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Ice and mud, glorious mud


Sculpted by nature!

Most of the time our ship is out of range of internet connectivity, so this post will be delivered  to you from the research base Ny Alesund. My hosts and the station staff were  kind enough to arrange a special little boat and a survival suit for a trip through the dark but fascinating polar night. This is only possible because tonight we are still relatively close, with the ship collecting samples in Kongsfjorden, on the north-west side of Spitsbergen. This is an open fjord with a relatively free connection  to adjacent shelf. It’s 20 km long, between 4 and 10 metres wide and a maximum depth of 400 metres. This means it is largely influenced by both Atlantic water and Arctic water. It also gets a discharge of fresh water and sediments from adjacent glaciers, which we will be looking at more closely in the next few days. It has been an action-packed day today, watching polar marine night researchers in action. Night research during the day sounds odd, but I can assure you it is certainly dark enough –at any time of day.

Busy on the deck

Busy on the deck

Muddy secrets Sergei Korsun from St. Petersburg university and PhD student Olga Knyazeva were out on deck preparing a box corer, a  big box-shaped instrument to go down to the seabed and bring up samples of sediment. The teamwork between scientists and crew seems to work brilliantly. The crew operate the lifting and lowering equipment and all sorts of other gear. The scientists collect their samples from it and take them in to the ship’s lab.


Sergei and Olga hard at work

“Just a load of mud”, quips Sergei, and there is certainly plenty of it sploshing about in the course of the operation. No wonder there are no outdoor shoes allowed inside.

Separate the mud from the mud!

Separate the mud from the mud!

Olga drains off the water so that only the sediment is left. These two are interested in foraminifera or forams, one-celled organisms. Ice Blog readers may remember I discussed them here some time ago, in connection with research on ocean acidification. German scientists actually wrote a children’s story with Tessi and Tipo, two of these tiny ocean creatures, as the main characters. The focus there was on how increasingly acid seas are dissolving the protective shells of many organisms, especially in cold, Arctic water, where the process is faster. Every creature counts! So why should we be interested in these forams in particular? No question about it, says Olga. There are so many of them, they account for a huge proportion of biomass and we know far too little about what they are up to in the winter. Given their important role in the ecosystem, what they do in winter is something we really ought to know. The season of winter is just too long to be ignored any longer, says Olga. And ultimately, even the tiniest creatures play a role in the global foodweb.  Sergei mentions another reason why climatologists and those interested in the history of the planet are so interested in these tiny creatures. They fossilize, so that scientists can use samples from the seafloor to get a record of earth’s history that goes back a very long way.

Shades of blue and dark

Shades of blue and dark

Inner clocks without daylight? Shortly afterwards, I joined  Sören and Lukas from Germany’s Alfred-Wegener  Institute  for one of their  four-hourly net-dropping exercises. For  this, a big hatch is opened on the laboratory deck. This brought added excitement as  there were a lot of beautifully shaped chunks of ice just floating past. Iceblogger’s delight!

Ice bonus!

Ice bonus!

We could also see the hills in silhouette in the background. Clearly there are indeed many shades of “dark”. Seagulls are following us constantly. No doubt they know fish and shrimps are being caught and are always on the lookout for an easy, tasty morsel. In this climate, I don’t blame them. And it is kind of reassuring to have their company, bright in the ship’s lights against the dark sky and sea. The wind felt icy, but the experts up here tell us it is actually relatively mild. Anyway, our two scientists dropped a longish thin net attached to a sort of circular hoop out the hatch, sampling the water.

Getting the net ready

Getting the net ready

When it came in, they take samples of small jellyfish, copepods and krill, for a fascinating project to find out about the “biological clock gene”. How can some marine organisms migrate vertically in a 24-25 hour cycle, without light to trigger this?  More about that when I’ve interviewed the experts over the next couple of days.

Lukas takes a close look.

Lukas takes a close look.

The advantages of winter If you have been waiting for the answer to the question about reproduction in the last blog, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Given that the reason is unlikely to be an ideal food supply for the “babies”, some of the scientists on board think the reason could be that there fewer predators about to eat the young, if they arrive in winter. Does that seem plausible? The next post may be a day or two in arriving, as the ship will be out of range from tomorrow onwards. But I promise plenty more to come as soon as we are back in internet range. (How on earth did we live without it?!)

Pick your helmet!

If you want to get ahead… get a (hard) hat! No going on deck without one.



January 13, 2015 | 7:41 pm



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Food and sex in Svalbard’s icy waters?

