New Map Peeks Under Antarctic Ice

With data compiled from a number of satellite, aircraft, and surface-based surveys, the recently completed Bedmap2 project comprises three datasets to map the ice-covered continent of Antarctica: surface elevation, ice thickness, and bedrock topography. The new dataset updates 2001’s original Bedmap compilation with tighter grid spacing, millions of additional data points, and extensive use of GPS data—enhancements that have improved the dataset’s resolution, coverage, and precision. For example, it depicts many surface and sub-ice features that were too small to be visible in the original Bedmap. Data from Bedmap2 reveal that Antarctica’s average bedrock depth, deepest point, and ice thickness estimates are all greater than that recorded in the original Bedmap.
As outlined in the NASA video below, the updated information obtained from Bedmap2 should enhance currently limited data on the continent’s ice thickness and what is beneath the ice, which could help researchers better understand how Antarctica will respond to a changing climate. It also “will be an important resource for the next generation of ice sheet modelers, physical oceanographers, and structural geologists,” according to the British Antarctic Survey’s Peter Fretwell, lead author of a recently published article on Bedmap2 that appeared in The Cryosphere. The article and Bedmap2’s data can be accessed here.

A Scientist's Scientist

Joseph Farman–the man who found the ozone hole–had a very straightforward, unglamorous way of describing the work of  a scientist:

Science is thinking you know how things work and so you make something work and it either works as you think it does or it doesn’t work as you think it does and now you move on.

Farman, who passed away last month at the age of 82, reported the existence of the ozone hole in a 1985 paper based on in situ measurements made with Brian Gardiner and Joe Shanklin in Antarctica.  Despite the renown that followed this discovery, Farman’s legacy will stand–as he wished–on a dogged ability to follow his simple model of research at the highest level.
An employee of the British Antarctic Survey from 1956 until his retirement in 1990, Farman ventured to Antarctica at the beginning of his career and studied the atmosphere over that continent for 25 years, assigning other scientists to continue measurements after he returned to Britain in 1959. His superiors questioned his indefatigable efforts to compile ground-based ozone readings–after all, NASA satellites were already monitoring the ozone over Antarctica. Farman told the BBC:

The long-term monitoring of the environment is a very difficult subject. There are so many things you can monitor. And basically it’s quite expensive to do it. And, when nothing much was happening in the environmental field, all the politicians and funding agencies completely lost interest in it. And there was a huge struggle to keep going. And in fact we could have been closed down with our ozone measurements the year before we actually published our paper.

But Farman was a strict proponent of the simple scientific act of collecting data–“just doing a little job, and persevering at it,” as described by Sharon Roan, author of Ozone Crises: The 15-Year Evolution of a Sudden Global Emergency. This commitment to scientific principles made him “a model scientist,” according to Roan.
Faithful dedication to the scientific process yielded momentous results. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?
This New York Times obituary tells a more complete story of Farman’s achievements, and for those who really want to delve into his life and sometimes controversial views, there is this interview collected by the British Library (audio version available here).

A Chat with the Iceman

Thorsten Markus, on sea ice in Antarctica.

By Maureen Moses, AMS Education Program
I hope you all had a good Earth Science Week last week! The theme was “Careers in the Earth Sciences,” and the AMS Education Program participated in a twitter chat with NASA Polar Scientist Thorsten Markus, who admits that as a high schooler in Germany science wasn’t his passion, but becoming a musician was. Now head of NASA Goddard’s Cryospheric Science Lab, Dr. Markus makes measurements of ice thickness in Antarctica.
Chat participants included a whole classroom full of eighth graders. Dr. Markus had plenty of advice on how a future polar scientist with an adventuresome streak can make a splash in a cool field! Here are some of the questions he fielded–edited and excerpted from the full chat archived on Twitter:

