Kokanee Glacier Beer and the 1962 “Bomb Horizon”

Posted by William Colgan on August 28, 2015
Cold War Science, Glaciers and Society / No Comments

Dear Kokanee Beer,

I was delighted to hear that, in celebration of Kokanee’s founding in 1962, you’ve decided to sponsor some glaciology research in exchange for the recovery of five liters of glacier ice from 1962. It just so happens that 1962 is also an auspicious year for glaciologists. We glaciologists know 1962 as the “bomb horizon”, due to a worldwide peak in the atmospheric deposition rates of radionuclides derived from thermal weapons testing. Tsar Bomba, the largest thermal-nuclear weapon ever tested, with a yield of over 50 MT, had just been detonated the previous fall (30 October 1961). The USSR conducted about 40 thermal-nuclear weapons tests in 1962, and the US conducted closer to 100! After each test, the radionuclide fallout drifted around the atmosphere for a few weeks before raining down on the landscape, glaciers included.

Fortunately for us glaciologists, the glaciers proved to be really effective in retaining those radionuclides under subsequent snowfall. These days, we can just drill a deep hole in a glacier, lower down a gamma spectrometer, find the peak in radioactivity, and get a quick estimate of the 1962 depth. As you can see from the attached graph of radioactive 137Cs decay with depth, the present-day radioactivity of the 1962 “bomb horizon” is about equivalent to the background radioactivity found today at the glacier surface. So, 1962 melted glacier water is definitely not worse to drink than 2015 melted glacier water, I was just thinking that instead of calling your beer Deja Brew, maybe you should perhaps consider Thermonuclear Haze or even Cesium Peak to really give a fair nod to your 1962 glacier roots?

Yours truly,

William Colgan, Ph.D.


Figure 1 – Annual count of world wide thermo-nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 2013. By far, 1962 was the peak in number of weapons tested. (from Wikipedia)


Figure 2 – Profile of radioactive cesium (137Cs) with depth, as well as control profile from a  cadmium (109Cd) source located on the detector, recovered from the Devon Ice Cap in the Canadian Arctic in 2005. The arrow points to the apparent 1962 “bomb horizon”. We talk about using this independent dating technique for ice cores in Colgan and Sharp (2008).

Colgan, W. and M. Sharp. 2008. Combined oceanic and atmospheric influences on net accumulation on Devon Ice Cap, Nunavut, Canada. Journal of Glaciology. 54: 28-40.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Vanishing Canada: Group of Seven Landscapes Under Climate Change

Posted by William Colgan on July 31, 2015
Climate Change, Communicating Science / 3 Comments

In collaboration with Virginia Eichhorn of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery, I am hoping to get a very interdisciplinary arts and sciences project underway that looks at the impact of recent and projected climate change on the Canadian landscapes painted by the Group of Seven. The exceptionally vivid expressionist landscape scenes painted by the Group of Seven between 1920 and 1935 have become Canadian cultural icons. The temperature and precipitation trends associated with climate change, however, are changing these landscapes, most visibly through changes in vegetation, snow and glacier extent, lake or sea ice extent, and flood or drought frequency (Figure 1). We intend to reframe Group of Seven paintings as unique time capsules of a vanishing Canada, rather than portraits of an intransient Canada.


Figure 1 – Highly visible landscape change at Mount Robson due to air temperature change. Red shading denotes glacier area change since Lawren Harris originally painted this scene c. 1930.

To do this, we are seeking to dispatch contemporary emerging artists across Canada, to landscapes featured in Group of Seven works, to re-paint impressions of these landscapes under one of three IPCC Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs). These RCPS, ranging from RCP 4.5 to RCP 8.5, essentially range from “optimistic” to “pessimistic” CO2emissions reductions scenarios. For example, RCP 4.5 simulates 4.5 W/m2 increased radiative forcing in year 2100 relative to year 1850, while RCP 8.5 simulates 8.5 W/m2, or almost twice as much, anomalous radiative forcing associated with well-mixed greenhouse gases from anthropogenic sources.


Figure 2 – Envisioning a landscape in 2100 under three IPCC scenarios that vary from the “optimism” of RCP 4.5 to the “pessimism” of RCP 8.5. Byng Inlet was originally painted by Tom Thomson c. 1920.

