What about that hole in the sea ice?

There’s been discussion about a big opening in sea ice, called a polynya, and if it had anything to do with the Russian expedition ship, Akademik Shokalskiy, getting stuck near the Antarctic coast. The answer is not so straightforward. “In the winter, polynyas can close up really quickly,” said Kevin Arrigo, a professor at Stanford University. When they close, whatever is inside may be trapped.

Polynyas allow access to Antarctica’s shores, and most Antarctic research stations exist where they do because of polynyas. Winds blow, push the ice off the shore, and create holes in the sea ice. Ships want to go into these open spaces. “If the winds stop blowing, polynyas can just freeze over and fill in,” Arrigo said. That is partially what happened with Akademik Shokalskiy, but not the full picture. Also, polynyas are not only an essential component of navigating sea ice; they are vital to polar ecosystems. Here’s why:

On the horizon

Most of the polynyas around Antarctica are wind driven. “In many ways, where those winds blow depends on topography, by the shape of the hills and mountains,” Arrigo said. Strong winds, known as katabatic winds, come off the cold ice sheet, flow downhill and continually blow ice off of the coastal shore.

McMurdo Station

McMurdo Station sits on Ross Island in McMurdo Bay in Antarctica. It is a critical access point for ships to resupply researchers. The station also houses the largest population of about 1200 people on the continent. The Ross Sea polynya is visible in the distance. Credit: Ted Scambos, NSIDC

Many polynyas recur in the same region year after year—a useful manual for navigating the waters. “Having open water reoccur in the same region at certain times of year, makes it possible to get ships in and out,” said Seelye Martin, a professor at the University of Washington. McMurdo Station, a research base on Ross Island in Antarctica, exists because of the Ross Sea polynya, which forms in October and November. It’s also a reason why the base is important to the history of exploration. In the early 1900s, Robert F. Scott and Ernest Shackleton ventured into the continent from this entry point in part because of the polynya, which enabled ships to approach the land.

Polynyas vary dramatically in shape and size, some deceivingly large. When early explorers ventured into open waters, they often mistook the expanse for new sea. Still, others have seen something even more peculiar. “When I used to work in the Arctic,” Martin said, “we would see these cloudy regions, thinking that we were seeing signs of industrial activity.” But really it was a polynya at work, generating low clouds and fog. “We called it sea smoke,” he said. This sea smoke billows, forming a warm microclimate like, for instance, the North Water Polynya, on the northern end of Baffin Bay off the Greenland coast. This polynya provides refuge for big mammals: narwhal, walrus, and various species of whales to feed and rest.

So more happens within these open waters than meets the eye.

The light switch

NASA image of a Ross Sea polynya

The image from 2004 above shows a polynya (the dark opening) in the Ross Sea near Antarctica. The polynya is located just north of the Drygalski Ice Tongue. Giant icebergs float from shore to the right of the image. And in the dark open water, herded ice crystals generate streaks, which move parallel to the wind. Credit: NASA Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS)

The polar regions see no light in their respective winters. “That’s when polynyas become little ice engines,” Martin said. When winds push the ice pack away, near freezing point water temperatures generate more ice. The wind pushes formed ice crystals with the wave, piling them against the edge of a polynya, like swelling debris on a shore. Long streaks of ice crystals form. “You can look at a satellite image and spot the polynyas because they look like corduroy,” Martin said.

Along with wind, another environmental force forms polynyas: ocean upwelling. Upwelling, or the movement of deep, dense, and nutrient-rich waters toward the ocean surface, causes most open-ocean polynyas—though this process is much less common. “Over a big chunk of the world there is a layer of warm water that sits between 200 meters and 800 meters,” Arrigo said. “Anytime that water makes it up to the surface, it has the ability to melt ice.”

Sometimes wind sweeping and upwelling maintain the same polynya. Then spring comes and something else happens.