I’m here with 25 8th grade Earth Science students and one student would like to know what the day to day duties are as a polar scientist.
It’s extremely playful — playing with lots and lots of satellite data and learning something new every day.
Do you get to travel to cool places or are you processing data in an office?
Oh man, yes. I used to go to the Arctic and Antarctic and also flew over them in helicopters and planes.
What was your favorite experience in the field as a scientist?
Seeing the penguins coming out of the water and then standing right next to us. Fantastic!
When you decided becoming a rock star might not happen, why did you choose physics over math for a major?
Physics is pretty much applied Math — you deal with everyday problems… and actually learn how to solve some.
Which class helped you the most to get where you are today?
Maybe Math, but the arts fostered my creativity, for thinking outside the box
What level math did you have to go to? (for the future polar scientists out there). THX for the response!
I have a Ph.D. in physics, which involves a lot of math — but there’s also chemistry, biology and geography.
What is the difference between glacier ice data and sea ice data… Do they tell different stories?
Very different. Glacier ice is fresh water from mountains or ice sheets whereas sea ice is frozen ocean.
Are they affected differently by climate change?
Glaciers are balanced by snowfall and temperature, while with sea ice, also ocean properties play a big role.
So sea ice is inherently more volatile/variable?
I’d like to say sea ice is more complex, but then the ice sheet people might get angry 😉
What is/will be the impact of disappearing ice sheet on the global climate?
Melting of the ice sheets will increase sea level and affect ocean circulation because of the fresh water influx.
When can we expect to see Antartica’s ice retreating because of climate change. If it keeps stable or increasing, what can be made of that?
The Arctic and Antarctica are two different systems and global warming does not mean it warms uniformly everywhere.
What do you say to people who claim there’s a “debate” about climate change?
I don’t think there’s a “debate” about whether there’s climate change. The debate is by how much we’re responsible for it.
How good are the current models in predicting Arctic and Antarctic ice response to the climate warming?
I think the models are remarkable — certainly not perfect, but what prediction is perfect?
What climate data scares you the most (has the greatest implication for scary future events)?
The global ocean circulation, because it shows that things we do to the Chesapeake Bay may affect far away places.
Does any of the research you do tell us anything about other sheets of ice in cosmos?
As a matter of fact, I was involved in research about the Jupiter icy moons. So yes, there are analogies.
Who do you regard as your inspiration?
It was Keith Richards, now it’s the balance of the earth system… isn’t it remarkable how it all works together?

A Threat to Antarctic Research

Scientific research in Antarctica is approaching a tipping point of its own, with logistical costs overwhelming the budget, according to a new report written by an independent panel commissioned by the White House. The report recommends fundamental changes to the infrastructure of U.S. scientific facilities in Antarctica; otherwise, according to the report, logistics costs will increase “until they altogether squeeze out funding for science.”
The U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), which is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF), supports three year-round stations (McMurdo, Palmer, and Amundsen-Scott South Pole), as well as more than 50 field sites a year that are active during the summer months. The report found numerous infrastructure problems at USAP facilities, including:

a warehouse where some areas are avoided because the forklifts fall through the floor; kitchens with no grease traps; outdoor storage of supplies that can only be found by digging through deep piles of snow; gaps so large under doors that the wind blows snow into the buildings; late 1950s International Geophysical Year-era vehicles; antiquated communications; an almost total absence of modern inventory management systems (including the use of bar codes in many cases); indoor storage inefficiently dispersed in more than 20 buildings at McMurdo Station; some 350,000 pounds (159,000 kilograms) of scrap lumber awaiting return to the U.S. for disposal…

In addition, transportation both to and from Antarctica and on the continent has become increasingly problematic. Despite the recent addition of overland traverse vehicles, delivery of supplies to USAP camps remains costly and inefficient. Meanwhile, the U.S. icebreaker fleet currently consists of just one functioning vessel (and that one doesn’t have the capability to break through thick ice). As a result, the United States has been forced to lease icebreakers from other nations–an expensive and unreliable solution.
“We are convinced that if we don’t do something fairly soon, the science will just disappear,” notes Norm Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, who led the review panel. “Everything will be hauling people down and back, and doing nothing.”
Almost 90% of the USAP budget is currently spent on transportation, support personnel, and other logistical matters, leaving few resources for actual scientific research. To rectify that situation, the report recommends decreasing the NSF’s budget for Antarctic research by 6% a year for four years and increasing spending on improving the USAP’s infrastructure and logistics by the same amount over the same period. The short-term result will be a hit to the research currently being conducted in Antarctica, but over the long term the proposal should allow such research to continue to take place there. The report also notes additional savings could be achieved by delivering more supplies to the landlocked Amundsen-Scott base at the South Pole by overland traverse instead of cargo flights, and by reducing support personnel at the three USAP bases by 20%. The report also endorses President Obama’s 2013 budget request for the U.S. Coast Guard to begin designing a new icebreaker.
Ultimately, the review panel’s suggestions are about more than just specific numbers and initiatives. They are about a basic change in the way scientific research is conducted in Antarctica. As the report states:

Overcoming these barriers requires a fundamental shift in the manner in which capital projects and major maintenance are planned, budgeted, and funded. Simply working harder doing the same things that have been done in the past will not produce efficiencies of the magnitude needed in the future; not only must change be introduced into how things are done, but what is being done must also be reexamined.

The full report can be found here.

