It’s Sunday, the last day of Polar Week, after a late night of working on Pixel Movers & Makers, which my co-conspirator Kevin Pluck and I launched a week ago. In truth, while Kev toiled away with his numbers and his codes, I spent most of the evening dripping paint on paper. I really couldn’t have been happier. And I filmed it.
I’m about to show you my watercolor sketching process from start to finish. I’ve gotten a little bit brave, and I’m talking my way through the video, explaining what I’m doing at each stage. (This is about my fifth attempt to do so, and most times I have pushed the wrong button on my phone and waxed poetic, only to find I’ve recorded a lovely shot of the ceiling or nothing at all. Pity about the Mr. Squiggle anecdote, but you’ve missed out. Or have you?)
My point was (apart from Mr. Squiggle being one of my early heroes) that I often turn my paper while I’m painting. Gravity is a key player in each of these creations, as are the paper itself (Arches hot press) and the paint (Windsor & Newton, the professional grade stuff). Skimping on the paint and paper quality is entirely self-defeating when it comes to watercolor.
What I most want you to know, though, is that polar ice is beautiful.
It’s extraordinarily beautiful and, even more so, it’s incredibly important to our planet. I cannot even begin to do it justice.
So, what is the Polar Ice Sketch Project anyway? It’s an ongoing project in which I paint and tweet as I finish each one, often with information about our vital polar ice. I hope you’ll enjoy this window into my process and my playtime.
It’s quite long. It’s a bit silly. But it’s real.
This week, I was thrilled to attend an APECS workshop, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, on Antarctic Surface Hydrology & Ice-Shelf Stability at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Thank you to organizers Luke Trusel and Jonathan Kingslake and everyone else who made this possible!
Ice shelves melt from from both below (due to warm ocean water) and from above (due to atmospheric conditions). But Antarctic ice shelves are not all the same, and the processes that affect them are surprisingly complex and not yet fully understood.
How do various inputs such as temperature, humidity, snowfall, cloud cover, winds, (creating micro-climates and impacting snow-cover to uncover darker ice with lower albedo), the topography of the land, the presence (or not) of algae (which reduces albedo on Greenland ice shelves), the profile of the calving edge of ice shelves, ocean and atmospheric currents, and more all affect melting? How will future warming affect all of the above?
How does knowledge of processes in Greenland apply to Antarctic ice shelves? How can knowledge of past events inform our theories about what will happen in the future? Which are the most effective models for scientists to use, and how can they best be used in concert? How well do we know the processes that drive surface melt, and can we, therefore, accurately model them? How do we put recent melting into a proper long-term climatological context?
These are some of the topics and questions raised during presentations and discussions. It was very clear an interdisciplinary approach is needed. Indeed, one goal of the workshop was to determine priorities for future research and how scientists from various disciplines might collaborate.
Stef Lhermitte delivered the sobering statement, “We are currently underestimating melt,” and said much melt is happening below the surface. It’s unclear where this water goes or, at this stage, even how to study that. (Check out this excellent site to learn more .)
On a personal note, it was truly wonderful to meet and spend time with people who love our polar ice just as much as I do and have dedicated their lives to studying it. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to present a poster, with my co-author Kevin Pluck, on effective science communication for polar scientists. Among other things, I emphasized how important it is for scientists to take charge of their science communication and leverage the power of social media by following these pointers:
This week, Kevin Pluck also illustrated the enormous size of the Pine Island Glacier, which– like the Thwaites Glacier–is an accelerating and weakening glacier of concern to scientists.
Sea Ice has reached record lows in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.
Temperatures in the Arctic are FAR above average.
And the Bering Sea has lost half its ice in just two weeks.
Sea ice in the Antarctic is also at a record low.
Thank you for reading. It’s good to be back! Now preparation for the APECS workshop is over, I expect to be updating This Week in Ice… well, weekly.
As always, I am not a scientist but a writer/illustrator and science communicator passionately in love with sea ice, ice shelves, and polar ice in general. I welcome input and corrections from and connections with polar scientists as I learn more about this remarkable and vital part of our planet and bring this knowledge to a wider audience.
Earlier this year, I had the life-changing experience of being the science communicator and outreach ambassador for the SNOWBIRDS Transect research cruise from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, through the wild Southern Ocean.
I constructed and maintained our website and social media, raised public awareness, blogged about our science, was the photographer, mentored and edited graduate students writing guest blog posts, created illustrations, and got my hands wet and dirty whenever an extra hand was needed.
I’m now writing a book about our high-seas adventure and our fascinating science, which explored the roles of nitrogen and silicon in the success of diatoms, and included growing diatoms, filtering marine snow, and retrieving deep-sea mud cores. (I also have another polar science book underway.)