The Helmer Hanssen anchored at Ny Alesund

The Helmer Hanssen anchored at Ny Alesund

This is my first post from the Polar Marine Night expedition, from the Kongsfjord in Svalbard.

On the flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen, the main settlement on the island,  after a period with a beautiful sunset red strip in the sky, it was dark by half past midday and I realized I had seen my last sunrays for this week.

The last sunrays on the way north…

Flying in to Longyearbyen airport, I could see a white mountain, its dark silhouette outlined by the airport lights. Having been here before in the summer sun, I realized somewhere up there was the famous seed vault where safe supplies of seeds for the world’s food crops are stored under the permafrost, supposedly safe from wars or some other disastrous calamities which might require a “new start” for humanity. I was fortunate enough to visit it on a previous trip a couple of years ago. At the moment, though, the darkness reveals very little of the fascinating landscape.

plane 105

Winter travel in the High North

New winter visitors to Ny Alesund

Our small, robust propeller plane carrying scientists and service staff from the research station, one fellow journalist as well as two young German scientists joining the scientific cruise had us in Ny Alesund late afternoon. It was strange to see the station completely in the dark, although it is not as deserted as it once was in winter, thanks to this Polar Night research. As our driver told us on the way to the harbour, (nothing is far from anywhere else in the small settlement, but hauling luggage across slippery snow and ice in the dark is something I can do without) there are around 60 people on the base, whereas once there was only a skeleton crew of around 13 over the winter.

The French-German station, the Norwegian station and the Chinese building are manned throughout the winter. The others are summer-only stations. Different scientists from around the globe come in and out for the boat trips to investigate marine life in the polar night. This is only the second year of this heightened interest in life in the dark season up here.

Select company of hardy researchers

crew 148

Members of the crew between shifts on the deck

The RV Helmer Hanssen – named after Amundsen’s navigator to the South Pole – was waiting at the quay. Built as an ice-going fishing vessel, these days the only  trawling done here is in the interests of science. Since we left this evening, nets have been deployed at different levels at regular intervals bringing samples of Arctic sea life on board and into the labs. There are 16 students and professors on board, with a crew of 12 to operate the ship, round the clock. It’s an expensive business, says Stig, so they have to make maximum use of the ship time by working to a busy schedule, sleeping in shifts in between. Well, at least we have enough bunks, so we don’t have to economise by sharing those.

Cruise leader Stig Falk Petersen in the instruments room of the Helmer Hanssen

Cruise leader Stig Falk Petersen in the instruments room of the Helmer Hanssen

Nocturnal goings-on

If I hadn’t done my homework, there were times during the evening briefing by Stig and his colleague Paul Renault, when  I might have been tempted to call for an interpreter , with talk of pelagic trawls, the hyper-benthos,  grabs, diel vertical migration, epibenthic sleds and more of that ilk. Then comes the high-tech LOPC – a laser optical plankton counter, of course! In case you are not a marine biologist yourself, this is all about getting samples from different layers of water and the seabed to find out about the relatively unknown winter lifestyles and behavior of organisms living in the Arctic ocean.  (There was some discussion about supplies of ethanol and formaldehyde, which you must not run out of if you want to take some samples home as a souvenir). It seems amazing, but there is still very little known about marine life in the polar night, because the region was so remote and inaccessible, and because people assumed where there was no light, there would be no biological activity. Now our scientists have discovered (last year was a real “eye-opener”, says Stig) that there is all sorts of activity going on.

Marine looking at the stomach of a tiny fish. Stig looks on.

Marine looking at the stomach of a tiny fish. Stig looks on.

fish stomach 158

What did this 1.5 meter long cod have for dinner?

It does not surprise me personally that a lot of creatures have to feed all the year round. But what exactly do cod, for example eat? That’s what Marine Cusa wants to find out for her PhD. I met her in the lab, where she was dissecting fish. I had a look inside the stomach of a large specimen of Atlantic cod in the lab.

Not for the faint-hearted, so I won’t go into details.  There are even creatures up here who choose to reproduce in this dark season. Now presumably it’s not like with human beings, where there tends to be a rise in the birth-rate after major power cuts in some places. So why would sea creatures choose to have their young in the cold, dark, polar winter? Some of the experts here have some theories – but I’m going to save that for another day.