Cracks in the Ice

Floating ice shelves off the western coast of Antarctica are breaking up at their margins, causing them to disengage from the bay walls where they attach to the coastline and retreat inland. This could cause the fracturing ice to be less capable of preventing grounded upstream ice from sliding into the sea. After studying  Landsat satellite data taken of the Amundsen Sea Embayment taken from 1972 to 2011, researchers at the University of Texas examined found extensive changes in the ice shelves over time, including significant fracturing of the margins that bound the shelves. The Embayment is a huge hunk of ice that comprises one-third of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
“As a glacier goes afloat, becoming an ice shelf, its flow is resisted partly by the margins, which are the bay walls or the seams where two glaciers merge,” says Ginny Catania, a professor at the University of Texas and coauthor of the study, which was published in the Journal of Glaciology. “An accelerating glacier can tear away from its margins, creating rifts that negate the margins’ resistance to ice flow and causing additional acceleration.”
The video below shows a repeating cycle of the coastline (red line) moving seaward (to the left) and then turning around and moving inland as large ice masses break off. Simultaneously, the northern shear margin breaks up and retreats, thus creating the possibility of an increase of inland ice flow to the sea.

What Does Climate Sound Like?

Paul Miller is a musician, artist, and author better known by his performing name, DJ Spooky. His most recent project, called Terra Nova, is an artistic interpretation of climate and climate change based on both science and his own imagination. The project grew out of Spooky’s visits to both the Arctic and Antarctica, which inspired him to share his vision of climate change through music, words, and pictures. His recently released Book of Ice combines photographs, his own artwork, and commentary on the relationship between art, science, and humanity, with a focus on Antarctica.
But Spooky is best known as a musician, and he has recently toured with a small ensemble of instrumentalists to perform music that he says is intended to make people think and talk about the environment and, specifically, climate change. The pieces for Terra Nova are unique blends of science and art; in some, he uses the music to interpret scientific data (such as the long-held idea that every snowflake has unique qualities). Combining orchestral arrangements with his own electronic contributions, the music creates what Spooky calls “acoustic portraits of the landscape.” His live shows are accompanied by background images related to climate, ice, Antarctica, and similar themes; there have also been postperformance discussions of climate and environmental issues.
A snippet of the sonic portion of Terra Nova can be seen in the video below. A full presentation of his piece titled “Sinfonia Antarctica,” performed earlier this year in Savannah, Georgia, can be found here.

DJ Spooky’s Sinfonia Antarctica is not the first musical extravaganza with that title. The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams reworked his score for the 1948 movie, “Scott of the Antarctic” into a sprawling, five-movement work for orchestra (including wind machine in the percussion) and called it his Symphony No. 7, “Sinfonia Antarctica.” You can listen to it here and decide what advantages Spooky had by virtue of visiting the Antarctica in person. (In 2000, after a trip to Antarctica, British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies wrote his 8th symphony, nicknamed “Antarctic”; like DJ Spooky’s music, the Maxwell Davies symphony is more an abstract depiction of the loneliness and desolation of an icy expanse than the lush, dramatic Vaughan Williams symphony.)
There’s a long history of music depicting climate and specific atmospheric phenomena. Karen Aplin and Paul Williams made a methodical study of some famous classical orchestral works depicting weather and climate (including Vaughan Williams’ “Sinfonia Antartica”) in the November issue of Weather magazine (published by the Royal Meteorological Society in the U.K.). A press release about the article says that British composers are “twice as likely to have written music about climate themes” than composers from elsewhere. However, a closer examination of the article shows a limited sample size precludes such conclusions. What is interesting, though, is that Aplin and Williams take a highly analytic approach to the topic, which might eventually lead to interesting conclusions about musical methods (instrumentation, keys, etc.) or relations between composers’ nationalities and the type of weather that interests them.
Meanwhile, music has moved in radically different directions than, say, Vivaldi’s violin concerti about “The Four Seasons.” The technology and world-awareness exploited by DJ Spooky and his musical/video performance concoctions are just one avenue. For example, composer Nathalie Miebach, has lately been turning actual meteorological data into sound–and sculpture made of woven reeds. She recently took numerical observations–temperature, humidity, pressure, and so forth from 2007’s Hurricane Noel and charted them graphically, then translated the chart into musical notation.  The sculpture then depicts the charts three dimensionally. Miebach says:

I think there are a lot of us out there who need the kinesthetic, who need the touch to understand something. By bringing the complexity of meteorology back into the physical space, either through touch or through sound, I’m trying to find alternative venues or access points into that complexity….I am getting more interested in using data as a literary tool, to tell a story

Just as technology has allowed us to experience and visualize the atmosphere, so too it has allowed us to see–and hear–it differently.


