The Future of Snow on Ice

Date: Started 2018

Project Lead: Joerg M. Schaefer

Project Website: SnowonIce

What if the warming Arctic climate were to result in more snow? Could decreasing sea ice cover actually drive more evaporation of newly exposed Arctic ocean water into the atmosphere? And could that increased moisture in the air fall on the ice sheet as snow? If yes, will this stabilize the Greenland Ice Sheet, stopping the current movement of ice into the ocean? The Snow on Ice project takes a unique look at Arctic climate, bringing together multi-disciplinary science around the history of the Greenland Ice Sheet. In the summer of 2018, several teams of scientists are traveling to Greenland to sample as they camp alongside the ice.

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Posted By: Margie Turrin on July 25, 2018


One in a chain of lakes feeding into Lake Gus; both bodies of water are unnamed on local maps and are situated west of Kangerlussuaq and east of Sisimiut, Greenland. Several of our tents are visible in the foreground. (M. Turrin)

We are anxious to get to ‘Lake Gus’ a small lake on Greenland’s western flank just west of Kangerlussuaq and north of the Arctic Circle at N 67°01’57.13” W 52°23’22.77”. For this early part of the season we are focused on sampling water and representative plants from the catchments of some of the many freshwater lakes scattered on the landscape further away from the ice sheet. The goal is to tease apart a record of historic precipitation and temperature for this region using isotopes from leaf waxes collected in the lake sediments. Freshwater samples will also be collected from surface lakes in the area, as will samples of the most dominant existing water and terrestrial plants in the catchment.


The edges of the Greenland ice sheet vary from peaks and ridges pushing through around the ice, to roughened scraped bedrock covered with glacial erratics, and scrubby shrubby landscape dotted with lakes. We will work in the latter two environments. Above Elizabeth and Kayla point the group to our next sampling spot. (M. Turrin)

Although ~82 percent of Greenland remains covered by an ice sheet, the thick persistent ice that once covered this west coastal region retreated several thousands of years ago. The actual retreat occurred slowly with ice pulling out of the ocean first and then marching back across the landscape over a time spanning some 10,000 years, reaching the general footprint of ice we find today close to 7000 years ago.


Flying over a series of paternoster lakes, or a series of small interconnected glacial lakes, as we head to camp. (M. Turrin)

As the ice retreated it gouged and eroded the bedrock surface as it moved, creating collection points for water to pool. Greenland’s lakes dot the exposed landscape, many lie in connected strings, a formation known as ‘paternoster lakes’, a reference to the linked beads of a rosary. Both of our early season lakes are part of such a string.

Many of the Greenland lakes the Snow on Ice team works on are unnamed on the map so the field team has taken to naming them after local wildlife, plants found at the location, or family members. Lake Gus, named after the son of some of the science team, will be the location of our first of two camps for this part of the 2018 field season; both camps will be situated on mid-sized freshwater lakes. This lake is actually a return visit for some of the team.


Allison Cluett shows the 2016 bathymetry data from Lake ‘Gus’. (M. Turrin)

Gus was spotted late in the 2016 season when several members from this year’s team were sampling a larger lake in the chain. A final afternoon excursion that season ended with a trip to gather bathymetry data to build a map of the lake bottom and the collection of a small core, less than a meter in length, from over the side of the small soft-sided inflatable boat. Results from that small section of core triggered the return to Lake Gus this season for the collection of a longer piston core and a much longer lake precipitation history.


The smaller Bell 212 helicopter that was used to tranpsort the team and supplies, dropping us at  our first campsite. (M. Turrin)

As the large Sikorsky helicopter was on emergency evacuation watch up the coast of Greenland (it has since been released as the looming iceberg dislodged and headed north), we made arrangements to bring our group to the camp site using several flights of a smaller Bell 212 helicopter. The pilots of the Bell 212 were confident they could get us to the field in one flight until they saw our field gear. There is a fair amount of gear required for our work including a small inflatable boat and motor, a wooden coring platform with two inflatable pontoons and a piston set up, long and short core tubes, pumps, rope spools, several tool boxes, rock hammers and chisel, plant and water sampling vials, along with tents and food for 6 of us for our time in the field.


