Archive for August, 2010

Petermann Ice Island drifts into Nares St.

Monday, August 30th, 2010

The ~250 square km Petermann floating ice “island” has drifted into Nares St. The drift out of Petermann fjord has been slow, as tides wash in and out and the berg was jammed in the fjord 20-25 August. Prevailing winds blowing toward the south will push the berg in that direction.

29 August MODIS image

processing the backlog of Petermann Glacier photos

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

I take advantage of the delay time here in Uummannaq to process a backlog of last year’s photos of Petermann Glacier that I shot during last year’s campaign. With a very nice camera/lens on loan from James Balog, I pressed the button to shoot more than 20,000 photos. I believe I have enough photos to publish a comprehensive illustrated assessment of this place…

July 2009. The endless summer days at 81 degrees north latitude produce substantial summer melting. While summer melting is not necessarily abnormal, melt intensity is expected to continue to increase as the global climate system responds to continued atmospheric loading of heat trapping gasses.

The Petermann Glacier medial river barely trickles out to sea. It’s not a stronger flow because it’s intercepted about 20 km upstream (in the distance) where the river pours into a breach in the surface called a moulin.

The shearing of the ice along the fjord walls occurs too quickly for the ice to deform. The shearing strength of the ice shelf is exceeded and rifts form as the ice tears apart. This is a normal process. The rifts are, of course, weak areas on the ice shelf. Petermann ice shelf has detached a large area along recently along one of these rifts. Melt water filling the rifts weakens the bonds, literally forcing apart the rift bottom.

update from SV Gambo

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

Hi Alun and Jason,

We are making good progress and weather is holding.  Managed to download the grib files so we are able to plan passage to best efficiency.  However, we are burning fuel at 7kts and so we will need 500lt of diesel when we get to Qaanaaq and of course the same when the boat returns to Qaanaaq.  At Qaanaaq there is no harbour/wharf (at least there is none marked in the Arctic Pilot and I do not remember one from our visit last year – can you check on this with locals or on google earth).  The fuel for boat and heli will likely therefore need to be brought down to the shore so that it can be towed out to boat on arrival.

Schedule as predicted from here – please comment on:

  1. Arrive in Qaanaaq late afternoon/early evening Sun 29th.
  2. Fuel up immediately and depart for Wright Bay
  3. Arrive Wright Bay afternoon Tuesday 31st
  4. Tuesday 31 Petermann??
  5. Wed Petermann??

The science plans for the boat could include the following dependent on weather and ice:

  1. Petermann – the [very optimistic] golden opportunity – CTD in fjord on transect cross-section in front of present calving/melting front
  2. Humboldt – the more likely scenario – CTD transect across the deep channel that leads to the front of the glacier. This could be done approximately along the southern CTD transect that was done last year

Friday 3rd Quannaq return.

Please can you be sure to have every thing ready in Quannaq when we will arrive Sunday (ie: 4*200lt Jet A1 + 500lts diesel)

Richard & Nolwenn

helicopter red tape

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

In short, our flight plan to reach north Greenland by private charter has run into a bureaucratic wall. I will update as our prospects change. The weekend now means we may have no solution until next week. The delays are setting in. Meanwhile, Gambo continues to make progress northward. The crew won’t waste time to bring on fuel drums to then re-position to Kane Basin. Now, it’s likely Gambo will be waiting for us. And that’s the optimistic scenario.

lumpy seas ahead

Friday, August 27th, 2010

We just got a txt message updating sailing vessel Gambo’s position. She’s making good northward progress through a largely ice-free Baffin Bay. The graphic below illustrates the latest plan with helicopter rendezvous with Gambo in Qaanaaq. Gambo’s ETA in Qaanaaq is 2 days form now, as is that of the helicopter.

Provided that Gambo does not go any further west than it has to, she will avoid the worst of the 25 kt wind jet through Smith Sound, that mark the southern end of the channel between northwest Greenland and Ellesmere Is. Once into this channel, the sailing adventure is somewhat more committed, with sea ice, rough seas and high winds. Presently, Gambo is as we say, in the “lee of the land”, with “lumpy” seas ahead.

David Decker is providing daily weather forecasts to Gambo. Myself and Alun are in daily telephone contact with Gambo’s crew.

Gambo to the North, again

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Sailing vessel Gambo is now underway, bound for Nares St. The competent crew is to assist our helicoptering to Petermann glacier by positioning fuel to northern Kane Basin, thus saving the flight 12 hours it would otherwise spend flying fuel drums around. Gambo has been in the area (west Greenland’s Uummnaq District) with the dual purpose of assisting scientific exploration of glaciated fjords and delivering mountain/rock climbers to numerous first ascents.  We re-supplied Gambo yesterday with food, fuel, and water. We have no guarantee the ice conditions and weather will allow her into northern Nares St. But, that is not stopping us from trying.

SV Gambo in Rink Fjord 2009 on it’s Adventure Science 2009 campaign. Rink glacier is visible in the distance. Gambo is seen just dropping us off in our successful climb of west Greenland’s highest mountain, seems for the first time.

