Tag Archives: Science


I've been watching the open water down the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula. I said the cause of that was most likely strong westerly winds.

If you look at the sea ice concentration on the western Antarctic Peninsula you can see the effect of these westerly winds.

Towards the end of September 2016 the ice edge is compacted as the sea ice is pushed against the Peninsula.

The Antarctic Peninsula sea ice 24 August to 5 October 2016. Data from DMSP SSMI
The Antarctic Peninsula sea ice 24 August to 5 October 2016. Data from DMSP SSMI

The westerly winds (from bottom left to top right) compress the sea ice against the land (left hand side of the Antarctic Peninsula). This also creates open water on the eastern (right hand side ) of the Peninsula as the sea ice is pushed away from the land.

You can see the very sharp ice edge on the west, and the open open water in the MODIS satellite imagery.

MODIS image of the Antarctic Peninsula 5 October 2016 from the Aqua satellite.
MODIS image of the Antarctic Peninsula 5 October 2016 from the Aqua satellite.

The sea ice concentration anomaly for September 2016 shows that on both sides of the Antarctic Peninsula the westerly winds have reduced the amount of ice we would expect to observe by up to ~40%. On the west side because the sea ice is compressed, on the east side because the sea ice is being pushed away from the land.

Antarctic sea ice concentration anomaly for Sep 2016. Image from NSIDC
Antarctic sea ice concentration anomaly for Sep 2016. Yellow rectangle approx area of images above. Image from NSIDC

This is just late winter weather.

There are a lot of Antarctic research stations on the west of the Antarctic Peninsula, including Rothera, the largest British Base.  If the winds maintain the westerly direction then I can imagine it could be slow to resupply the base this season. There is time for it to change. According to the published schedule the ship is not due to arrive until 27 November 2016.

A slow resupply is not uncommon and I have been on at least one unsuccessful resupply voyage in my career. I took the picture below on 11 December 2004 under similar conditions.

James Clark Ross making very slow progress in compressed sea ice in Marguerite Bay, the Western Antarctic Peninsula.
RRS James Clark Ross making very slow progress in compressed sea ice in Marguerite Bay, the Western Antarctic Peninsula 11 December 2004.


I noticed in a blog post last week that there was a finger of open water extending down the Western Weddell Sea. I've carried on watching this open water in the MODIS satellite data. Whilst it's been opening and closing, there is a lot of open water. It's clearly a major sea ice generating factory at the moment.

MODIS image of the Western Weddell Sea 30 September 2016. The Open Water is clear.
MODIS image of the Western Weddell Sea 30 September 2016. The Open Water is clear.

The open water is clear in the lower resolution passive microwave sea ice data too.

The sea ice extent along the Antarctic Peninsula 2 October 2016. Data from DMSP SSMI
The sea ice extent along the Antarctic Peninsula 2 October 2016. Data from DMSP SSMI

If you look at some model output there are air temperatures above this open water of between -10° to about -25°C.

Surface temperature at 2m from NCEP output. 3 October 2016.
Surface temperature at 2m from NCEP output. 3 October 2016. From Climate Reanalyzer.org

What is really good is if you look at the temperature anomaly (i.e. the departure from the average with a 1979-2000 baseline), it is very warm over the Weddell Sea.

The temperature departure from average for NCEP output 3 October 2016. Image from climateReanalyzer.org.
The temperature departure from average for NCEP output 3 October 2016. Image from climateReanalyzer.org.

I think the reason it is warmer is because the Weddell Sea pack ice is looser this year. So (as you can see in the picture above) there is lots of open water. The atmosphere is being warmed by the ocean as the sea ice is being generated.

Another pointer to the pack being looser this year is that in August 2016 in the Eastern Weddell Sea there was a rare sighting of the Weddell Polynya.

The Weddell Polynya as observed on 14 August 2016 in passive satellite data.
The Weddell Polynya as observed on 14 August 2016 in passive satellite data. It is a polynya with its own wikipedia page.

I think the Weddell Sea pack ice is more mobile this winter. This is also telling us something about the difference between sea ice extent and sea ice thickness. The sea ice extent is large and easy to measure in the Antarctic - but we don't know how thick it is.

