Why Sea Ice?

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Melting sea ice from above                                                       Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

I am in love with sea ice.

My first view of the ice came from a Hercules aircraft bound for McMurdo Station, Antarctica, in January this year, the first step in my voyage as Science Communicator for the SNOWBIRDS Transect research cruise aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer.

But in preparing for my journey, I had been reading about sea ice for some time. Anxious about going to sea, I devoured as much information about the ship and the journey as I could to prepare myself. I soon came across this video by Cassandra Brooks.

I was hooked. While most of our voyage would be upon the wild Southern Ocean, well beyond the ice, I longed to experience sea ice as fully as I could.

Eager to know more about breaking ice, I came across this description of ice navigation (scroll right down) by Captain David “Duke” Snider. I don’t know how many times I listened to it and imagined crushing ice in the middle of the night, far from home and family, in such a remote and dangerous part of the world. Despite my trepidation, I couldn’t wait to go.

And I couldn’t get sea ice off my mind. The more I learned about this remarkable environment, the more I was enchanted.

You might imagine that the frozen seas are a barren and lifeless place, but nothing could be further from the truth.

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Juvenile emperor penguin                                                    Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

Breaking ice in the Ross Sea, I saw Adélie and emperor penguins, Weddell and crabeater seals, skuas (a gull-like seabird), snow petrels, Antarctic petrels, orcas on the hunt, and more. But I knew so much more lay beneath the surface.

Sea ice is a vital habitat for the growth of phytoplankton, tiny plants (mainly algae and bacteria). Beneath the ice, zooplankton (tiny animals) drift, providing nutrition for krill and the larger animals that feed on them, such as fish, penguins, seals, and whales. During the eternal days of a polar summer, when the sun never sets, phytoplankton bloom in this nutrient- and light-rich environment, reproducing exponentially until the water can appear green and soupy.

The base of the marine food chain, phytoplankton not only feed our oceans but provide about the half the oxygen we breathe. They also act as a carbon sink, taking up massive amounts of carbon dioxide—a major greenhouse gas—from our atmosphere.

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Crabeater seals resting on the sea ice, Ross Sea                    Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

Sea ice provides a safe resting place close to food for birds like penguins, mammals such as seals, and in the Arctic, walruses and polar bears. Some species also give birth on the sea ice.

The physics of sea ice are fascinating, too. Ice grows, shifts, flows with ocean currents, cracks, and melts, ever changing. In fact, sea ice has a direct impact on ocean currents because, as salty sea water freezes, brine is pushed out of the ice and trickles down through brine channels into the sea water below. The resulting extra-salty sea water is heavy and sinks, causing currents that drive ocean circulation worldwide.

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Weddell seals rest beside a lead (open crack) in the ice.       Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

Sea ice has high albedo, meaning it has a bright surface, reflecting around 80% of the sunlight that strikes it. Sea ice is vital in helping keep our planet cool enough for habitation and regulating our climate.

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Penguin watching requires sunglasses due to the high albedo of sea ice.  Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

I will be exploring in more depth the physics, ecology, and importance of sea ice in posts to come.

Yes, I am passionately in love with sea ice, and it’s my greatest dream to return to the ice, accompanying scientists aboard an ice cruise. I hope readers will come to love it, too, and help me fight for it. Our vital sea ice is melting, and without it, our world will be a very different place.

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Adélie penguins and skuas at dawn, Ross Sea                   Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

 

 

This Week in Ice: Nov. 12–18

This week, NASA’s Operation Icebridge offered us more spectacular views of Antarctica. Operation Icebridge uses research aircraft to capture images of Earth’s polar ice “to better understand connections between polar regions and the global climate system. IceBridge studies annual changes in thickness of sea ice, glaciers and ice sheets.”

This is one of my favorites:

 

Sea Ice

Sea ice extent and concentration in both the Arctic and Antarctic remain well below average. You can read a full summary of October’s Arctic and Antarctic sea ice conditions here.

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Arctic sea ice grows rapidly at this time of year. October’s Arctic sea ice concentration was the fifth lowest on record for that month (satellite data from 1979 to present).

Current conditions: 

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Credit: NSIDC

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Credit: NSIDC

Unlike Antarctic sea ice, which is usually only one to two years old due to seasonal melting, Arctic sea ice can last for multiple years. This animation shows how older Arctic sea ice is now thinning and melting.

 

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As days lengthen and temperatures increase in Antarctica, with the approach of the Austral summer, sea ice melts. October was tied with 2002 for the latest maximum sea ice extent and the second lowest Antarctic maximum extent (satellite data, 1979 to present).