Elizabeth Thomas and Allison Cluett work on the piston corer in preparation for deployment. (M. Turrin)

Although we were anxious to get right to work on the lake we were pushed back by challenges with logistics, so boats were inflated and the coring platform built in anticipation of tackling it first thing the following day. Over dinner we pulled up the 2016 bathymetry map of the lake and located out where the long piston core would be collected.


The pontoon boat that holds the coring platform was inflated and constructed ready to be put into action. (M. Turrin)

For more on the Snow On Ice project please check the website.

To read about Anna McKee’s work check out her portfolio art.

Snow on Ice is an NSF-funded project that is multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary. It brings together work on lake sediment cores, exposure dating of the rock, ice core data, leaf wax and water samples and sea ice history to feed new data into both regional and wider Arctic models of ice sheet history.

Posted By: Margie Turrin on July 18, 2018


Michele collecting rock samples for beryllium testing to determine dates for ice retreat. She resonates a power equal to that of Thor.  (M. Turrin)

Superheroes are identified by their unique powers and skills allowing them to see and act in ways that inspire awe in the rest of us. Do scientists have superhero powers? Our Snow on Ice scientists have spent years refining their skills and building their understandings of the Earth and Earth processes. They are able to use clues in the landscape to build the ice sheet history for an area, read the mud in a sediment sample to see back in time, and develop computer models to project from the past into the future. They are agile enough to twist and adjust with resilience to any challenge tossed their way, such as our unexpected setback with the redeployment of our helicopter.


Field briefings this year have included discussions of several polar bear sightings near some of the camps, and tales of a possibly rabid fox in the field areas set away from the ice. This means a quick review of bear spray and sound deterrents while we wait for deployment. Above: Elizabeth tests out the bear spray. (M. Turrin)

Science skills easily translate into the world of superheroes via super-human strength, x-ray vision, and magically ordered sequences in computer code. Recognizing the ability of superheroes to capture students’ imagination and interest, Snow on Ice selected them as a method for communicating our science. Working with the science team and a graphic artist, we are developing a series of science superheroes showcasing the unique superskills they bring to the project.


Our superhero team for this field season loaded up and ready to go. L-R: M. Turrin, A. McKee, A. Cluett, M. Corcoran, E. Thomas, K. Hollister.

In preparation for our field season, we had a chance to visit and work with the computer graphics class of P-Tech Riverside High School in Yonkers. Their core team of teachers was excited about the opportunity to blend climate science with this very technical skills-based class that often focuses on developing logos and designs for school t-shirts or key chains. Prior to our visit the students had no familiarity with the project’s science, and only a limited introduction to the graphics program. We focused our introduction on the scientists themselves and what we had identified as the ‘super power or skill’ that each one brought to the overall project goal.


M. Turrin working with students and staff at Riverside High School in Yonkers, New York, on the science superheros communication project.

The students were encouraged to consider themselves as scientists or involved in any area of STEM. They identified a topic that interested them and the skills and powers they would need to tackle that work, and then created their own superhero avatar. Below are a few samples of the student superheroes and the science powers they selected.

Nicolás Young in our project uses his super power to hunt for the perfect rock sample, honing in on just the right rock for extracting the exposure dating information he needs to establish the time of Greenland ice retreat.


For Brandon at Riverside High School, this translated into a need for super human strength to pluck out just the right rock sample. You can see him heaving the massive boulder over his head to carry it off to the lab.

Jessica Bagley uses her super power to look back in time and harness the climate stories locked in Greenland’s ice cores.


For Okand in Riverside High School, this translated into an extremely powerful caped superhero who seems to harness all creation as he uses his mind to extract the large ice samples needed for his work.

Our modeling team of Jake Downs and Jesse Johnson integrate the various data collected from the project to build a mechanism for looking at ice sheet thickness and extent, from the past and into the future.


Amaya at Riverside High School fit this with her pre-existing interest in computers, translating it into the power to capture the code of nature and swirl it into an organization that was uncrackable, able to protect climate and nature from any meddling by others.

Scientists do have incredible powers, like their ability to pose researchable questions, to use their powers of observation, to decode landscapes, to bring together information in new and unique ways to address some of our generation’s most ‘wicked’ problems. Engaging students with these powers provides new opportunities for recruitment and building diversity within our next generation of scientists.

Special Thanks to Kelly Jakab and the full Yonkers Riverside High School P-Tech team and their students for their time and work with us.