We are ultimately aiming for a cross-disciplinary arts and sciences exhibition that will place specific Group of Seven landscapes, and more broadly Canada’s landscape, in the context of ongoing climate change in a highly visual fashion. Inspired by ArtTracks150, we are hoping that Canada’s 150th birthday (July 2017) may provide a natural window of increased public awareness of centurial time-scales, during which we might briefly focus public attention on the multi-generational implications of climate change on the Canadian landscape. Virginia and I welcome you to contact us for more information on, and ways to get involved with, this project.

Tags: , , , , ,

Artificial Glacier Surges at Kumtor Mine

Posted by William Colgan on July 27, 2015
Applied Glaciology, New Research / No Comments

Jamieson and colleagues published a very neat investigation of the applied glaciology challenges at Kumtor Mine, Kyrgyzstan, this week in the AGU Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface (open access here). The recovery of subglacial gold deposits at Kumtor Mine has necessitated the excavation of an open ice pit into the Lysii and Davidov Glaciers. In addition to excavating glacier overburden, a major geotechnical challenge at Kumtor Mine has been managing the flow of both glaciers. In their study, Jamieson et al. (2015) use a comprehensive set of high resolution satellite images to document recent artificial surges induced in both these glaciers in response to mining activities. Photos released by Radio Free Europe in 2013 suggest that these artificial surges quite adversely impacted mining operations (Figure 1).


Figure 1 – Infrastructure damage resulting from what is now a confirmed glacier advance at the Kumtor Mine in Kyrgyzstan (originally discussed in this earlier post)

The dumping of waste rock on both glaciers, in which waste rock piles reached up to 180 m thick, substantially increased the driving stress of the ice beneath. Given that ice deformation is related to driving stress to an exponent of three, and potentially higher exponents at higher driving stresses, this resulted in a significant increase in ice velocity. Jamieson et al. (2015) estimate that surface velocities of the Davidov Glacier increased from a few meters per year to several hundred meters per year within a decade. During this time, the Lysii and Davidov Glaciers advanced by 1.2 and 3.2 km, respectively, with Davidov Glacier terminus advance reaching 350 meters per year in c. 2012 (Figure “7”).


This study is probably the most textbook-comprehensive documentation of a human-induced artificial glacier surge to date, and will provide a great resource for my students to debate the sometimes fine line between geotechnical misstep and natural hazard!


(Jamieson, S., M. Ewertowski and D. Evans. 2015. Rapid advance of two mountain glaciers in response to mine-related debris loading. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface. 120: doi:10.1002/2015JF003504.

Tags: , , , , ,

Greenland Ice Sheet “Thermal-Viscous Collapse”

Posted by William Colgan on July 17, 2015
Climate Change, New Research / No Comments

We have a new study in the AGU open access journal Earth’s Future this month, which introduces the notion of thermal-viscous collapse of the Greenland ice sheet1. While people tend to think of ice as a solid, it is actually a non-Newtonian fluid, because it deforms and flows over longer time-scales. Of the many strange material properties of ice, the non-linear temperature dependence of its viscosity is especially notable; ice at 0 °C deforms almost ten times more than ice at -10 °C at the same stress. This temperature-dependent viscosity makes ice flow very sensitive to ice temperature. We know that the extra meltwater now being produced at the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, relative to 50 or 100 years ago, contains tremendous latent heat energy. So, in the study, we set out to see if the latent heat in future extra meltwater might have a significant impact on future ice sheet form and flow.

We first developed a conceptual model of what we called “thermal-viscous collapse”, which we define as the enhanced ice flow resulting from warming ice temperatures and subsequently softer ice viscosities. We decided there were three key processes necessary for initiating a thermal-viscous collapse: (1) sufficient energy available in future meltwater runoff, (2) routing of that extra meltwater to the ice-bed interface, and (3) efficient transfer of latent energy from meltwater to the ice. Drawing on previous model projections and observational process studies, and admittedly an injection of explicit speculation, we concluded that it is plausible to warm the deepest 15 % of the Greenland ice sheet, where the majority of deformation occurs, from characteristic Holocene temperatures to the melting-point in the next four centuries.


Figure 1 – Three key elements of thermal-viscous Greenland ice sheet collapse: (1) Sufficient energy available in projected Greenland meltwater runoff, (2) Routing of a fraction of meltwater to the interior ice-bed interface, and (3) Efficient energy transfer from meltwater to ice. This cross-sectional profile reflects mean observed Greenland ice surface and bedrock elevations between 74.1 and 76.4°N. Dashed lines illustrate stylized marine and land glacier termini.