Last week I enjoyed an Inaugural lecture by Professor Martin Siegert of Imperial College. Inaugural Lectures are a big deal:

Imperial's Inaugural Lecture series provides a platform to showcase and celebrate the College's new professors. The inaugural lecture provides official recognition and celebration of the academic’s promotion to professor. A number of guests are invited to attend and students, other staff, and the general public may also attend the lecture. Inaugural lectures are preceded by tea and cakes for invited guests and often followed by a drinks reception, buffet or dinner again for invited guests.

Tea and cakes... I love being English.

Martin spoke brilliantly on how Antarctica is changing to an audience of about 150 people. For a crash course in "where we are now" I would say it is a must watch.

...continue reading

The ice fish rediscovered by Doll
Mangé par le chat de l'équipage de la Terror

The cod icefish re-discovered and published in 1904 by Louis Dollo. The original caption says “Mangé par le chat de l'équipage de la Terror” or “Eaten by the Terror’s cat"!

The famous polar ships HMS Erebus and HMS terror had been in the ice long before Franklin took them to their doom in the Northwest Passage. James Clark Ross took them to the Antarctic from 1839-43 on a hugely successful voyage to find the South Magnetic Pole. Ross filled in many blanks on the map and discovered and named many places including Ross Island and Mount Erebus - one of the most spectacular volcanoes yet discovered.

Ross also took civilian experts to describe and write about their discoveries. These civilians produced vast scientific volumes to record their results.

...continue reading


This plot shows the Antarctic sea ice extent, the Arctic sea ice extent, and the total sea ice extent plotted against time.

Arctic, Antarctic and total sea ice extent 2012

Like in previous post I chose 2012 only because it is the most recent complete year in this data set.

Take a look at the minimum, the maximum and the range of the sea ice extent.

Antarctic: Minimum Antarctic sea ice extent 3.11 x 106 km2
Maximum Antarctic sea ice extent 19.48 x 106 km2
Range of the Antarctic sea ice extent 16.37 x 106 km2
Arctic: Minimum Arctic sea ice extent 3.37 x 106 km2
Maximum Arctic sea ice extent 15.25 x 106 km2
Range of the Arctic sea ice extent 11.88 x 106 km2

The range of Antarctic sea ice extent is 16.37 x 106 km2, and the range of the Arctic sea ice extent is 11.88 x 106 km2.

The Antarctic and the Arctic do not "balance" in sea ice extent - the Antarctic variations are much larger.

Look at the shape of the annual cycle. I said previously that in the Antarctic the seasonal cycle of sea ice extent is not symmetrical. Sea ice grows slowly and steadily before decaying relatively rapidly: the melt period is shorter than the growth period.

In the Arctic the time sea ice grows is roughly similar to the time sea ice melts.

So they do not "balance". The seasonal cycles, ranges, minimums and maximums are  different,

The annual cycle of the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice extent is very different.

We know that the extent and thickness of the Arctic sea ice is decreasing. See for example what Tamino wrote in Feb 2014.

But what about the Antarctic? The extent of the sea ice has broken records for the satellite era. (This is a very funny article making some claims about what that means - if you want a clue what is the difference between glacial ice and frozen sea water?).

Some believe the observed reduction in the Arctic sea ice volume is balanced by the increase in the Antarctic sea ice extent. So we should look at the black line in the plot above.

I will get onto why I don't think that is a good idea in a coming post.

Here is the plot animated with 1 second = 10 days

 About the data

The data set is from the National Snow and Ice Data Center Sea Ice Concentrations from Nimbus-7 SMMR and DMSP SSM/I-SSMIS Passive Microwave Data.



This is the 2012 sea ice extent for both the Arctic and the Antarctic. The day of year and the calendar day are at the bottom.

I chose 2012 only because it is the most recent complete year in this data set.

My reason for making this video is because there have been a couple of huge news stories recently about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet:

On 12 May 2014 we heard that for all intents and purposes the West Antarctic Ice sheet is doomed (here is the primary research which is open access).

Then on 19 May 2014 we were told that Cryosat observations had shown that the loss of ice from Antarctica had increased quite a lot (here is the primary research).

For excellent commentary on these stories you can visit Carbon Brief, or Antarctic glaciers.org.