For more on the Snow On Ice project please check the website.

To read about Anna Mckee’s work check our her portfolio art.

Snow on Ice is an NSF-funded project that is multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary. It brings together work on lake sediment cores, exposure dating of the rock, ice core data, leaf wax and water samples and sea ice history to feed new data into both regional and wider Arctic models of ice sheet history.

Posted By: Margie Turrin on July 13, 2018


A minitoq (large iceberg) previously on the waterfront of Upernavik (M. Turrin)

The sounds from icebergs are constant—a bit of groaning as the waves shift the ice, and then a sharp popping like gunfire as the ice fractures, beginning its weakening. Calving is punctuated by a dramatic cannon-like sound as large slabs of ice break off and fall into the water. Waves ripple out immediately.


Greenland map with a small cut out of the area of the current large iceberg.

We awoke to messages from our polar field contact that a towering iceberg is threatening the local waterfront settlement of Innaarsuit. Located low on the rocky coastline along the Upernavik region of western Greenland (see inset map) the dangers facing this area are very real and have sparked concern of a tsunami should the iceberg calve. Calving icebergs are a constant threat to the coastal residents of Greenland as most make their living on the water. This iceberg is large and has hit a small shallowing of the water where it has grounded, or wedged itself, so it stays looming its threat.


Many of the icebergs along the Greenland waterfront are quite substantial in size and if they become grounded they become a major concern to the small waterfront communities. This one was in Kullorsuaq just north of Innaarsuit. (M. Turrin)

Icebergs are deceptively beautiful. From a distance they can captivate you with their glistening whites and blues, but they have a more sinister side as any native Greenlander can tell you. In an earlier trip on this coastline I recall being struck by the shear number of stories we heard from the locals of family members lost when a iceberg unexpectedly calved, sending out large waves of water capsizing their small fishing boats.


FIshermen work along the waterfront in Unpernavik darting in and around icebergs. (M. Turrin)

The first time we worked on the waterfront in Greenland, the dangers of large icebergs, or minitoq, was a daily part of our discussion. The small fishing boats gave them wide berth as they traveled along the waterfront. But this iceberg is different, as its size and location have placed not just a single boat, but the whole waterfront region on alert from any potential calving event. The whole settlement is sitting in waiting, watching to see what the ice will do.


Homes perched right along the waterfront in Greenland as icebergs move by from outlet glaciers. (M. Turrin)

There is perhaps a bit of irony in the fact that a massive looming block of ice is holding a potential threat to the start of our Greenland field season. Although the area is not close to our field sites, Greenland has declared an emergency and the Sikorsky helicopter designated for our field deployment has been relocated closer to Innaarsuit in case there is a need for evacuation. Polar Services is working on a back-up plan for our needs, something they have lots of experience with, and we feel certain a resolution will come our way.


Sikorsky helicopters are vaued for their large capacity by both science field teams and Greenland emergency services. (M. Turrin)

Our hope for Innaarsuit is that the iceberg will break free from its current location and drift away from the coastline.

For more on the Snow On Ice project please check the website.

Snow on Ice is an NSF-funded project that is multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary. It brings together work on lake sediment cores, exposure dating of the rock, ice core data, leaf wax and water samples and sea ice history to feed new data into both regional and wider Arctic models of ice sheet history.

Posted By: Margie Turrin on July 12, 2018


This small boat, the workhorse of the fieldwork, supports the team with mapping the lake bottom, pushing the coring rig and transporting the team. Earns its keep! (M. Turrin)

The Snow on Ice project is launching into the field with two teams of scientists this summer. The first group, an ‘advance team’ of six women, will focus on lakes where meltwater has collected on the exposed southwestern flank of Greenland bedrock. In this region west of Kangerlussuaq, the ice sheet had retreated, leaving behind its history in the lake sediments and water isotopes, and the exposure history trapped in the exposed rocks.


The team will set up camp along lakes that formed from ice sheet meltwater. (M. Turrin)

The team will spend a week at each of two different surface lake locations, camping along the edge of the lakes using a setup of small inflatable boats and a pontoon-style floating platform to core into them to retrieve the glacial history. Travel in Greenland is primarily by air and we will rely on Air Greenland’s helicopters to shuttle us to our camp sites, assisting us with a relocation midway through our stay.