We then used a simple (first-order Navier-Stokes) model of ice flow to simulate the effect of this warming and softening on the ice sheet over the next five centuries. We used a Monte Carlo approach, whereby we ran fifty simulations in which multiple key parameters were varied within their associated uncertainty. As may be expected, warming the deepest 15 % of the ice sheet by 8.8 °C, from characteristic Holocene temperatures to the melting-point, had a significant influence on ice sheet form and flow. Due to softer ice viscosities, the mean ice sheet surface velocity increased three fold, from 43 ± 4 m/yr to 126 ± 17 m/yr, resulting in an ice dynamic drawdown of the ice sheet, causing a 5 ± 2 % ice sheet volume reduction within 500 years. This is equivalent to a global mean sea-level rise contribution of 33 ± 18 cm (or just over one US foot). Of course, the vast majority of the sea level rise associated with thermal-viscous collapse would occur over subsequent millennia.


Figure 2 – Probability density time series of ensemble spread of 50 simulations in prescribed ice temperature (a), mean surface ice velocity (b), and ice volume (c), over a 200-year spin-up to transient equilibrium, and the subsequent 500-year combined transient forcing and spin-down period.

Perhaps a caveat or two: Just like simulating a marine instability induced collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, our simulation of a thermal-viscous collapse of the Greenland ice sheet is an entirely hypothetical end-member scenario. It is admittedly difficult to interpret end-member assessments when their probability of occurrence is unknown. In our case, we did not attempt to constrain the probability of a thermal-viscous collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, we merely demonstrated that initiating a thermal-viscous collapse appears plausible within four centuries, and assessed the associated sea-level rise contribution. Additionally, it may be debatable whether the combination of crevasses and reverse drainage can indeed route meltwater throughout the ice sheet interior, but I suppose that is a debate worth having!


1Colgan, W., A. Sommers, H. Rajaram, W. Abdalati, and J. Frahm. 2015. Considering thermal-viscous collapse of the Greenland ice sheet. Earth’s Future. 3. doi:10.1002/2015EF000301.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Hybrid Gravimetry and Altimetry Mass Balance

Posted by William Colgan on July 07, 2015
Communicating Science, New Research, Sea Level Rise / No Comments

We have a new study in this month’s Remote Sensing of Environment, which examines satellite-derived glacier mass balance in Greenland and the Canadian Arctic1. Satellites are generally used to assess glacier mass balance through changes in volume (via satellite altimetry) or changes in mass (via satellite gravimetry). While satellite altimetry observes volume changes at relatively high spatial resolution, it necessitates the forward modeling of firn processes to convert volume changes into mass changes. Conversely, the cryosphere-attributed mass changes observed by satellite gravimetry, while very accurate in absolute terms, have relatively low spatial resolution. In this study, we sought to combine the complementary strengths of both approaches. Using an iterative inversion process that was essentially sequential guess-and-check with a supercomputer, we refined gravimetry-derived observations of cryosphere-attributed mass changes to the relatively high spatial resolution of altimetry-derived volume changes. This gave us a 26 km spatial resolution mass balance field across Greenland and the Canadian Arctic that was simultaneously consistent with: (1) glacier and ice-sheet extent derived from optical imagery, (2) cryospheric-attributed mass trends derived from gravimetry, and (3) ice surface elevation changes derived from altimetry. We have made digital versions of this product available in the supplementary material associated with the publication.


Figure 1 – Observational data inputs to our inversion algorithm. A: Cryosphere-attributed mass changes observed by gravimetry. B: Land ice extent observed by optical imagery. C: Ice surface elevation changes observed by altimetry.

To make sure our inferred mass balance field was reasonable, we evaluated it against all in situ point mass balance observations we could find. Statistically, the validation was great, yielding an RMSE of 15 cm/a between the inversion product and in situ measurements. Practically, however, this apparent agreement largely stems from the fact that we could only find forty in situ point mass balance observations against which to compare. Evaluating our area-aggregated sector-scale mass balance estimates against all previously published sector-scale estimates provides a more meaningful validation. This suggests the magnitude and spatial distribution of inferred mass balance is reasonable, but highlights that the community needs more in situ point observations of mass balance, especially from peripheral glaciers and regions of high dynamic drawdown in Greenland. (For the glaciology hardcores I will note that “mass balance” is distinct from “surface mass balance”, in that the former measurement also includes the ice dynamic portion of mass change.)


Figure 2 – A comparison of similar sector scale mass balance estimates and associated uncertainties across Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. Dashed lines denote estimates that pertain to the Greenland ice sheet proper (i.e. exclusive of peripheral glaciers). Jacob et al. (2012) estimates pertain to Canada, while Sasgen et al. (2012) estimates pertain to Greenland.