Gambo is owned by Alun Hubbard and skippered by Nolwynn Chauché. The crew presently includes: first mate Max; geophysisist Richard Bates; PhD student Christine; PhD student Tom. The climbers just dropped off at Agpat Island to bag more peaks are: Sam Doyle, George, Matt, and Miles.

This vlog captures beautifully our work here.

North to Petermann!

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

I’m now traveling toward Petermann Glacier, site of the enormous ice shelf detachment.
NASA MODIS imagery illustrating the largest detachment observed in Greenland. The data are processed in-house at Byrd Polar Research Center.

I predicted the event would occur last year. This was on the heels of the record-warm summer 2008. I lead a leg of a Greenpeace cruise to the area to install an array of sensors at Petermann. Among the sensors are two time lapse cameras, like that shown below. Provided the equipment survived the winter, we will recover a historic set of photos to share with the world!

With the help of Alun Hubbard,  we also have 7 GPS along flow to visit; one is on the ice island! See the equipment distribution below…

This is a very remote site, requiring 30 flight hours to get the aircraft from Greenland’s main airport hub in Kangerlussuaq.

I’m now sitting in the WiFi-equipped airport departure-lounge here in Kangerlussuaq, waiting to board to arrive Ilulissat; one night, then to Qarsut and Uummannaq 24 August, were I will rendezvous with sailing vessel Gambo and it’s owner Alun Hubbard. We are sending the boat north with: fuel, food, and a very able crew…

Gambo in southern seas

Sailing Vessel Gambo

24-28 August, Alun and I will then refine details of the plan (air charter). We expect the air charter “Lucky Bird” to pick us up on 28 August. We expect to be on site at Petermann ~30 August. I will return via Copenhagen. I should be in Copenhagen either 2 or 8 September and back to Ohio 12 September or sooner. Note that delays are not only always possible, but should never come as a surprise. The weather is more of a factor here than in the mid-latitudes.

Thanks all for support! I will update this post as often as I can.

Petermann glacier ice island detatchment: some recent historical context

Friday, August 13th, 2010

To put the August 2010 Petermann glacier loss into context, below is a review of the major ice area losses in recent times.

The Arctic

  1. The Serson Ice Shelf northern Ellesmere Is. lost 120 sq km (46 sq mi) in 2008 (Mueller, Copland, Hamilton, and Stern, 2008), 4/10 the Petermann glacier area loss.
  2. The Markham Ice Shelf disintegration on 6 August, 2008 was 50 sq km in area (Mueller, Copland, Hamilton, and Stern, 2008), or 2/10 the Petermann glacier area loss. Air temperatures at the closest meteorological stations were the warmest or nearly the warmest on record.
  3. Fletcher’s Ice Island (1952-1954) had an area of ~54 sq. km (~21 sq. mi), 1/5 the area of the Petermann glacier loss.
  4. In a survey of daily satellite images spanning 2000-2010, the next largest area loss in Greenland was 87 sq. km (34 sq. mi), also at Petermann Glacier between 10 June and 23 August, 2001 (Box and Decker, submitted).
  5. The next largest area loss in Greenland, outside of Petermann, has been at Zachariae Isstrøm where between years 2002 and 2003, there was a 43 sq. km area loss (Box and Decker, submitted).
  6. We are working to obtain 2010 area changes from other Greenland glaciers, stay tuned.

Not many ice shelves remain in the Arctic. The largest I am aware of are on Petermann, Zachariae Isstrøm, what (little) remains on the northern coast of Ellesmere Is. Canada and other relatively small areas across north Greenland where compacted sea ice prevents some of the glacier calf ice to move out.


  1. The Antarctic Peninsula lost 431 sq km (166 sq mi) in 2008 from the Wilkins Sound during an ongoing loss of the Wilkins Ice Shelf; a factor of 1.6 the Petermann glacier loss.  In a previous epoch between 1995 and 2003, this ice shelf has lost more than 2320 sq km (896 sq mi); a factor of 8.4 the Petermann glacier loss.. Source: Scambos, Fricker, Liu, Bohlander, Fastook, Sargent, Massom (2009).

Antarctica has much larger ice shelves than found in the Arctic. See this summary

Works Cited

  • Box, J.E. and D.T. Decker, Greenland marine-terminating glacier area changes: 2000-2009, Annals of Glaciology, International Symposium on Earth’s Disappearing Ice: Drivers, Responses and Impacts – A celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Byrd Polar Research Center, 16–20 August 2010. The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA
  • England, J., Lakeman, T.R., Lemmen, D.S., Bednarski, J.M., Stewart, T.G., and Evans, D.J.A. 2008. A millennial-scale record of Arctic Ocean sea ice variability and the demise of the Ellesmere Island ice shelves. Geophysical Research Letters, 35, L19502, doi:10.1029/2008GL034470.
  • Mueller, D.R., Copland, L., Hamilton, A., and Stern, D. 2008 Examining Arctic Ice Shelves Prior to the 2008 Breakup. EOS, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, 89, 502-503.
  • Scambos, T.A., H.A. Fricker, C.-C. Liu, J. Bohlander, J. Fastook, A. Sargent, R. Massom, A.-M. Wu. 2009. Ice shelf disintegration by plate bending and hydro-fracture: Satellite observations and model results of the 2008 Wilkins ice shelf break-ups. Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 280: 51-60.