Current conditions:

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Credit: NSIDC

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Credit: NSIDC

This one by Zach Labe shows more data:

Wind has a large role in sea ice formation, comparable to or even more important than temperature and rain says researcher Massimo Frezzotti. This research explores the processes that have affected sea ice variability, as well as the abundance of seals and penguins in the Ross Sea, over the last ten thousand years.

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Antarctic krill under ice                                                Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

Krill are small shrimp-like crustaceans and a vital link in marine food chains. Antarctic krill, depicted in my painting, feed sea birds, penguins, seals, and whales.

A study in the Weddell Sea has shown that sea ice is a critical habitat for krill larvae during winter, and they find refuge from predators under the ice. But while it may be safer, it is not a food-rich environment. Krill do graze under the ice during the day, then at night drift down and away to more favorable feeding zones.

Glaciers & Ice Shelves

This graphic shows how land ice has decreased in Antarctica and Greenland from 2002 until the present.

One of the numerous reasons we should care about ice loss is that melting ice sheets not only raise sea levels but will have an effect on tides the world over. New research shows that, as ice sheets melt, sea levels don’t rise evenly across the world, and it matters which glaciers melt. In some places tide ranges will be increased, and in others reduced, thereby impacting coastal communities. These changes could also have an effect on larger scale ocean currents. Ocean currents affect our global climate, among other things. (Sea ice also has an effect on ocean currents, a subject I’ll be exploring in weeks to come.)

NASA has provided a new tool to show how sea level rise may affect 293 coastal cities around the world.

The Pine Island Glacier, which flows into West Antarctica’s Amundsen Sea, makes the biggest contribution to sea level rise. This is the same glacier that carved a massive iceberg, four times the size of Manhattan back in September (and a mere month later, it broke into pieces too small to track). Here, warmer waters interact with floating ice, weakening the ice shelf from below.

Watch an Alaskan glacier retreat over time:

 

Icebergs

Thanks to Operation Icebridge, we have our first closeup views of massive iceberg A-68A, previously only seen via satellite imagery.

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Credit: NASA/Nathan Kurtz

Scientist Stef Lhermitte notes further cracks in the Larsen C ice shelf, from which A-68 (the initial even larger iceberg) calved back in July.

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Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

In the absence of any other significant iceberg news, I offer this picture of a wind-and-sea-tossed  iceberg I took during a gale in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. Note the blue ice to its left. Blue ice looks that way because, over thousands of years, it has become very compressed, pushing out the air bubbles that give ice and snow its white appearance. Blue icebergs consist of very old ice, which has calved from glaciers and ice shelves into the sea.

And to finish, I hope you’ll enjoy this excellent series of short videos, showing how satellites have been monitoring life on Earth for over 20 years.

 

As always, I am not a scientist, just a writer/illustrator and science communicator passionately in love with sea ice. I welcome input and corrections by polar scientists as I learn more about this remarkable and vital part of our planet and bring this knowledge to a wider audience. 

 

 

 

This Week in Ice: Nov. 5-Nov. 11

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Active volcano Mt. Erebus and the frozen Ross Sea near McMurdo Station, Antarctica.    Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

This Week in Ice—Volcanoes!

The most sensational polar news this week was this study by NASA scientists, who say a mantle plume almost as hot as the Yellowstone supervolcano is beneath Marie Byrd Land in Antarctica. A mantle plume is a domed upwelling of magma beneath the earth’s surface. It’s what creates Yellowstone’s geothermal features—such as geysers like the iconic Old Faithful, steam vents, mud pots, and hot springs. The mantle plume beneath Marie Byrd Land is causing some melting of the ice from below, creating lakes and rivers beneath the ice.

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This mantle plume isn’t new. In fact, it formed 50 to 110 million years ago. And it isn’t an increasing threat, according to NASA. But it may help explain why the ice sheet collapsed so rapidly during warming of the climate at the end of the last ice age, around 11,000 years ago. Now we are in a new era of rapid warming, ice sheets are increasingly thinned and weakened, the forces of human and geothermal activity working in concert against vulnerable ice shelves, it appears.

Sea Ice

Prepare to be mesmerized by another stunning sea ice visual by Kevin Pluck (who was featured on Vox this week—check it out).

Earlier in the week, Kevin warned me that this month’s data was looking troubling, with a sudden sharp decline in global sea ice concentration:

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Let’s zoom in a little. That red line at the bottom represents this year.

 

 

 

 

 

Kevin also created this look at the changes in carbon dioxide—a major greenhouse gas—over time.