January 13, 2015 | 6:04 pm



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Arctic Ocean: “Mare incognitum”

Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen hosts the world's northernmost marine lab. (Quaile, 2007)

Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen hosts the world’s northernmost marine lab. (Quaile, 2007)

As I continue to prepare for my trip to Svalbard and the Arctic waters around the archipelago, into the Polar Night, the title of a website strikes me as particularly appropriate: Mare Incognitum  is the umbrella title for a group of Arctic research projects, including the one I will be joining this weekend at the harbour of the Arctic research base at Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen. The title was chosen to reflect the group’s view of the Arctic as “one of the least known marine ecosystems of the planet”.


January 8, 2015 | 3:56 pm



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Polar Ice at UN Bonn Climate Talks

... And the ice continues to melt. (Pic: I. Quaile, Greenland)

… And the ice continues to melt. (Pic: I. Quaile)

The delegates to the UN climate meeting currently taking place here in Bonn are receiving an urgent appeal from polar scientists to cut emissions to slow polar ice melt and give low-lying coastal regions more time to adapt to rising sea levels.

I was very interested to hear about a side-event being held here this evening, at which the authors of this year’s key studies on developments in the Antarctic will be explaining the connections between melting polar ice and climate change impacts like rising seas, affecting regions as diverse as small island states, Bangladesh or Florida in the USA.

I interviewed Anders Levermann from PIK, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research and Pam Pearson, Director of ICCI, the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, both in Bonn for the event.

The ICCI decided to bring the cryosphere into the Bonn talks to sensitize delegates to the dramatic developments in the Antarctic in particular, says Pearson. Ice Blog readers (and I was so delighted to hear Pam herself is one!) will remember posts earlier this year on melting in the East and West Antarctic. I also covered these in articles for DW. The shocking thing is that the Antarctic, even East Antarctica, which was until relatively recently considered so cold it had to be safe from global warming, is already being affected by climate change. The papers on the West Antarctic even described the melt trend as “irreversible”.

We have entered an era of irreversible climate change”.

Today, Anders Levermann, author of the East Antarctic paper and one of the world’s leading Antarctic researchers, told me “we have entered a new era of climate change, witnessed the tipping of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and this is irreversible”.

That should really shock people into action, you would think. But climate negotiations are moving, as one of the experts said to me at the meeting “at a glacial pace”. As we can see in Antarctica, though, and Greenland and other regions, those glaciers are speeding up. Maybe there is hope for the climate talks yet!

The announcements by the USA and China on possible emissions cuts have brought a new “buzz” to the Bonn conference. The fact that the key emitters could finally be getting the message and preparing to move, with the impacts of climate change hitting their own countries, has to be a positive signal. Pearson confirmed to me that people in the sunshine state of Florida, where she lives, had become more aware of the importance of melting ice caps with increasing floods and storms.

As Levermann says, Antarctica and Greenland have a huge potential to raise sea level further than previously anticipated. He was lead author on the IPCC report chapter on sea level rise. The latest IPCC report factored in some of the likely impacts from melting ice in these regions for the first time. Of course the latest research was not yet included. For the 21st century forecast, this will not make a lot of difference, says Levermann. But the fact that this irreversible Antarctic melt is now underway will make a big difference to coming generations.

There are those who dispute whether the warming of the ocean, which is causing the Antarctic melt (unlike the surface melt on Greenland) is man-made. Levermann does not rule out natural variation as a possible influence. But ultimately, he says, that is irrelevant. Greenhouse gas emissions and so human interference are warming the planet, and any further warming, whatever the cause, will speed up ice melt. So cutting emissions is the way to slow it down and, Pearson adds, gives people time to adapt to rising seas.

The combination of models based on the principles of physics, using a higher resolution than ever before, and evidence from ice cores showing what happened in the past, make for a high degree of certainty about these ice developments, says Levermann.

“The level of warming will determine the rate with which we discharge West Antarctica, and we can still prevent the tipping of East Antarctica”, the cryosphere experts told us here in Bonn.

That is a huge responsibility. Here’s hoping the message will make it into the hearts and minds of those negotiating the future of the earth’s climate and the governments they represent.


June 13, 2014 | 2:34 pm



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Keeping Greenland in focus

Greenland ice wall

The Greenland ice sheet, photographed 2009 (I.Quaile)

Two interesting publications relating to Greenland caught my eye over the past few days. But it has not proved easy to get them onto the international news agenda. Given the huge importance of the Greenland ice sheet to the planet’s future, this is frustrating to say the least. Fortunately there is the Ice Blog.

The first research relates to a study about the role of ash from fires in bringing about large-scale surface melting. The other predicts Greenland will be a far greater contributor to sea rise than expected.

