ft. and seems just the place to test our deep ice radar. Once aloft, we head for deep ice up over Summit. The weather reports are validated – the whole area is socked in with cloud cover and the pilots switch to Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). Our survey flight at Summit is 3,000 ft. above ground level (agl), but the aircraft instruments tell us we are 13,000 ft. above sea level (asl). The ice is deep and DICE is the focus of the next few hours as we survey and resurvey in the same area with dialogue, testing, refining and learning with each pass.
A question was raised — would we want to move to a second area to look at different conditions? Checking other areas of the ice sheet is tempting, but the science team vetoes this…”We learn more by doing this now,” holding our focus on one location. So we refocused our efforts, collecting more data, making more small adjustments, and consider that with each data point we are improving our lipreading of the ice sheet.
For more about IcePod: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icepod.
1Kolb, Rachel, Seeing at the speed of sound, in Standford Magazine, March/April 2013 http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=59977