It’s no wonder our planet’s ice is melting, is it?

If you’re interested in comparing sea ice extent on certain dates, there’s this handy tool.

Ice Shelves & Glaciers

Last week, I talked about the fact that Antarctica’s Totten glacier is melting from below. The same thing is happening to Greenland ice sheets.

I can’t stop watching these fascinating GIFS of Antarctic ice provided by CNRS Research scientist Simon Gascoin.

Thwaites Glacier ice shelf:

Larsen C ice shelf:

Pine Island Glacier:

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A sneak peek at part of an illustration from Volcano Dreams

Alas, this week’s This Week in Ice is much abbreviated due to an impending book deadline. And it’s all about a supervolcano!

Volcano Dreams—a story of the Yellowstone supervolcano and the area’s fauna, by award-winning author Janet Fox and illustrated by me—is set for release on September 25th, 2018, from Web of Life Children’s Books! Huzzah!

 

 

 

I’m looking forward to soon sharing my process for creating the images for this book, which included a week-long visit to Yellowstone in early June for research.

And I look forward to being back very soon!

This Week in Ice: Oct. 29–Nov. 4, 2017

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Photo taken by me, Southern Ocean, February, 2017

 

This Week in Ice began with news that, due to the “Halloween crack,” there would be no winter over at the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley VI Research Station. The station has already been moved fourteen miles across the Brunt Ice Shelf, but the fracture, which formed on Halloween last year, has been steadily growing. Spooky, indeed.

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Credit: ESA

Sea Ice:

Kevin Pluck has produced yet another great visual showing the variability and overall decline of sea ice cover (since it has been observed by satellites).

Let’s hope the continuous data record of polar sea ice isn’t interrupted. Ageing satellites are putting this record at risk.

 

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The extent and concentration of sea ice in the Arctic. Note the orange line representing the median ice from 1981-2010.  (NSIDC)

The National Snow and Ice Data Center is reporting “the second-lowest and second-latest seasonal maximum” (per the satellite record) for Arctic sea ice (in October). This GIF nicely demonstrates this long-term decline.

 

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Image credit: Kristin Laidre  

NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) project is enlisting narwhals to help determine the relationship between warming water, melting ice, and Greenland’s coastal fjords. Sensors attached to the “unicorns of the sea” capture temperature, salinity, and depth data.

More news about Greenland in the Ice Shelves & Glaciers section below.

 

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Ice extent and concentration.  (NSIDC)

The Weddell polynya, a massive area of open water within the ice of the Weddell Sea, is still going strong. (It’s the dark blue patch in the ice toward the top of the image above.)

The NSIDC says that sea ice in Antarctica experienced a Bactrian—or double humped, just like the camel—maximum extent on October 11th and 12th. The first was on September 15.

Spot the blue camel hump:

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Credit: NSIDC

This is the latest maximum on record (tied with 2002). It’s also the second lowest Antarctic maximum extent (per satellite records).

 

Ice Shelves & Glaciers

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New mapping data shows that far more of Greenland’s glaciers are at risk for accelerated melting than previously thought.

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Image credit: UCI

 

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Ice shelves—floating ice surrounding land—act as a “safety band”, holding back ice flowing to the sea in glaciers. But Antarctic ice shelves are thinning and collapsing, and the Antarctic ice safety band is at risk.

Intensifying winds are hastening the melting of the Totten Glacier in West Antarctica by driving warmer water under the glacier, causing melting from below.

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Credit: UT Austin/University of Texas Institute for Geophysics

A collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would have dire consequences for sea level rise.

Icebergs

In previous This Week in Ice posts, I’ve written about the B-44 iceberg, which calved in September but—a mere month later—broke into pieces too small to track.

Here it is on September 28th:

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NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

 

And on October 23rd…

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Marine Geologist Thomas Ronge gives a great account of the brief life and times of B-44.

And here are some incredible views of the Larsen C iceshelf and colossal iceberg A-68, which carved from it in July.

Spectacular!

And a 400-meter iceberg has drifted into Tasmanian waters, off the coast of Macquarie Island, the first iceberg to be seen off the island in almost a decade.

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Image credit: Tom Luttrell/Australian Antarctic Division

And then there’s this, which I thought was cool.

 

General News

Of course, the biggest news this week was the release of the Climate Science Special Report’s Fourth National Climate Assessment. Guess what? It’s us.

The World Meteorological Organization released its 2016 Greenhouse Gas report. This excellent short video explains the carbon cycle.

Carbon dioxide levels grew at a record pace last year.