But whenever there is a big story about the decay of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet - which remember is land based glacial ice, some instantly point to this being not important because sea ice in Antarctica has been at record levels.

People who suggest that the observed decrease in glacial ice is somehow balanced by the observed increase in Antarctic sea ice extent are wrong. The sea ice is generally only a couple of metres thick and it is telling us quite a different climate story.

Over the next few posts I will try and explain why the decrease of Arctic sea ice is not balanced by an increase in Antarctic sea ice extent, and why there is no contradiction in glacial ice at the edge of the Antarctic continent decaying whilst simultaneously the sea ice is  at record extent.


[If anyone want the clip, also the Arctic and Antarctic as separate files in various large sizes and formats just send me an email at my work address - you will find a link on the "About me" page. And I will send you a dropbox link. I am a big fan of Creative Commons and Open Educational Resources. ]


The data is from the US Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), and the data is freely accessible from the National Snow and Ice data Centre.


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In 2012 I put together a storify using twitter and weblinks about the  Greenland Surface Melt. In that story a bunch of climate scientists and I talked about whether the extreme melt seen in  2012 was a signature of global warming.

Greenland melt on the BBC
The original BBC Greenland Melting story

An Open Access paper by Sirpa Häkkinen and others Greenland ice sheet melt from MODIS and associated atmospheric variability, published on 10 March 2014, explains how it happened.

Häkkinen et al., 2014 Greenland ice sheet melt from MODIS and associated atmospheric variability
Häkkinen et al., 2014 Greenland ice sheet melt from MODIS and associated atmospheric variability

It is a clear and well written paper that shows using MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) data from satellites that you need two things for a serious surface melt event: atmospheric blocking (which allows warm air from the south to go over Greenland) + warm surface temperatures.

The event in 2012 had both of those conditions whereas 2013 did not. The difference is striking in their Figure 1.

Häkkinen et al., 2014 Fig 1
Figure 1 From Häkkinen et al., 2014. Extent of melt on the Greenland ice sheet for (a) 1 January to 31 December 2012 (days 1–366) and (b) 1 January to 30 August 2013 (days 1–243) as determined from MODIS-derived melt maps. A maximum of ~95% of the ice sheet surface (shaded red) experienced some melt in 2012 and only ~49% of the ice sheet surface experienced some melt in 2013. White represents no melting (according to MODIS), and green represent non-ice covered land areas. The location of Summit, mentioned in the text, is shown. Elevation contours are shown at 1500, 2000, 2500, and 3000 m.

Their data set allows them to go back to 2000 and construct annual time series.

And just like Dr Ruth Mottram said in my original storify,

Ruth Mottram Tweet
Tweet used in original storify.

They find all of the features Ruth pointed out (shown in their Figure 4).

They say,

"that June-July 2007 had the most blocking days but did not have the largest melt, although 2007 has been identified as a large melt year in a seasonal sense"

The reason it did not have as much surface melt as 2012 is because the air temperatures brought over the ice sheet by the atmospheric blocking "barely reached 1.5 SDs [above the summer average temperature]". (SDs means standard deviations - basically a measure of how variable the temperature is about the mean.)

In 2012 the atmospheric blocking brought in "a  long-lasting anomaly of 2–2.5 SDs [above the summer average temperature]". This is a bit bland but 2.5 SD's in this data set corresponds to temperatures ~6°C or greater above the summer average on the surface of Greenland. That is why the melt in 2012 was so large.

Häkkinen et al. (2014) make no comment in the paper about the future, or the impact of anthropogenic climate change on such events over Greenland. Looking at various assessments of the scientific literature (e.g the Arctic Report Card) we may draw our own conclusions about whether to expect more of these melting events.

I am working on a polar oceanographic problem at the moment, but the beauty of physics is the principles are universal. That means you can end up reading widely. I came across a very interesting paper (to me):

Gaining insight into Clipperton's lagoon hydrology using tritium
2009 paper in Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science

Through the joys of open access a PDF of the paper is available on the Ifremer Archimer institutional repository.

Whilst reading the paper I quickly skimmed over the PDF to see if I was on the right track for what I was interested in. It looked good so I went back to the beginning and starting reading in more detail.