This new inversion mass balance product, which we are calling “HIGA” (Hybrid glacier Inventory, Gravimetry and Altimetry), suggests that between 2003 to 2009 Greenland lost 292 ± 78 Gt/yr of ice and the Canadian Arctic lost  42 ± 11 Gt/yr of ice. While the majority of Greenland’s ice loss was associated with the ice sheet proper (212 ± 67 Gt/yr), peripheral glaciers and ice caps, which comprise < 5 % of Greenland’s ice-covered area, produced ~ 15 % of Greenland mass loss (38 ± 11 Gt/yr). A good reminder that ice loss from “Greenland” is not synonymous with ice loss from the “Greenland ice sheet”. Differencing our tri-constrained mass balance product from a simulated surface mass balance field allowed us to assess the ice dynamic component of mass balance (technically termed the “horizontal divergence of ice flux”). This residual ice dynamic field infers flux divergence (or submergent ice flow) in the ice sheet accumulation area and at tidewater margins, and flux convergence (or emergent ice flow) in land-terminating ablation areas. This is consistent with continuum mechanics theory, and really highlights the difference in ice dynamics between the ice sheet’s east and west margins.


Figure 3 – Spatially partitioning the glacier continuity equation in surface and ice dynamic components. A: Transient glacier and ice sheet mass balance. B: Simulated surface mass balance. C: Residual ice dynamic (or horizontal divergence of ice flux) term. The ∇Q color scale is reversed to maintain blue shading for mass gain and red shading for mass loss in all subplots. Color scales saturate at minimum and maximum values. Black contours denote zero.

As with some scientific publications, this one has a bit of a backstory. In this case, we submitted a preliminary version of the study to The Cryosphere in December 2013. After undergoing three rounds of review at The Cryosphere, the first one of which is archived in perpetuity here, it was rejected, primarily for insufficient treatment of the uncertainty associated with firn compaction. Coincidentally, on the same day I received The Cryosphere rejection letter, I received a letter from the European Space Agency (ESA) granting funding for a follow-up study. A mixed day on email indeed! After substantial retooling, including a discussion section dedicated to firn compaction and the most conservative error bounds conceivable, we were happy to see this GRACE-ICESat study funded by NASA and the Danish Council for Independent Research appear in Remote Sensing of Environment. The editors at both journals, however, were very helpful in moving us forward. Our ESA-funded GRACE-CryoSat product development is now ongoing, but a sneak peek is below.


Figure 4 – Same as Figure 3, except using a 5 km resolution GRACE-CryoSat inversion product instead of a 26 km resolution GRACE-ICESat inversion product. Colorbars are different in shading, but identical in magnitude.


1W. Colgan, W. Abdalati, M. Citterio, B. Csatho, X. Fettweis, S. Luthcke, G. Moholdt, S. Simonsen, M. Stober. 2015. Hybrid glacier Inventory, Gravimetry and Altimetry (HIGA) mass balance product for Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. Remote Sensing of Environment. 168: 24-39.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Glacier Crevasses: Searching for Curious Factoids

Posted by William Colgan on June 01, 2015
Glaciology History / 1 Comment

Along with some co-authors, with whom I am preparing a review paper about glacier crevasses, I am currently searching for a citation for the “deepest air-filled crevasse depth” measured to date. Although there seems to be some anecdotal assertions of 50 m deep crevasses in popular literature, presently, the deepest measured air-filled crevasse depth we have come across in the peer-reviewed literature is a third-hand account of a crevasse rescue in Palmer Land, Antarctica, in 1947, where crevasse depth is noted as “110 feet” (or 34 m). The rescue, one of many briefly recounted in Schuster and Rigsby (1954), reads:


One of many crevasse rescues recounted in Schuster and Rigsby (1954).

We presume that someone, somewhere, must have measured a deeper air-filled crevasse depth. I should note, we are aware that deeper crevasse depths have been inferred (rather than actually measured). For example, Hambrey (1976) suggests that the advection of crevasse traces c. 40 years down-glacier from their crevasse field of origin, where surface ablation averages c. 2 m/a, would infer that the fracture tips of crevasses reach c. 80 m depth within the crevasse field. Mottram and Benn (2009) recount the obvious challenge in accurately measuring the depth of an almost infinitely tapering fracture! For the purpose of our review paper, we are most interested in bona fide measurements, such as those made by either ranging devices or rappelling personnel, rather than someone just looking into the abyss and estimating “about X m deep”.