 

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Image: World Meteorological Organization

 

Glaciologist and climate scientist Peter Neff shares that 800,000 years of ice core data shows an off-the-charts increase in greenhouse gases.

 

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I’m on a deadline to complete the illustrations for a book about the Yellowstone supervolcano, so This Week in Ice is not as deep a dive as usual. But I did come across this interesting climate-related news. Previous eruptions of the Yellowstone supervolcano triggered volcanic winters.

I look forward to being back with more ice news in two weeks’ time.

 

 

 

As always, I am not a scientist, just a writer/illustrator and science communicator passionately in love with sea ice. I welcome input and corrections by polar scientists as I learn more about this remarkable and vital part of our planet and bring this knowledge to a wider audience. 

 

This Week in Ice–Oct. 22-28

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Antarctic Krill Under Ice                   Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy 2017

Earlier this week, I thought this might be a quieter week in ice news. In fact, it has been anything but. Some of this news is very cool, and some may make you uncomfortable. Hopefully, it will inspire you to fight for our planet’s vital ice, for our oceans, and for our global climate.

Sea Ice

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arctSea ice in the Arctic may be declining faster than previously thought. This GIF posted by Zack Labe will shock you:

The National Snow and Ice Data Center is reporting lower than average ice extent for this time of year. N_iqr_timeseries

The Norway Ice Service, too, is consistently reporting lower than average ice extent.

Scientists who drilled through sea ice were surprised to find an adult jellyfish (Chrysaora melanaster) drifting by. Scientists had previously assumed that only polyps (which release tiny baby jellyfish in the spring) survived the winter. Check it out! Amazing!

ANTARCTIC

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The sea ice at McMurdo Station has broken out earlier than usual.

Mark Brandon notes that a new polynya (an area of open water within the sea ice) has formed by the Rydberg Peninsula. Check out his cool GIF demonstrating this. He says this is fairly normal for this time of year and that it is a latent-heat polynya. A latent heat polynya is a coastal polynya, and it’s formed as winds push sea ice away from land. He tells me a much larger polynya has formed by the Dotson Ice Shelf, just as it did last year.

Brandon also suggests that the massive Weddell polynya, which has made the news the world over, will only be visible for about two more weeks, after which the sea ice will have retreated. This is a sensible-heat (or open-ocean) polynya, formed by the upwelling of warm water toward the surface, and after the ice has retreated, the processes that formed it will still be operating. (The Weddell polynya is the yellow patch within the dark red ice cover in the image above.)

Simon Gascoin produced this great GIF that shows the drifing of the Weddell polynya and surrounding sea ice.

The Weddell polynya could help us understand changing circulation currents in the Southern Ocean caused by Climate Change.

Glaciers

Land ice is formed by layers upon layers of snow, which become compacted over time.  A new study discussed in this Scientific American article suggests that a combination of greater katabatic winds (downward and often very strong winds) and warmer air over Antarctica could reduce the amount of snow falling.

Like giant rivers of ice, glaciers flow toward the sea. The Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers are accelerating rapidly. The speed of the Pine Island ice shelf (the floating ice where the glacier meets the sea) increased by 75% (between 1973 and 2010) due to warmer waters in front of it and increased calving of icebergs. (More on those in a moment.)

See GIFs of these glaciers by Simon Gascoin (which I’ve been unable to embed here, alas).

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via GIPHY

And then there was this, which had the ice scientists on Twitter abuzz this week.

Icebergs

Earlier in the week, we got this great image of huge iceberg B-44, which calved from the Pine Island Glacier back in September.

Just when I thought there’d be no other significant news about icebergs this week, the US National Ice Center NOAA reported that this same iceberg has broken up into pieces too small to be tracked.

WOW! This blows my mind. When B-44 calved a few short weeks ago, it was three times the size of Manhattan. Is it normal for such a massive iceberg to beak up so quickly? I asked Stef Lhermitte.

Note: PIG = Pine Island glacier

A-86A on the other hand is still  largely intact.

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And I was excited to come across this list of tabular icebergs. Icebergs are either tabular or non-tabular. Tabular icebergs have steep sides and a flat top and can be very large—or downright enormous. They’re formed by ice breaking off an ice shelf. The largest tabular iceberg on record is B-15 (which calved in 2000). It was a whopping 11,000 sq. kilometers (4,200 sq. miles) or almost as big as Connecticut.

What happens to a huge iceberg like B-15 over time? NASA’s Earth Observatory shared that with us this week, plus this fab image of four huge icebergs near the Weddell Sea.