Setup of the dual boating structure used for coring. The small zodiac in the back can push the motorless coring platform into position. The platform is then anchored with local rocks during the coring process. This image is captured via drone. (M. Turrin)

Drones have become an important addition to our field equipment in the last few years. From aloft, they can capture an expansive view of the wider field area. For example braided lakes that lie on the other side of a ridgeline, hidden from the camp view, come easily into focus when the drone is launched. Flattened glacially carved valleys are given scale when viewed from above, as are the series of small drainage lakes that extend from the edge of the ice sheet like a string of beads dotting the landscape.


Allison collecting data for leaf wax samples to help establish the history of Greenland’s precipitation since the beginning of the most recent ice retreat. (N. Young)

Our team of six is a blend of science and art, and career and student. We are led by Elizabeth Thomas, assistant professor of geology at the University of Buffalo. She’s a paleoclimatologist with a focus on understanding climate over the past several hundred thousand years. We include several seasoned graduate students including Allison Cluett, who is using leaf wax proxies to reconstruct temperature and moisture balance in Western Greenland over the past ~10,000 years, and Megan Corcoran studying paleoclimatology and biogeochemistry. Our final student is Kayla Hollister, a geology undergraduate. Artist Anna McKee, with a unique artistic history of documenting the science and the majesty of the polar regions through her work, and myself joining from Lamont-Doherty will round out the team.

For more on the Snow On Ice project please check the website.

For more on Anna Mckee’s work check our her portfolio art.

Snow on Ice is an NSF funded project that is multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary. It brings together work on lake sediment cores, exposure dating of the rock, ice core data, leaf wax and water samples and sea ice history to feed new data into both regional and wider Arctic models of ice sheet history.

Posted By: Margie Turrin on March 28, 2018

Nicolás Young (LDEO), Jason Briner (UCB) and an assortment of fellow scientists and graduate students are gearing up to spend a third summer camping along the Greenland ice margin. As part of an ambitious multi-institutional and cross-disciplinary project, NSF-funded Snow on Ice, Young and Briner are collecting lake sediment, rock, water and plant samples that will be used to tease apart linkages between reductions in sea ice on the Arctic Ocean, atmospheric uptake through increased evaporation from the exposed ocean surface and changes in snowfall on the Greenland Ice Sheet. The fieldwork will be centered in southwest Greenland where climate sensitivity during past interglacials was the greatest. The resulting data will be combined with new isotopic ice core work (UW) and updated subglacial topography (UCI), for delivery to two sets of modelers on the project team (UM and NASA JPL) to feed into a set of nested models. Canada’s Geotop and Denmark’s GEUS fill out the partner list.

Explore the photo essay below and read more below to learn about the exciting work of the Snow on Ice Project.

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This full length lake cores has been split for a visual description prior to returning to the lab for a more comprehensive analysis. It shows a clear layering in the sediment. At the front of the image wet grey glacially sourced sediments are seen in the core. These eroded minerogenic layers would have been collected when the area was ice covered, and the glacier was grinding back and forth over the bedrock creating 'glacial flour'. Just above that core is a series of very distinctively colored and textured layers of organic rich, non-glacial sediments, that would have entered the lake when the ice sheet had retreated leaving the lake uncovered. Towards the top of the photo we see a return to glacial flour or minerogenic sediments. The core layers represent a time series in the history of the ice sheet. Time moves from an ice covered cold climate to a warmer time when the ice sheet shrank leaving the lake exposed, back to a cooling period when the ice re-expanded to cover the lake. Photo: Nicolas Young

The project goal is to look at the last 8000 years in Western Greenland, spanning back into the last Thermal Maximum when temperatures were approximated at 1-2°C warmer than today and the ice sheet was smaller. It is difficult to constrain the dimensions of an ice sheet that is smaller than present as the traditional markers that are used for evidence are covered over but we will tackle it with the multiple instrument approach described above. The data will be used as a proxy for what might happen in Greenland’s future, addressing with increased certainty whether reductions in Arctic sea ice in the past triggered a feedback loop that caused increased precipitation falling as snow, and resulted in stabilizing the Greenland ice Sheet even in a warming climate.

For more on this project see the Snow On Ice website.