We are quite eager to see if anyone can point us in the direction of a deeper air-filled crevasse measurement. Naturally, we would also welcome (and duly attribute!) any other curious crevasse factoids or photographs that might be suitable for spicing up our meandering tour through the past seventy years of glacier crevasse literature. For example, we think we have identified the widest documented regularly spaced crevasse (air-gap width of 33 m!), which was observed in 1955 by Meier et al. (1957) at Blue Ice Valley, Greenland. We must admit, however, that we do most of our learning in the peer-reviewed literature, so we suspect that more adventurous souls (who might actually do some learning in crevasses!) may possess some alternate knowledge!


Thanks to some graphic assistance from Cheryl McCutchan (animediascience.com), we can merge strain rate and surface morphology maps in older studies, like this depiction of a 33 m wide crevasse at Blue Ice Valley, Northwest Greenland, from Meier et al. (1957).

Hambrey, M. 1976. Structure of the glacier Charles Rabots Bre, Norway. Geological Society of America Bulletin. 87: 1629-1637.

Meier, M., J. Conel, J. Hoerni, W. Melbourne, C. Pings and P. Walker. 1957. Preliminary Study of Crevasse Formation: Blue Ice Valley, Greenland, 1955. Snow, Ice and Permafrost Research Establishment. Report 38.

Mottram, R. and D. Benn. 2009. Testing crevasse-depth models: a field study at Breiðamerkurjokull, Iceland. Journal of Glaciology. 55: 746-752.

Schuster, R. and G. Rigsby. 1954. Preliminary Report on Crevasses. Snow, Ice and Permafrost Research Establishment. Special Report 11.

Twitter: @GlacierBytes

Tags: , , , , ,

New Estimate of Ice Sheet Runoff at Isua Site

Posted by William Colgan on April 14, 2015
Applied Glaciology, New Research / No Comments

My colleague Lukas Arenson and I have a paper in the Proceedings of Mine Water Solutions in Extreme Environments this month, which uses the Isua site in Southwest Greenland as a case study for extreme runoff in proglacial environments (Arenson and Colgan, 2015). The recently approved Isua mine will be an open pit mine intersecting the ice sheet, with ice pit walls around about half the pit, to access what is presently a subglacial iron deposit (site overview here). Using a Monte Carlo approach, we estimate a 95 % (or two sigma) upper confidence limit of 2.8·109 L/day of ice sheet runoff potentially reaching the Isua site in July and August. While this potential inflow rate, equivalent to 44 t/s, is relatively large in the context of conventional mine water management, it is relatively small in the context of contemporary Greenland ice loss due to climate change, which is approximately 8,300 t/s when averaged over a year (Andersen et al., 2015).


Minimum and maximum plausible supraglacial ice sheet catchments associated with the Isua site. Shading denotes mean annual meltwater runoff over the 2004 to 2013. Background image source is Landsat 8 (source: Arenson and Colgan, 2015).

To place our estimate in context, London Mining Plc, the initial developer of the Isua site, presented a pre-feasibility study water balance in which ice sheet runoff into the pit was estimated as 7.8·106 m3/year (London Mining, 2011). Assuming a 60-day melt season, this is equivalent to an average site inflow of 1.3·108 L/day. Our estimate is therefore 22 times greater than the design estimate. There are many potential sources of uncertainty when assessing ice sheet runoff, including model uncertainty and climatic variability, but by far the biggest source of uncertainty is delineating the ice sheet catchment draining to a specific portion of the ice sheet margin. Regardless of whether 108 or 109 L/day of meltwater is flowing into the Isua site, it will certainly be a challenging operating environment, and will require some very adaptive engineering to minimize site contact water!


Proponent water budget for the Isua Mine (source: London Mining, 2011).

Isua_2011 173

Oblique aerial photograph looking west from the Greenland ice sheet across the Isua site in 2011. Deeply incised supraglacial meltwater channels are visible draining towards the margin. (source: Lukas Arenson)


Andersen et al., 2015. Basin-scale partitioning of Greenland ice sheet mass balance components (2007–2011). Earth and Planetary Science Letters 409: 89-95.

Arenson and Colgan. 2015. Water management challenges associated with mining projects in Greenland. Proceedings of Mine Water Solutions in Extreme Environments. 533-543.

London Mining PLC. 2011. Isua iron ore project: Isua 15 Mtpa scoping study report.