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Effects on Marine Life

Warmer and more acidic waters are evicting their inhabitants.

More acidic oceans will affect all marine life.

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As sea ice melts, walruses are forced to spend more time on land. This effect of Climate Change has had terrible consequences in Siberia with the death of hundreds of walruses, which were driven off a cliff by polar bears.

And in a devastating blow, there will be no new marine sanctuary in the Antarctic. Tragic.

General News

An Australian research team has determined that coal use will have to be “pretty much” eliminated by 2050 to have any chance of stopping sea level rise.

New York could see bad flooding more often.

And while this is not ice news, I felt it important to bring attention to a local story with far-reaching implications. This week in Rhode Island, three EPA scientists, who were slated to speak at a conference about (among other things) the effects of Climate Change on Narragansett Bay and its watershed and this report, were prohibited from speaking by the EPA. This news made The New York Times and The Washington Post among others. The Executive Director of Save the Bay made this statement. Happily, this story even caught Stephen Colbert’s attention, bringing this travesty to a much wider audience:

As always, I am not a scientist, just a writer/illustrator and science communicator passionately in love with sea ice. I welcome input and corrections by polar scientists as I learn more about this remarkable and vital part of our planet and bring this knowledge to a wider audience. 

Salt Marshes Stink!

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This week’s science adventure took me to a salt marsh in Barrington, Rhode island, with scientists Kenny, Tom, and Scott. With a wheelbarrow, numerous steel rods, two plastic step-stools, a plank of wood, several bags of quick-drying concrete, food and water for a hard day’s work, and sophisticated equipment that talks to satellites, we trudged through spongy, oozing, pungent coastal marsh.

And boots. Don’t forget tall, waterproof boots—-or waders if you’re lucky—-if you venture into the marsh. A salt marsh floods with the tides, and it’s a boggy, stinky, and treacherous place.

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Careful where you step, or the marsh may suddenly swallow a limb.

It’s hard to describe the stench of the marsh’s thick black mud. Mix rotten eggs, worn and moldy socks, and a briny tang, and you might be getting close. It’s an odor I’ve come to love, living in coastal Rhode Island, reminding me of happy days in my kayak, floating by spindly spider and fighting fiddler crabs, mussels, oysters, tiny fish called mummichogs, and graceful great blue herons and egrets. You can feel the abundance of life around you.

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Fiddler crab

Wetlands are areas of high productivity, meaning uncountable plants are breathing, growing, and reproducing, using sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into food for themselves and other organisms.

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Both migrating and resident Canada geese visit the salt marsh.

Macro-algae, various marsh grasses, and islands of shrubs, juniper trees, and other plants grow here. As Tom tells me, “Wetlands are now thought to be as productive as rain forests.”

It’s thrilling to be surrounded by one of the planet’s greatest carbon sinks. (A carbon sink is an area where productivity is high. Here masses of carbon dioxide—a major greenhouse gas—are taken up by plants.) Salt marshes, like other areas of high productivity such as rain forests and the Southern Ocean, are vital for mitigating global warming and climate change.

Today, Kenny and Tom are installing SETs—“surface elevation tables.” It’s an appropriate acronym for points set in concrete. Scott then uses sophisticated equipment to determine the elevation of each.

“I’m tying the SET into the National Spatial Reference System,” says Scott. “Water levels are rising, and salt marshes need to rise at the same pace. Otherwise they will flood and turn into mudflats—where vegetation can no longer grow.”

They will return to this marsh—and others like it—again and again over the years, measuring how its elevation and health change over time. Will they grow and rise? Will growth keep up with rising sea levels? Or will they sink, die, and regress?

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Scott and Kenny work together to pound a long metal pole deep into the spongy ground.

Tom, who has been mixing concrete to hold the stake in place, stands and stretches. This is hard physical work, and we are tired, wet, and filthy. He gazes out over the waving marsh grasses. “I grew up by the salt marsh. We could play football on the marsh in those days.”

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Tom concretes the stake into place, while Kenny spreads powdered rock called feldspar.

“You couldn’t do that now,” Kenny says matter-of-factly. We look down at the soggy peat below us. It ripples beneath us with each strike of the post hammer. “Especially here—this marsh is so degraded.”

“They didn’t used to stink as bad,” says Tom. “A lot of the stinkiness is due to the fact that they are now drowning in place due to sea level rise, sadly.”

Now Kenny is shaking out white powdery feldspar over two sections of the plot. “The feldspar is for what’s called a marker horizon,” he says. “As organic and inorganic material gets deposited on it over time, we can later take a small core and measure how much has accumulated over the feldspar over time, divide by time, and you get a surface accretion rate.”