Introduction paragraph 1:

"Clipperton island got the reputation of being one of the most obscure, isolated and unpleasant places on earth"

I thought "eh?" I like a bit of unpleasantness but...

So I read on...  The paragraph gives a quick history of the occupation of Clipperton Island. It was first occupied as part of the phosphate mining industry. But it doesn't have a happy history.

"In this tiny tropical hell, many became desperate to leave, convinced that the island was driving them mad. During World War I, the islanders were cut off from the mainland and died little by little from scurvy and malnutrition. The survivors, a handful of women and children, became ruled by a madman (the light keeper) who proclaimed himself “King of Clipperton”, raping whomever he wanted and murdering any who resisted. Eventually, the women killed him, putting his reign of terror to an end. By July 1917, three women and eight children were the only ones alive and were picked up by the USS “Yorktown”. Its last permanent occupation was in 1944/45 when President Roosevelt ordered the US Navy to seize the atoll. Soon after World War II ended and the atoll was abandoned"

Philippe et al 2009.

Scurvy, malnutrition, rape and murder. I don't come across that sort of thing very often in the area of oceanography I research.

Clipperton Island is about 580 nautical miles off the coast of Mexico.

There is a very good Wikipedia page on Clipperton Island. This is quite surprising given that the atoll is only 6 km2 with a maximum elevation of 29m. It seems to be pretty regularly visited by members of the amateur radio community, and there was a private expedition there in 2013.

If you are interested in the Law of the Sea it seems that in December 2010 the French claimed an exclusive economic zone around the island under the provisions of the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).

That would mean this 6 km2 atoll has given the French a territorial claim of 1.52 × 109 km2 of sea bed in the pacific and the ownership of the resources there.

Not bad for a place that can barely sustain human habitation.

And the stuff in the paper about tritium was pretty good as well.


I keep seeing a map of Antarctica with an overlaid outline of the United States. I thought it would be helpful to have a picture of the continent compared with the size of Europe.

Antarctica and Europe
Antarctica compared with the size of Europe

This is a picture from a book I wrote half of and edited a long time ago.

It always struck me as strange that Antarctica being the "coldest and windiest place" is constantly recycled. The picture shows it is a huge place and it does not have one single climate.

On the Antarctic Peninsula it is relatively mild. It's even referred to sometimes as being the "banana belt". But away from the heat of the ocean, and high on the plateau it is without doubt cold almost beyond comprehension.

But one thing is for sure: there is no representative Antarctic climate.


Sea Ice Research
Working on the sea ice of the Bellingshausen Sea

Whilst wandering around various old textbooks I came across a wonderful quote:

Polar ice cannot be studied as other branches of science, philosophy, medicine or law are studied. The study of sea ice belongs among the most exhausting disciplines which have to be studied on the spot, in loco status nascendi et vitae, and which require strong men, absolutely sound in mind and body, courageous, willing and fit to renounce all comfort, thoroughly prepared both in theory for the work and ready to face all the hardships that may come like a bolt from the blue and in the most unfavourable moments. The sea-ice has to be studied far away, in the north or south, in white deserts of ice, where there is nothing, nothing else, no shelter no help; and where, on those vast plains in which the chasms of the sea keep tearing open and unsurmountable obstacles in the shape of mountains of ice keep piling up, the Lord only is with man.

and as long as man will listen to the roar of the waves above the depth of the the sea, as long as the human eye will follow the play of the northern light on the silent snowy landscapes, and far away in infinite space, and so long as it will look out for the celestial bodies far away in infinite space, so long the romance of the Unknown will lead the human genius forward and upward!” (Nansen, Nebelheim.)

It is a quote from the beginning of Cryologia Maris by Josef Zukriegel, which was published in 1935 by the Geographical Institute of the Charles IV. University.

All of what Zukriegel says is all true of course - except naturally lots of women do sea ice research as well. In fact if you look at the latest AR5 IPCC report, and chapter 4 which is on the cryosphere, you will see many brilliant women polar scientists in the reference list.

Josef is a bit hard to track down for a Brit, but he does have an island named after him in Antarctica. If you look at the extremely useful gazetteer of the UK Antarctic Place names committee you can see it is actually in quite a hard place to get too.

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