Tags: , , , , ,

Greenland Piteraqs and Expedition Insurance

Posted by William Colgan on April 07, 2015
Commentary, Communicating Science / 1 Comment

As the 2015 Greenland expedition season gets underway, I want to comment on the insurance overlap between research and sport expeditions on the ice sheet.

Greenland can be a very windy place. The world’s fourth fastest observed wind speed, 333 km/h, was clocked at Thule, Northwest Greenland, in a March 1972 storm1. The “piteraq” (or “ambush”) wind is an especially strong type of wind, unique to Greenland, which occurs when katabatic winds align with the regional geostrophic wind field. During piteraq events, relatively cold and dense air not only flows down from the top of the ice sheet under gravity, but is also sucked down by low atmospheric pressure at the coast2. Piteraqs are strongest around the ice sheet periphery, especially in Southeast Greenland, adjacent to the Icelandic Low.

In April 2013, a few colleagues and I were doing fieldwork on the ice sheet at KAN_U in Southwest Greenland, when a piteraq struck Southeast Greenland. Our TAS_U weather station there recorded sustained winds of just over 150 km/hr during the piteraq3. Since 2007, TAS_U has recorded a number of piteraqs, some have even been strong enough to knock over or damage the station. The April 2013 event, which left the TAS_U station standing, would probably not have been noteworthy if it had not claimed the life of Philip Goodeve-Docker, who was just two days into a three-man sport expedition to cross the ice sheet from Isortoq to Kangerlussuaq4.


Mean hourly wind speeds at KAN_U and TAS_U weather stations during the April 2013 piteraq event. Inset: Locations of KAN and TAS transects, as well as other transects, in South Greenland. (source: van As et al., 2014)

The number of annually permitted Greenland sport expeditions is perhaps surprisingly high. An information request to Greenland Government by my colleague, Dirk van As, found that, during the 2010 to 2012 seasons, approximately 78 teams annually undertook sport expeditions in Greenland (including coastal kayaking), of which approximately 24 teams per year were dedicated ice sheet crossings5. Assuming a sport expedition team size of four people, that is approximately 100 individuals per year crossing the ice sheet, mostly along the 67th parallel (the “Isortoq-Kangerlussuaq highway”). All of these sport individuals are obliged to purchase search and rescue (SAR) insurance. While some nationally-funded research expeditions (basically just Danish and American) are permitted to “self-insure”, all other research expeditions have to buy into the same SAR insurance. Occasionally, and strictly speaking, even just specific members of a research expedition, such as persons not employed within the sponsoring nation, may be obliged to purchase their own SAR.


Map of permitted and non-permitted expedition areas in Greenland, as well as the approximate location of the Isortoq-Kangerlussuaq sport route. (source: Greenland Government)

In 2011, I received a SAR quote of 6200 DKK (900 USD) to cover a non-Danish member of a Danish expedition for just eight days. I shudder to think what some colleagues must pay to insure a six person research expedition for a month. At the time, the round-trip helicopter flight to our ice sheet site cost only about ten times our quote premium, meaning that in a zero profit world the underwriters would be recusing approximately 10 % of policyholders. Turns out, that is not far off the truth for sport expeditions. Of the 234 sport expeditions initiated in Greenland between 2010 and 2012, sixteen ended in emergency evacuation5. That is 7 % of all Greenland sport expeditions. The ice sheet teams were evidently better prepared with a lower, but still non-trivial, evacuation rate of 3 %.


As Greenland SAR insurance treats research and sport expeditions as functionally equivalent, both are technically required to bring more daily calories than even an Olympic swimmer might consume. The above 6.6a clause obliges a 21 day expedition to bring the equivalent of 30 kg of peanut butter per person. (source: Insurance for journeys and expeditions in Greenland policy drawn up in cooperation with the Danish Polar Center conditions no. 101B)

For insurance purposes, both sport and research expeditions are effectively regarded as having the same safety margin. In fact, research expeditions, often delivered by aircraft with >1000 kg of cargo per person, have an inherently higher safety margin than skiers pulling a <200 kg sled. I would love to have the comparable evacuation statistic for research expeditions. We have such an information request pending with Greenland Government, but I will go out on a limb and guess that the research expedition evacuation rate is not nil, but an order of magnitude lower than the sport expedition evacuation. This asymmetry in evacuation risk means that when predominately publicly-funded research expeditions buy SAR insurance, they are effectively subsidizing the SAR costs of predominately privately-funded sport expeditions. To make an analogy, auto insurance rates usually vary between motorcycles and mini-vans. In lieu of different insurance premiums for research and sport expeditions, perhaps the safety of sport expeditions could at least be further optimized by drawing on ice sheet research. (Not forgetting that reducing SAR calls is not just about cost, but also about the preservation of life!)