“Why should we care about marshes?” I ask as they all take a breather. Kenny and Tom reel off a list of reasons.

Salt Marsh Facts:

  • Salt marshes grow on coasts and in estuaries the world over. In the US, they can be found on every coast.
  • Salt marshes stink due to the gases given off by decomposing organic matter.
  • The soil is composed of spongy peat (decomposing plant matter) and thick mud.
  • The marsh is frequently flooded, then drained, by salty tidal water.
  • Salt marshes provide a habitat—including food, shelter, and a safe place for juveniles—for over 75% of the fish and selfish humans enjoy.
  • Humans love wetlands and estuaries too for fishing and shell-fishing, boating, paddling, birding, and more.
  • Salt marshes protect shorelines from erosion and buffer wave action, especially during storms.
  • They trap sediment, which also helps protect the estuary.
  • They absorb rainwater and reduce coastal flooding.
  • They filter water and absorb excess nutrients (e.g., from fertilizers), thereby keeping beaches and waterways cleaner.

Salt marshes might stink, but what’s not to love about them? They are essential for our economy, culture, and environment.

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We love the salt marsh!

You can see an interview with Kenny in this piece by the Providence Journal.

Kenneth Raposa is a salt marsh ecologist with The Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Reserve, Tom Kutcher is a wetland scientist with Rhode Island Natural History Survey, and Scott Rasmussen is an environmental scientist with the Environmental Data Center at the University of Rhode Island. This project is funded through the RI Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) to establish two additional long-term salt marsh monitoring sites to complement the existing few sites. The goal is to build a strong network of long-term sites around all coastal RI to gain a better understanding of what is happening to salt marshes throughout the state.

This Week in Ice: Oct 15–21

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This week, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Patricia Yager from the University of Georgia speak at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. Afterward, I was invited to a delightful dinner with Dr. Yager and other Antarctic researchers including Dr. Tatiana Rynearson, Dr. Bethany Jenkins, and Dr. Brice Loose. Dr. Yager spoke about climate change in Antarctica and specifically about the Amundsen Sea polynya.

A polynya (pol-IN-ya) is an open area of water within sea ice. The Amundsen Sea polynya is an annually reoccurring polynya, which has glacial ice (ice flowing off the continent) on one side and pack ice (sea ice) on the other. In winter, it is kept open by the fierce katabatic winds blowing off the continent of Antarctica, and during warmer months, the polynya increases in size as the pack ice melts.

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Satellite imagery of katabatic winds in the Bellingshausen Sea forming streams of sea ice. (Taken on 10/15/17 by Sentinel-2)

Since a polynya is an open area of water, it is an area of high productivity—meaning it has high levels of phytoplankton growth. Phytoplankton are tiny plants and the base of the marine food chain. During the summer months, when the sun never sets, phytoplankton growth is exponential—resulting in a phytoplankton bloom. The Amundsen Sea polynya is the most productive area around Antarctica, and Dr. Yager said she has never seen such green, thick, soupy water than there.

Among other things, Dr. Yager studies the relationships between iron, nitrates, and phytoplankton growth in environments with increasing ice melt, which has implications for carbon sequestration (storing of carbon, which helps reduce global warming and climate change). Like other plants, phytoplankton take up carbon dioxide–a major greenhouse gas—during photosynthesis, and phytoplankton blooms act as carbon sinks, pulling massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Dr. Yager noted that this area is losing ice—and fast. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet and its glaciers are melting rapidly. This rapid melting and greater than usual influx of fresh water is causing changes to the ecosystem. Sea ice surrounding the polynya is also decreasing.

You can learn more here.

In ice news:

Waters surrounding Greenland are losing salinity (saltiness) due to the melting of freshwater glaciers diluting the sea water around. In turn, this may affect marine life in these environments (just as is occurring in the Amundsen Sea).

Sea ice in the Arctic is now about 2 million square km below the 1981-2010 median.

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Antarctic sea ice is around 200,000 square km below the 1981-2010 median.

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Upwelling (the flow of warm water toward the surface) is thought to have caused recent ice shelf collapses and glacial thinning.

Environmental groups and officials met in Australia this week to discuss the formation of a new marine sanctuary in Antarctic waters.

New imagery captured on Thursday shows the cracks in the massive B-44 iceberg, which calved from the Pine Island glacier back in September.

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Here’s a cool gif of that breakup in action.

Sea ice moves and flows. Check out this drifting of the massive Weddell polynya.