Let me start with the latter, published in Nature Geoscience. Scientists from the University of California – Irvine and NASA glaciologists have found previously uncharted long deep valleys under the Greenland Ice Sheet. Since these bedrock canyons are well below sea level, they are much more vulnerable to warm ocean waters than previously thought. When warmer Atlantic water hits the fronts of hundreds of glaciers, the edges will erode much further than previously assumed, releasing far greater amounts of water.

Ice melt from the subcontinent has already accelerated, as warmer marine currents have migrated north, the authors say. Older models predicted that once higher ground was reached in a few years, the ocean-induced melting would halt. Greenland’s frozen mass would stop shrinking, and its effect on higher sea waters would be curtailed.

“That turns out to be incorrect. The glaciers of Greenland are likely to retreat faster and farther inland than anticipated – and for much longer – according to this very different topography we’ve discovered beneath the ice,” says lead author Mathieu Morlighem, a UC Irvine associate project scientist, on the university website. “This has major implications, because the glacier melt will contribute much more to rising seas around the globe.”


Icebergs from a Greenland glacier melt on.. (I.Quaile)

To obtain the results, Morlighem developed what he says is a breakthrough method that for the first time offers a comprehensive view of Greenland’s entire periphery. It’s nearly impossible to accurately survey at ground level the subcontinent’s rugged, rocky subsurface, which descends as much as 3 miles beneath the thick ice cap.

Since the 1970s, limited ice thickness data has been collected via radar pinging of the boundary between the ice and the bedrock. Along the coastline, though, rough surface ice and pockets of water cluttered the radar sounding, so large swaths of the bed remained invisible.

Measurements of Greenland’s topography have tripled since 2009, thanks to NASA Operation IceBridge flights. But Morlighem says he quickly realized that while that data provided a fuller picture than the earlier radar readings, there were still major gaps between the flight lines.

To reveal the full subterranean landscape, he designed a novel “mass conservation algorithm” that combined the previous ice thickness measurements with information on the velocity and direction of its movement and estimates of snowfall and surface melt.

The difference was dramatic, says Morlighem. What appeared to be shallow glaciers at the very edges of Greenland are actually long, deep fingers stretching more than 100 kilometers (almost 65 miles) inland.

“We anticipate that these results will have a profound and transforming impact on computer models of ice sheet evolution in Greenland in a warming climate,” the researchers conclude.

“Operation IceBridge vastly improved our knowledge of bed topography beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet,” said co-author Eric Rignot of UC Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This new study takes a quantum leap at filling the remaining, critical data gaps on the map.”

Other co-authors are Jeremie Mouginot of UC Irvine and Helene Seroussi and Eric Larour of JPL. Funding was provided by NASA.

This is the same team that reported on accelerated glacial melt in West Antarctica, as discussed in an earlier Ice Blog post.  Together, the papers “suggest that the globe’s ice sheets will contribute far more to sea level rise than current projections show,” Rignot said.

Indeed. These scientists are telling us the IPCC forecasts were way too low. This could have huge consequences for coastal communities all around the globe.

Unfortunately, a lot of people (even those you would expect to know better) tend to mix up “Arctic” and “Antarctic”. It all goes into the category of “melting ice”, and they think they have heard it all before. What they still don’t realize is that this is something that concerns us all, and that these two polar areas are of huge significance to the world climate as a whole and global sea level. When those two Antarctic studies were released, there was a flurry of news coverage. The challenge for us journalists is how to follow this up and stop the attention curve from dropping.

Plodding on... (I.Quaile)

Plodding on… (I.Quaile)

The other interesting piece of recent Greenland research was conducted by the Dartmouth College Thayer School of Engineering and the Desert Research Institute and reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of

Sciences. It concludes that ash from Northern hemisphere forest fires combined with rising temperatures to cause large-scale surface melting of the Greenland ice sheet in 1889 and 2012.

The researchers say their findings contradict conventional thinking that the melting was driven by warming alone.

The findings suggest that continued climate change will result in nearly annual widespread melting of the ice sheet’s surface by the year 2100.

Melting in the dry snow region does not contribute to sea level rise, but when the meltwater percolates into the snowpack and refreezes, the surface is less reflective. This reduces the albedo.

Let me give the (almost) last word to the study’s lead author Kaitlin Keegan.

“With both the frequency of forest fires and warmer temperatures predicted to increase with climate change, widespread melt events are likely to happen much more frequently in the future”.

It figures.



May 23, 2014 | 2:39 pm



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