Can liquid water persist within an ice sheet?

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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? Continue reading

Celebrating 35 years of sea ice satellite data

Image of Arctic sea ice derived from SMMR data

This image is derived from the Scanning Multichannel Microwave Radiometer (SMMR), and shows Arctic Ocean sea ice extent in August 1985. Purple and red show greater ice coverage, while greens and blues indicate less ice. The black circle over the pole indicates no data—SMMR took observations very close to, but not directly over, the pole. Image credit: NSIDC

Polar scientists are celebrating an anniversary of sorts. Thirty-five years ago, sea ice research took a great leap forward. On October 26, 1978, the Scanning Multichannel Microwave Radiometer (SMMR) beamed its first data records back down to Earth. The instrument, pronounced simmer, was capable of mapping global sea ice concentration and extent, giving scientists a more comprehensive look at Arctic and Antarctic sea ice. Thanks to SMMR and its successor remote sensing instruments, scientists now have a long and detailed record of sea ice that helps them understand how sea ice works, and how it is changing. Continue reading

Do satellites sometimes see ice where there isn’t any?

Readers often ask us, “Why does your sea ice map show sea ice where there is none?” Sometimes our Daily Sea Ice Extent images show sea ice in a particular area, but when readers who live in those areas look out their windows, they see open water—or they even may see ice where our maps show open water. This occurs most frequently along rivers or near coasts. Why does this happen?

Ups and downs of passive microwave

Photograph of Qaanaaq, a small town on the Greenland coast

The rugged coast near Qaanaaq, Greenland, illustrates the challenge to satellite sensors, which must distinguish between land and ocean signals within the same image. Credit: Andy Mahoney

These discrepancies are most often caused by the resolution of the satellite sensor. NSIDC relies on passive microwave sensors to compile daily sea ice maps. These sensors have the advantage of being able to see through the Arctic’s cloudy weather and capture surface data even during long, dark winters, making them ideal for tracking sea ice. The disadvantage, however, is that passive microwave sensors often have low spatial resolution. The sensors collect data in “footprints” that are up to 50 to 70 kilometers (31 to 44 miles) in diameter. Continue reading

Getting beneath the ice

Researchers can measure ice thickness by drilling holes in the sea ice. But the method is not a practical way to measure thickness over the millions of square miles of Arctic sea ice. Image courtesy of Martin Hartley

NSIDC reports ice extent, a two-dimensional measure of the Arctic Ocean’s ice cover. But sea ice extent tells only part of the story: sea ice is not all flat like a sheet of paper. While freshly formed ice might not be much thicker than a few sheets of paper, the oldest, thickest ice in the Arctic can be more than 15 feet thick—as thick as a one-story house. Scientists want to know not just how far the ice extends, but also how deep and thick it is, because thinner ice is more vulnerable to summer melt. Continue reading

Arctic sea ice before satellites

Last week, a reader of Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis asked what we know about Arctic sea ice extent before the satellite records began in 1979. Those records show that Arctic sea ice has been declining at an increasing pace since 1979—enough data to see a strong signal of climate change. But scientists also want to know what sea ice was like before satellites were there to observe it. Mark Serreze, NSIDC director and research scientist, said, “The better we understand how the climate system behaved in the past, the better we can understand and place into context what is happening today.”  What do we know about sea ice conditions before 1979, and how do we know that?

Sea ice charts of the Arctic Ocean show that ice extent has declined since at least the 1950s. Credit: NSIDC and the UK Hadley Center

Historical data on sea ice

Scientists have pieced together historical ice conditions to determine that Arctic sea ice could have been much lower in summer as recently as 5,500 years ago. Before then, scientists think it possible that Arctic sea ice cover melted completely during summers about 125,000 years ago, during a warm period between ice ages. Continue reading