New Zealand glaciers have lost more than 25% of their ice since 1977.

Check out the Daily Glacier Bot and watch glaciers melting over time.

Our beautiful and essential ice is melting. Meanwhile, NOAA reported this week that so far, 2017 is the second warmest year on record.

As always, I am not a scientist, just a writer/illustrator and science communicator passionately in love with sea ice. I welcome input and corrections by polar scientists as I learn more about this remarkable and vital part of our planet and bring this knowledge to a wider audience. 

This Week in Ice, Oct. 10-14

I’m posting a littler earlier this week—so much has happened in ice.

Adelies C

A highlight of our SNOWBIRDS Transect research cruise was watching the Adélie penguins, by far the most entertaining and—I have to say it—cute creatures I’ve ever seen. One couldn’t help but be enchanted and amused by these little fellows as they bob their heads and chatter, waddle-running on little legs and belly-scooting across the pack ice, tumbling over their own feet and each other.

So, it’s gut-wrenching to read that in a colony of around 36,000 Adélie penguins, only two chicks have survived. The others starved to death. Sea ice conditions in that area forced adult penguins to travel much farther to find food. Next week, environmental groups and officials will meet to discuss the creation of a Marine Protected Area off eastern Antarctica, prohibiting fishing of krill, thereby helping relieve stress on some penguin colonies and other marine life.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the Maud Rise polynya, also known as the Weddell polynya, which opened up in the Weddell Sea about a month ago. A polynya is an area of open water within the ice pack.

The Maud Rise polynya, which I read has grown to about 80,000 square km (30,000 square miles), is currently about the size of South Carolina, Maine, Lake Superior, Tasmania, or Switzerland, depending on where you read this news–which finally hit the mainstream this week.

It’s the dark blue patch near the top of the image.

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It looks a bit like a whale or shark…

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I believe this image is from Sentinel 1.

News reports say scientists are “puzzled” or “mystified” about what’s causing it, since the polynya is far from the sea edge. However, the Antarctic Report notes that the seamount (underwater mountain) for which the polynya is named rises 3,500 m deep to 1,700 m deep, creating eddies, which bring warmer water closer to the surface.

Such openings in sea ice affect our global climate. And here’s a (fun?) related story.

There is no doubt that as the planet warms, the sea ice extent is changing and/or acting in unexpected and troubling ways. Glaciers, too, are affected.

Satellite imagery has shown an upside-down canyon forming beneath the Dotson Ice Shelf. This video from the Center for Polar Observation and Modeling explains this process well:

 

Meanwhile, massive iceberg B-44, which calved (= broke off) from the Pine Island Glacier in September, has developed new cracks.

pine

So, it’s been a big week in ice—and, hopefully, one that makes you think.

To finish off, here’s something as mesmerizing as it is fascinating:

 

As always, I am not a scientist, just a writer/illustrator and science communicator passionately in love with sea ice. I welcome input and corrections by polar scientists as I learn more about this remarkable and vital part of our planet, and then bring this knowledge to a wider audience. 

This Week in Ice

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Wowwied walwus

This week, the US Fish & Wildlife Service under the Trump administration has denied  “threatened” status to Pacific walruses. (This is one of 25 species that were denied threatened status.) Walruses use sea ice as a safe place to rest, give birth, and nurse their young. As sea ice extent has declined, Pacific walruses have, apparently, “adapted”—increasingly using shorelines for these activities. Of course, on land they are more vulnerable to land predators and have decreased access to food… (I think of it like this: If I move to a strange and dangerous neighborhood and have to walk far to town each day to buy a loaf of bread, maybe life becomes rather stressful. Maybe I become less successful.)

In brighter news, now the sun has risen in Antarctica after the long, dark winter, NASA has been able to provide this spectacular image of Iceberg A68–the largest portion of the massive iceberg that calved off Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf back in mid-July.

larsen

Remember, this thing is big. It’s 4 times the size of Greater London, or the size of Delaware. (If you like numbers, it’s approximately 2,240 square miles—5,800 square kilometers). If you like comparisons, it has roughly twice the volume of Lake Eerie.

As it gradually drifts away from the glacier, A68 is revealing a hidden ecosystem buried for many thousands of years… Well, of course it has. Icebergs are formed when part of a glacier breaks away. A glacier consists of fresh water, deposited in numerous layers of snow upon snow over many, many years, which then becomes compressed and compacted. Glaciers slowly grind along land via valleys, eventually finding their way to the sea. When this ice breaks off, an iceberg is born. A-86 is an enormous iceberg, so it stands to reason that the area it has exposed has not seen the light of day for a very long time. I wonder what scientists will find there.