Common Eider rests in Arctic

For the Common Eider, a duck species that lingers year-round in the Arctic, polynyas are a matter of survival. It breeds in the Arctic, diving for mollusks and mussels. The male is unmistakable with its black and white plumage and green nape. The female is brown. The image above captures the Common Eider resting on rocks near Kirkcaldy Fife, Scotland. Credit: Gordon Ednie, flickr.com

“Come early spring, polynyas are ice free first,” Arrigo said, “but phytoplankton in these high latitude waters can’t start growing until the light is turned on.” And when light appears, so do the first signs of life. The lack of sea ice in polynyas permits sunlight to reach the upper ocean layers. Sunlight, combined with the warmer temperatures, causes polynyas to brim with phytoplankton. This primary food source turns polynyas into feeding lots for fish, seals, penguins, and other marine mammals. “Polynyas are cool things,” Arrigo said. “They’re basically these oases in areas of the ocean where you would not expect to find much life.”

An undulating system

Sea ice, however, is dynamic. For the Akademik Shokalskiy, it wasn’t merely a shift in the wind pattern, but in part, a past event—the breaking of a glacier—catching up to it. Blocks of the glacier floated in, surrounding the ship. Something similar happened in the Ross Sea in 2000 and 2002 when ice broke off the ice shelf: the Ross Sea Polynya almost didn’t form. “The winds were blowing right but the ice had nowhere to go,” Arrigo said. Gigantic icebergs blocked the flow of ice—and shut down food production. “That was a really bad year for the animals,” he added. “Overall, however, we wouldn’t have nearly as many penguins in Antarctica where it not for polynyas.” And we wouldn’t have nearly as many ships transporting researchers to study them.

Can liquid water persist within an ice sheet?


Scientists have discovered a large aquifer, the size of Ireland, near the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet. “This was a big surprise,” said Jason Box, a researcher for the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, “because we were drilling before melt had begun.” So liquid water had to survive since at least the previous year. Such water storage within the ice had not been previously considered, not on this massive scale. How can a giant reservoir of water exist inside a frozen ice sheet?

Scientist Jason Box drills a long hole to extract ice core samples. These enable him to map precipitation and melt levels for the South Eastern tip of Greenland. Credit: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace.

Scientist Jason Box drills a long hole to extract ice core samples. These enable him to map precipitation and melt levels for the South Eastern tip of Greenland. Credit: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace.

A new chapter

“We’re adding a chapter to the textbooks and that chapter is not yet written,” Box said. Scientists know how glaciers and ice sheets form. New layers of snow bury old layers, forcing snow to recrystallize into firn, an intermediary stage between snow and ice before finally becoming glacial ice. The compression traps pockets of air, critical in ice coring and analyzing Earth’s past atmosphere. “But now we have a completely different storage mechanism,” said Richard Forster, a researcher at the University of Utah, “where liquid water is stored as a reservoir in the firn year round.” This is new.

The discovery was an accident. Southeast Greenland, known for its high snow accumulation rates, has been understudied; but Box and Forster wanted to know just how much. In drilling for ice cores, they struck water. Traversing the rough terrain with snowmobiles, they moved the operation several kilometers away, and hit water again.

Water drains from an extracted core, pulled out 12 meters (40 feet) below the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Just below the snow, water persists within the firn layer before the summer surface melt, with air temperatures of minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). Credit: Ludovic Brucke, NASA

Water drains from an extracted core, pulled out 12 meters (40 feet) below the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Just below the snow, water persists within the firn layer before the summer surface melt, with air temperatures of minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). Credit: Ludovic Brucke, NASA

This was not a fluke. It was big. Consulting radar instruments, the team was able to map the aquifer’s size. Radar waves propagate through the ice sheet and as they hit different media—from air to ice or snow to water—the wavelengths reflect. Electrical properties also shift with density, and water is a great conductor. “When you hit a liquid layer, you get a really big reflection,” Forster said. This shimmering layer stretches 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles). The ice sheet here is about 800 meters (2600 feet) thick, while the liquid is between 5 and 50 meters (16 to 160 feet) deep. This aquifer then rests in the upper skin of the ice sheet beneath the snow layer, within the firn. But why doesn’t this water refreeze?

Feathers and air bubbles

“New snow acts like a thermal insulator,” said Forster. “Like a down jacket, the air space between the feathers—that’s what’s keeping you warm.” The air space between snow grains insulates liquid water. But another process is also at work. “Certainly some of that liquid water is feeling the cold atmosphere,” said Forster. As some of the water refreezes, it releases latent heat. Surrounding water absorbs this heat, and along with the snow insulation, provides enough warmth to maintain water in liquid state.