Vastly differing resource levels: Our 2013 research expedition being delivered by LC-130 with two of three pallets (left: Charalampos (Babis) Charalampidis) and a 2008 sport expedition arriving at our West Greenland campsite (right).

This brings us back to piteraqs, which should probably rank at the top of sport expedition hazards, above the more often cited trio of “cold, crevasses and polar bears”. For example, if research suggests that the ice sheet flank is windier in the Southeast than the Southwest, east to west crossings (Isortoq to Kangerlussuaq) would appear to provide sport teams more ample opportunity to wait for an appropriate weather window before setting upon the relatively piteraq prone Southeast flank. Right now, however, the majority of crossings (61 %) are in the opposite direction (west to east), with sport teams arriving in “piteraq alley” with no possibility for retreat5. Danish Meteorological Institute forecasts already include piteraq warnings for Greenland coastal towns. But while research has made piteraqs eminently predictable from 48 hours away, the Goodeve-Docker expedition was jeopardized within 48 hours of departing Isortoq. Evidently, more applied publications and outreach, to better communicate such research insight directly to teams, is needed.

So, those are some thoughts on how sport and research expeditions are linked by common SAR insurance, perhaps arguably to the detriment of research expeditions, and how the piteraq hazard might be mitigated for sport expeditions. Unfortunately, regional climate model simulations suggest that wind speeds around the ice sheet periphery will increase under climate change6, meaning that there will likely be more piteraqs in everyone’s future.

I should probably make explicitly clear that these are my own thoughts, and not those of my employing institution.

1Stansfield, J. 1972. The severe Arctic storm of 8–9 March 1972 at Thule
Air Force Base, Greenland. Weatherwise. 25: 228–233.

2Oltmanns, M., et al. 2014. Strong Downslope Wind Events in Ammassalik, Southeast Greenland. Journal of Climate. 27: 977–993.

3van As, D., et al. 2014. Katabatic winds and piteraq storms: observations from the Greenland ice sheet. Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland Bulletin. 31: 83-86.

4Edmonds, R. 1 May 2014. Explorer Philip Goodeve-Docker freezes to death on second day of trek across Greenland. London Evening Standard.

5Greenland Government. 2013. Statistik fra Administration af rejseaktivitet I Grønland. 6 pages.

6Gorter, W. et al. 2013. Present and future near-surface wind climate of Greenland from high resolution regional climate modeling. Climate Dynamics. 42: 1595-1611.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Greenland’s “Recent Mass Loss” Underestimated?

Posted by William Colgan on March 09, 2015
Climate Change, Communicating Science, New Research / No Comments

There are a variety of methods used to estimate the present rate of mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet, including satellite altimetry, satellite gravimetry and input-output assessments. All of these methods generally agree that since 2005 the ice sheet has been losing c. 250 Gt/yr of mass (equivalent to 8000 tonnes of ice per second). Partitioning this mass loss into climatic surface balance (i.e. snowfall minus runoff) and ice dynamic (i.e. iceberg calving) contributions is a little more challenging. Partitioning recent mass loss into surface balance or ice dynamic components requires us to look at the changes in each of these terms since a period during which the ice sheet was approximately in equilibrium. Conventionally, the ice sheet is assumed to have been in equilibrium during the 1961-1990 so-called “reference period”.1


The three main methods of measuring present-day ice sheet mass balance: (1) snowfall input minus iceberg output, (2) changes in elevation using satellite altimetry, and (3) changes in gravity using satellite gravimetry (from Alison et al., 2014)5.

Our recently published study in the Annals of Glaciology takes a hard look at the mass balance of the high elevation interior of the Greenland ice sheet during the reference period2. We difference the ice flowing out of a high elevation perimeter from the snow falling within it, and conclude that the ice sheet was likely gaining at least 20 Gt/yr of mass during the reference period. This implies that rather than ice sheet mass balance decreasing from c. 0 Gt/yr (or “equilibrium”) during reference period to c. -250 Gt/yr since 2005, it may have actually decreased from c. +20 Gt/yr of subtle mass gain during reference period to c. -250 Gt/yr since 2005. This interpretation would mean the “recent” (pre-1990 to post-2005) mass loss of the ice sheet is actually 7 % greater than might conventionally be assumed (270 vs. 250 Gt/yr). Seven percent more recent mass loss than conventionally assumed might not sound like much, but it becomes important when we try to partition mass loss in surface balance or ice dynamics components.