This pretty image shows the water temperatures around the iceberg.

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NASA Earth Observatory

And here’s a picture of the new iceberg, B-44, which calved from the Pine Island Glacier (on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet) on September 21st. This one is 185 square km (72 square miles), or about 4 times the size of Manhattan.

pine

Farther north, the National Snow & Ice Data Center is reporting that Arctic sea ice reached its minimum summer extent on September 13th, and this was the seventh lowest extent on record. This is after the third annual record low in March . You can read the NSIDC’s full analysis of this year’s Arctic sea ice here:

ice

Last week, I posted a graphic by Kevin Pluck showing the change in sea ice extent over time. Kevin has provided an updated graphic with the latest data from September.

 

In other ice news, Greenland’s coasts are growing as sea levels rise.

And lest we forget that our planet’s ice loss isn’t only occurring at the poles, Swiss glaciers lost 3-4% of their ice over the last year alone.

We are losing ice at rates never before recorded.

Sea ice is not only profoundly beautiful and awe-inspiring; it provides a rich environment for a myriad of essential species and has a serious role in regulating our planet’s climate—aspects I’ll be talking about in blog posts to come.

As always, I welcome input and corrections from scientists studying sea ice as I learn about this extraordinary and vital part of our planet. 

Eelgrass Adventure

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This week’s science adventure took me to the watery underworld of Long Island Sound with scientists Mike Bradley and Scott Rasmussen as part of a US Fish and Wildlife Service research project. Our goal: to check the extent and health of eelgrass beds along the Connecticut and Long Island shores.

We pound across the Sound on a glorious autumn morning. Terns and gulls wheel and dive, feasting on jumping fish. It’s a perfect day for fishing, and we pass numerous small boats doing just that. Coastal New England, USA, is famous for its bountiful and diverse seafood.

“Eelgrass provides habitat for juvenile fish and shellfish,” says Mike. “So, if you like fish and shellfish, you should care about eelgrass.” Eelgrass also helps stabilize the sandy areas close to shore and in estuaries.

Prior to our adventure, Mike mapped the possible extent of eelgrass by studying dark patches near the shore from areal imagery–photographs taken of calm waters at low tide from a plane early this summer. Seaweed–known by scientists as macroalgae (because seaweed is actually large algae)–can also appear as dark patches. So, using an underwater video camera, we traveled along multiple straight lines–or transects–across each area, and Mike plotted where eelgrass was actually present.

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Mike plots eelgrass, while Scott maneuvers the video camera and cheery Tom Halavik, retired from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, drives the boat.

From the boat, eelgrass is a shifting golden-green tapestry beneath, and seaweed looks dark and foreboding. But viewed from below, eelgrass and seaweed beds are a colorful, gently swaying, otherworldly forest. Clams and oysters litter the bottom, spider and green crabs scuttle and hide, and fish such as tautog hunt for prey.

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Tautog on the hunt

Mike will return numerous times to Long Island Sound to complete the survey of over 300 eelgrass beds, covering approximately 2,500 acres. The video and mapping data he collects will be used by biologists to monitor the health of eelgrass along this section of New England coastline.

Near the end of our journey, in a quiet aqua-watered cove of Plum Island, we were treated to a delightful encounter with up to twenty seals, who popped their heads up to study us before continuing to fish and play. It was a magical end to my eelgrass science adventure!

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Spot the seals!

Eelgrass Facts

  • There are 15 species of eelgrass–Zostera–and they are widespread along coastlines in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as parts of Australia and Africa.
  • Eelgrass needs significant sunlight to grow, so it’s found in shallow waters and does better in clear, not murky water.
  • Its success is also affected by water temperature and quality. As water temperatures increase while our planet warms, eel grass becomes less successful, which means habitat for juvenile fish and shellfish declines.
  • Increased nitrogen in the water–due to runoff from fertilizer, detergents, etc.–benefits macro-algae, which competes with eelgrass.

This project is a partnership between the Environmental Data Center of the University of Rhode Island and Suzanne Paton, Senior Biologist at Southern New England’s US Fish and Wildlife Service. The funding for this survey was provided by the EPA Long Island Sound Study, and the information will help evaluate water quality and habitat restoration projects that have been implemented over the years. This data will be compared to data collected in 2002, 2006, 2009, and 2012 by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in collaboration with the EPA to assess long-term trends and progress toward the restoration of this important habitat. 

Thanks, Mike Bradley, for taking me along!