Relying on modeling, scientists determined the aquifer has existed since the 1970s. So far, fieldwork confirms the models. “No matter how sophisticated the satellite, aircraft or computer model is, you always need to gauge its accuracy,” Box said. “Even very low tech observations on ground tell us a lot.” Since April 2011, when the team first identified the aquifer, they have returned twice. Models show the aquifer extent has only marginally increased, but fieldwork is the only way to determine its thickness beneath the surface. For now, only one in situ measurement exists, recording a thickness of 22 meters (72 feet), between 12 and 34 meters (39 to 112 feet) deep.

(Left) Scientist Jason Box extracts an ice core sample, which enables him to map precipitation and melt levels to build a map of weather and climate changes on the south eastern tip of Greenland. (Right) Scientist Jason Box scrutinizes an ice core extract. Credit: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace

(Left) Scientist Jason Box extracts an ice core sample, which enables him to map precipitation and melt levels to build a map of weather and climate changes on the south eastern tip of Greenland. (Right) Scientist Jason Box scrutinizes an ice core extract. Credit: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace

The two extremes

How does this water factor into global sea level rise? “Now we have to really figure out how the water is moving through this aquifer system,” said Forster. Glaciers and ice sheets are dynamic. How much water eventually enters the ocean from melting ice sheets has always been a key question in calculating sea level rise. The two extremes of this aquifer system depend on where water goes. It either doesn’t go anywhere or it migrates through the system, connects to crevasses or moulins, vertical pipelines, and gets to the oceans, a process that may take a few years or decades. “In reality,” Forster said, “it’s probably some of each, depending on the location.”

The next step is to do more fieldwork and to date the water using chemical analysis. Figuring out the depth of liquid water is essential to knowing just how much water there is. Only then can contribution to sea level rise be accurately calculated. “You get this aquifer in areas where there is a lot of melting and a lot of snowfall,” Box said. “I think it’s natural, not climate driven, but we need to figure out the climate change response for this and that could have really fundamental implications for the ice properties and ice flow.”


Water drains from a core out of the Greenland perennial firn aquifer. The extraction is lifted from 33 feet below the surface of the ice sheet. 


Forster, Richard F. et. all. 2013. Extensive liquid meltwater storage in firn within the Greenland ice sheet. Nature Geoscience. doi:10.1038/ngeo2043.

The Karakoram Anomaly: Is it real?


In recent years with sharp summer sea ice decline, the Arctic seems more sensitive to climate warming than elsewhere on Earth. But are other frozen features of Earth changing too? Notably, most of the world’s glaciers are also getting smaller—except for a few stubborn ones, such as in the Karakoram area of the Himalaya. Why are these glaciers not retreating?

The anomaly

The climate of the Hindu Kush-Karakoram-Himalaya range, stretching over 2000 kilometers (1200 miles), is highly variable and governed by microclimates. “Glaciers here seem not to react in the same way as the majority of glaciers in the world,” said Christoph Mayer, a glaciologist from the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Generally, the glaciers reaching into Tibet and Nepal have lost a significant amount of mass and area. Its western end, stretching into Pakistan, has been relatively stable, pegging the phrase “Karakoram Anomaly.”

Mayer drilling ablation stake near Baltoro

Mayer drilling an ablation stake, which measures snow and ice concentrations, with a steam drill, assisted by a female Pakistani researcher. Photo credit: Astrid Lambrecht

Usually, glaciers oscillate between growth and retreat. At the highest elevation, snowfall adds to the glacier’s mass. During several years this snow compacts and turns to ice, and under its own weight, gravity pulls the glacier into a slow drift. In lower elevations, glaciers lose ice to melting and evaporation. If snowfall equals snowmelt, the glacier is in equilibrium. Increased snowfall advances a glacier’s extent, while increased melting forces glacial retreat.

Yet in this most glaciated part of the world outside of the polar regions, some glaciers have not changed, while some have even advanced. Mayer discovered blankets of debris—widely present in the Karakoram glaciers—may be key to their alleged stability.