NASA Mission Monitors Birth of Antarctic Iceberg

Resuming a multi-year mission to map Antarctic ice in mid October, NASA researchers discovered a miles-long crack in a major glacier that marks the beginning of a new mammoth iceberg. Operation IceBridge scientists flying in a specially instrumented DC-8 jet returned soon after to make the first-ever detailed airborne measurements of giant iceberg calving in progress.
The crack in Pine Island Glacier, which extends at least 18 miles (29 km) and is 165 feet (50 meters) deep—enough to swallow up the Statue of Liberty— could break free a chunk of ice more than 340 square miles (880 square km) in size from the vulnerable West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

This major rift cuts 18 miles (29 km) across in the Pine Island Glacier in western Antarctica. (Credit: NASA)

Pine Island Glacier’s ice shelf mostly floats, extending its unstable arm as many as 30 miles (48 km) away from the Antarctic landmass that grounds it some 500 meters (1,640 feet) below the surface. As the glacial ice inland flows slowly toward the sea and feeds the shelf, the arm eventually breaks, calving huge icebergs.
Pine Island Glacier last calved a significant iceberg in 2001, and some scientists have speculated recently that it was primed to calve again. But until an Oct. 14 IceBridge flight of NASA’s DC-8, no one had seen any evidence of the ice shelf beginning to break apart. Since then, a closer look back at satellite imagery seems to reveal the first signs of the crack beginning to cut across the ice shelf in early October.
“It’s part of a natural process, but it’s pretty exciting to be here and actually observe it while it happens,” says Operation IceBridge project scientist Michael Studinger of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
A close-up view of the crack spreading across the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf reveals the boulder-like blocks of ice that fell into the rift when it split. For most of its 18 miles (29 km), the crack was determined to be about 240 feet (72 meters) wide. The deepest points ranged from 165-190 feet (50-60 meters). (Credit: NASA)

The IceBridge team thinks that once the iceberg breaks free, it will leave behind the shortest extending arm of the Pine Island Glacier since recordkeeping began in the 1940s.
Pine Island Glacier is of particular interest to scientists because it is big and unstable, which makes it one of the largest sources of uncertainty in global sea level-rise projections. A collapse of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is one of the nightmare scenarios climate forecasters envision in a warming world. If the WAIS were to melt, it could raise sea levels worldwide 20 feet.
NASA’s Operation IceBridge, the largest airborne survey of Earth’s polar ice ever flown, is in the midst of its third field campaign from Punta Arenas, Chile. The six-year mission will yield an unprecedented three-dimensional view of Antarctic ice sheets, ice shelves, and sea ice.

Mapping Ice Flow in Antarctica

A recently released map of the speed and direction of ice flows across Antarctica not only reveals some previously undiscovered geographical features, but also suggests a new explanation for how ice moves across the continent. Researchers constructed the map after studying billions of data points taken from a number of polar-orbiting satellites. After accounting for cloud cover, solar glare, and various land features, the scientists were able to determine the shape and speed of glacial formations across Antarctica. They found that some formations moved as much as 800 feet per year, and they also discovered a previously unknown ridge that runs east-to-west across the continent. The NASA animation below shows the ice flow patterns. “This is like seeing a map of all the oceans’ currents for the first time,” says Eric Rignot of the University of California—Irvine, who led the study (subscription required for access to the full article). “It’s a game changer for glaciology.” The observations also showed that the ice moves by slipping and sliding along the land, and not by being crushed and broken down by ice above it, as had previously been theorized by many glaciologists. That difference is critical to forecasting sea level rise in decades to come since a loss of ice at the water’s edge means “we open the tap to massive amounts of ice in the interior,” according to Thomas Wagner of NASA’s cryospheric program.

The Evolution of Melting Ice

Off the coast of Antarctica, beyond the McMurdo Station research center at the southwestern tip of Ross Island, lies Hut Point, where in 1902 Robert Falcon Scott and his crew established a base camp for their Discovery Expedition. Scott’s ship, the Discovery, would soon thereafter become encased in ice at Hut Point, and would remain there until the ice broke up two years later.
Given recent events, it appears that Scott (and his ship) could have had it much worse. Sea levels in McMurdo Sound off the southwestern coast of Ross Island have recently reached their lowest levels since 1998, and last month, the area around the tip of Hut Point became free of ice for the first time in more than 10 years. The pictures below, taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on NASA’s Terra satellite and made public by NASA’s Earth Observatory, show the progression of the ice melt in the Sound dating back to 2003. The upper-right image shows a chunk of the B-15 iceberg, which when whole exerted a significant influence on local ocean and wind currents and on sea ice in the Sound. After the iceberg broke into pieces, warmer currents gradually dissipated the ice in the Sound; the image at the lower right, taken on February 25, shows open water around Hut Point.
Of course, icebreakers (their tracks are visible in both of the left-hand photos) can now prevent ships from being trapped and research parties from being stranded. Scott could have used that kind of help in 1902…