Mid-year, I traveled to Yellowstone National Park to do research for the illustrations for VOLCANO DREAMS, a non-fiction book for children about the Yellowstone supervolcano by award-winning author Janet Fox.
I’ve spent the rest of the year completing the illustrations. Volcano Dreams will be published by Web of Life Children’s Books in September, 2018. This is the first time I’ve illustrated a published children’s picture book, something I’ve worked for for years.
In September, I started POLAR BIRD, the next step on my journey as a science communicator, non-fiction writer, and sci-art illustrator.
POLAR BIRD is a labor of love, and I’m grateful to everyone who has liked, shared, retweeted, subscribed, and—most especially—read.
2017 has been truly transformative, and I’ve never felt more like I’m on the right path. More than anything, I dream that my work will lead me back to the ice.
As we head into 2018, I’m actively seeking opportunities to be an embedded team member and offer my experience and diverse skill set on future research cruises, taking the considerable and important work required of Outreach—both before, during, and after an expedition—off scientists’ hands.
While I’d be thrilled to join any research cruise, I’m particularly interested in sea ice dynamics and ecology, polynyas, phtyoplankton, krill, the biological pump and carbon cycle, paleoclimatology, ice shelves and glaciers, sea bird and marine mammal ecology, and more… (I could easily spend the rest of my life writing and illustrating about science in polar regions.)
Thank you for reading! I look forward to bringing you new science adventures, more about our planet’s vital sea and land ice, and new art.
I wish you all a very healthy, peaceful, and happy New Year!
“Below 40 degrees south there is no law; below 50 degrees south there is no God.”
—An old sailors’ saying
Driven by strong westerly winds and unhindered by land to slow its flow, the frigid Southern Ocean races around the coldest, windiest, driest, and most remote landmass on Earth—the vast polar continent of Antarctica.
Between the latitudes of 40 and 50 degrees south is the realm of the “Roaring Forties. ” These powerful winds, first named by sailors who used them for fast passage around the globe, have long been known for their ferocious storms and treacherous seas.
South of 50 and 60 degrees respectively are the “Furious Fifties” and “Screaming Sixties,” where these conditions are even stronger.
Here, a ship’s crew must not only battle waves that can be as high as multi-story buildings but watch vigilantly for icebergs and find safe routes through thick, ever-shifting sea ice that freezes and recedes with the seasons.
Here, even a well-quipped icebreaker—a ship especially designed to navigate ice-covered waters—can be incapacitated far from land or help. And it is here between 67 degrees and 54 degrees south—in the belly of the Screaming Sixties and Furious Fifties—that I spent six weeks aboard an icebreaker and research vessel.
To be continued…
My journey aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer, with researchers from the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, the Marine Science Institute of UCSB, and the University of Otago, who studied aspects of diatom production, is the subject of the book I’m currently writing. This journey was funded by the National Science Foundation’s United States Antarctic Program. Special thanks to Dr. Rebecca Robinson for this extraordinary opportunity.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
“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.
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.
I’m posting a littler earlier this week—so much has happened in ice.
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.
It looks a bit like a whale or shark…
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.
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.
Meanwhile, massive iceberg B-44, which calved (= broke off) from the Pine Island Glacier in September, has developed new cracks.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
- 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!
Remember back in July when an iceberg 4 times the size of greater London, or the size of Delaware, broke off the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica? Well, on Saturday last week, an iceberg 4 times the size of Manhattan broke off the Pine Island Glacier, also in Antarctica.
The Pine Island Glacier is the fastest melting glacier in Antarctica, and it’s losing about 45 billion tons of ice per year. Scientists are worried that the glacier may be in a “runaway retreat”–in other words, unstoppable melting, and that this will contribute to sea level rise.
Meanwhile, a massive polynya (an area of open water within sea ice) is growing in the Antarctic pack ice. It’s currently about 40,000 square kilometers in area and a remarkable feature of the Antarctic ice cover. Find out more about the Maud Rise polynya on Mark Brandon’s blog.
The Norway Ice Service is consistently reporting lower than average ice cover in the Svalbard sea ice area.
As always, NASA is a great source of information about the state of our sea ice.
Our polar ice is, overall, on the decline year by year. Check out this great graphic by Kevin Pluck that shows how sea ice has diminished since 1979, when satellites able to track sea ice were first launched.
If you think the poles are far away and don’t affect you, think again. Polar ice is vital to our climate as we know it for reasons I’ll be exploring in blog posts to come.
As always, I welcome input from scientists working in this area and further sources of data. While I am passionate about sea ice, I am not a scientist, so I happily accept additional information or corrections.