Natural insulators

“Debris-covered glaciers react very differently to climate change,” Mayer said, “and this needs to be understood.” Unraveling a glacier’s complex role in water supply is crucial for countries like Pakistan, where snow and glacial melt feeds more than 50 percent of the Indus River flow, irrigating a highly agricultural economy.

Area of study

The image above shows the 2010 Central Karakoram National Park glacier coverage, derived during the project (University of Milan, Ardito Desio Institute) and based on the Landsat 2010 satellite. The red line marks the study area boundary. Yellow outlines represent glaciers further analyzed in detail. Photo credit: NASA

Very thin debris, a coat of dark color on snow, absorbs more solar energy, leading to faster melt. This is apparent in the Rocky Mountains. But in the Karakoram, debris is much thicker, deposited on the glacier surface by avalanches and rockfalls, then melting out of the ice during its journey down the valley. “As soon as the thickness reaches a certain value, the layer insulates the ice,” Mayer said. By measuring the amount of heat moving within the debris layer, it became apparent not enough heat traveled down to melt the ice beneath. So for some areas within the Karakoram, debris is staving off glacial melt. But what about the overall picture?

To this day there has been no accurate mass balance measure in the Karakoram. Satellite imagery of a glacier helps determine its length and breadth, but to appreciate the details of ice gain and loss field work is crucial—specifically, mass balance measurements that measure the difference between snow accumulation and snow and ice melting.

Sticking with the facts

These field studies involve exposing researchers to the extremes of the terrain. “Field work in the Karakoram is not easy,” Mayer said. It is a four to four day trek just to reach the snout of Baltoro Glacier. Debris-covered glaciers are rough and loose underfoot. “There are boulders several meters thick in diameter,” Mayer added. “Everything is unstable here.” Researchers stick wooden poles of 2 meters (6.6 feet) length, connecting them for a total length of 12 meters (39 feet), into the ice to gauge a glacier’s velocity and the change in height. Is the surface sinking or rising?

1954 and 2004 snapshot of Baltoro Glacier

A 1954 (left) and 2004 (right) snapshot of the snout of Baltoro Glacier depicts a decreased surface level, even while the 2004 extent seems to have stretched further. Photo credit: Ardito Desio; Christoph Mayer

The so-called Karakoram Anomaly doesn’t convince Mayer. “Look at the details,” he added. When Mayer turned to the Baltoro Glacier, his doubts were justified. The glacier’s lower portion, the snout, is debris-covered and appears to be climate resistant with zero retreat, but the clean white top has a melt rate of up to 4.5 meters, while the surface sinks by more than 0.5 meters every year. “Basically our research showed how much ice was lost during summer and how much snow was deposited in the high regions,” Mayer said.

The Baltoro Glacier mass balance measurements are just a start on getting a clearer picture of how the entire system works. Mayer said, “We need to take the debris cover into account if we want to calculate future ice resources and melt water production under a changing climate.” The devil is indeed in the details.


Minora, U. et al. 2013. 2001–2010 glacier changes in the Central Karakoram National Park: a contribution to evaluate the magnitude and rate of the “Karakoram anomaly.” The Cryosphere Discussions 7, 2891–2941, doi:10.5194/tcd-7-2891-2013.

What can stall a glacier?

Much talk surrounds the deterioration of glaciers and ice sheets—particularly, how they are thinning and losing mass with global warming; but the mechanisms are complicated and scientists want to know more about their flow. The Antarctic ice sheet, in particular, piques interest because it contains enough fresh water to raise sea levels 60 meters (200 feet), if it were to melt completely. So how does the ground beneath the ice influence mobility? When and how does the ice sheet stall? When does it accelerate? And how does this ebb and flow contribute to global sea level rise? Continue reading

Is an East Antarctic melt probable?

Does melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS) pose a threat to sea level rise? Studies of the ice melt that fuels sea level rise often focus on the prominent warming and melting of glaciers in Greenland and western Antarctica. The massive East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS) has been largely ignored, until recently. “It’s generally been assumed that it’s so big and so cold that it’s probably immune to some of the warming trends we’ve seen across the planet,” said Chris Stokes, a professor at Durham University. Two recent studies, however, paint a new picture of the world’s thickest, unwavering giant, suggesting the need to look deeper into eastern Antarctica. Continue reading