In the Belly of the Southern Ocean

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Copyright © Marlo Garsnworthy

“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.

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Via Google Earth

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.

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Credit: Luke Zeller

South of 50 and 60 degrees respectively are the “Furious Fifties” and “Screaming Sixties,” where these conditions are even stronger.

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Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy  

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.

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Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

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 in Ice: Nov. 19-25, 2017

This Week in Ice—Ice-pocalypse Edition!

At least, that’s I was going to call this week’s post. More about that in a moment.

But first, let’s dive under the ice…

This is the work of the Science Under the Ice team, taking pictures such as this:

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Credit: Science Under the Ice

This Finnish research team has discovered that the ecosystem under the ice has changed rapidly, with far more species and greater numbers of individuals. Species that were once rare are now common and thriving under thinner ice that allows more light to pass through it, increasing the area’s productivity (growth of phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain). The last couple of years, the ice has also broken out earlier than usual, and it’s likely these changes are effects of climate change.

Which brings us to the ice-pocalypse.

This week, Grist published a powerful article titled Ice Apocalypse by Eric Holthaus about the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers. Climate scientist Tamsin Edwards wrote this response, urging caution about predictions of the amount and speed of sea level rise. But there is no disagreement that sea level rise will happen—only how much and how soon.

I seem to be reading a lot of articles like this one about this report. It seems a hope-for-the-best-but-prepare-for-the-worst approach is needed when tackling the effects climate change and making policy. We also need to mitigate the effects of burning fossil fuels and releasing so much carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) into our atmosphere.

Of course, phytoplankton—microscopic plants in our oceans—absorb carbon dioxide (just like other plants). But they are affected by ocean acidification… which is caused by burning of fossil fuels…

Sea Ice

NASA’s Operation Icebridge continues to yield mind-blowing shots of Antarctica. Here sea ice is “finger rafting“—which occurs when thin, flexible ice floes collide, blocks sliding above and below each other in the pattern you see here:

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Finger rafting of sea ice, Weddell Sea, Antarctica             Credit: John Sonntag, Operation Icebridge

Current sea ice concentrations and extents in both the Arctic and Antarctic are well below median levels.

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As temperatures warm and coastal sea ice melts, communities in places such as Western Alaska, which were previously protected from wave action at this time of year, are at greater risk of erosion and inundation.

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Mark Brandon gives an update on the Weddell polynya, which is still going strong. Watch it shift and flow at 12 o-clock in this animation:

Glaciers and Ice Shelves

British researchers have mapped the sea bed beneath West Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier, which, like the Thwaites Glacier, is accelerating. The terrain below the glacier affects how the glacier flows. Imagery shows a rocky region with mountains and deep scour marks. This data will help scientists predict how the glacier might behave in the future.

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Credit: British Antarctic Survey

Scientists are measuring the heat emanating from a mantle plume beneath Antarctica and how this might effect the slipperiness of the base of the ice sheet, thereby affecting its reaction to climate change. (It wasn’t a leap to think that news about the volcano beneath Antarctica might be misinterpreted… But no, it doesn’t refute climate science.

The West Antarctic ice sheet underwent a rapid collapse during a previous warming event. Scientists are eager to know more about it to better their understanding of what might happen if/when it collapses again. Could octopus DNA teach us something?

Other scientists still are looking at how the “wobble” in Earth’s orbit may have affected ice sheets.

Back in July, a massive iceberg calved from the Larsen C ice shelf (picture below). What happens to the ice shelf left in the aftermath?

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Among NASA’s Operation Icebridge photos this year, this view of massive iceberg A-68A, which calved from the Larsen C ice shelf in July, is one of my favorites.

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Iceberg A-68A                                                                            Credit: John Sonntag, Operation Icebridge

Permafrost

While I’m not intending Permafrost to be a regular feature of This Week in Ice, it is one of our planet’s ice features. As you may have heard, it is melting, too.

To finish off this not-named-the-ice-pocalypse edition, some delightful news. A small group of young Australians made history by becoming the first children to ever go to Antarctica. Lucky kids!

 

And in case you missed it, this week, I shared why I am in love with sea ice.

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. 

 

 

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!

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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. 

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.

ice

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.

pine

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.

maud 1

It looks a bit like a whale or shark…

maud 2

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

ice

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.