Illustration of how a subtle mass gain during reference period (1961-1990) , when the Greenland ice sheet is conventionally assumed to have been in approximate equilibrium, can influence the magnitude of “recent mass loss” used to partition surface balance and ice dynamics components of mass loss.

We also assessed whether surface balance or ice dynamics were responsible for subtle reference period mass gain. We concluded it was more likely long term ice dynamics, resulting from the downward advection through the ice sheet of the transition between relatively soft Wisconsin ice (deposited > 10.8 KaBP) and relatively hard Holocene ice (deposited < 10.8 KaBP). In 1985, Niels Reeh proposed that subtly increasing effective ice viscosity was resulting in cm-scale ice sheet thickening3. Increased iceberg calving, or enhanced ice dynamics, are conventionally assumed to be responsible for c. 100 Gt/yr of recent mass loss4. Since we conclude ice dynamics were likely responsible for subtle reference period mass gain, we are implying that mass loss due to ice dynamics may actually be c. 20 Gt/yr greater than conventionally assumed, or c. 120 Gt/yr rather than c. 100 Gt/yr since 2005. Without invoking any departures from the conventional view of changes in surface balance since reference period, this infers 20 % more mass loss due to ice dynamics since reference period. This becomes important if diagnostic ice sheet model simulations are calibrated to underestimated recent ice dynamic mass loss, which may subsequently bias prognostic model simulations to similarly underestimate future ice dynamic mass loss.


An ice sheet composed of relatively hard Holocene ice is theoretically c. 15 % thicker than one composed of relative soft Wisconsin ice. Today’s ongoing transition from Wisconsin to Holocene ice within the Greenland ice sheet should theoretically result in cm-scale transient thickening (after Reeh, 1985).

Pondering how a millennial-scale shift in ice dynamics may be responsible for subtle mass gain during the 1961-1990 period, and how that ultimately influences our understanding of present-day mass loss partition, is definitely a rather nuanced topic. I am guessing there are not many non-scientists still reading at this point. Spread over the high elevation ice sheet interior, a 20 Gt/yr mass gain is equivalent to a thickening rate of just 2 cm/yr, which is within the uncertainty of virtually all mass balance observation methods, including in situ point measurements. I suppose the thrust of our study is to be receptive to the idea that millennial scale ice dynamics may be contributing to a subtle ice sheet thickening that underlies both past and present ice sheet mass balance, and to appreciate the non-trivial uncertainty in partitioning recent mass loss into surface balance and ice dynamic components that stems from the particular reference period mass balance assumption that is invoked.

1Van den Broeke, M., J. Bamber, J. Ettema, E. Rignot, E. Schrama, W. van de Berg, E. van Meijgaard, I. Velicogna and B. Wouters. 2009. Partitioning Recent Greenland Mass Loss. Science. 326: 984-986.

2Colgan, W., J. Box, M. Andersen, X. Fettweis, B. Csatho, R. Fausto, D. van As and J. Wahr. 2015. Greenland high-elevation mass balance: inference and implication of reference period (1961-90) imbalance. Annals of Glaciology. 56: doi:10.3189/2015AoG70A967.

3Reeh, N. 1985. Was the Greenland ice sheet thinner in the late Wisconsinan than now?
Nature. 317: 797-799.

4Enderlin, E., I. Howat, S. Jeong, M. Noh, J. van Angelen and M. van den Broeke. 2014. An improved mass budget for the Greenland ice sheet. Geophysical Research Letters. 41: doi:10.1002/2013GL059010.

5Alison, I., W. Colgan, M. King and F. Paul. 2014. Ice Sheets, Glaciers, and Sea Level Rise. Snow and Ice-Related Hazards, Risks and Disasters. W. Haeberli and C. Whiteman. Elsevier. 713-747.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Glaciolacustrine Sediment and Tailings Ponds

Posted by William Colgan on March 05, 2015
Applied Glaciology / No Comments

In August of 2014, a mixed earth and rockfill dam impounding a tailings pond at the Mount Polley Mine in Canada breached1. Over the following four days, c. 4.5 million m3 of tailings slurry was released into Polley Lake. An expert inquiry reviewed potential causes of the breach: cracking, overtopping, foundation failure, and human intervention. The inquiry noted that “the presence of a glacially pre-sheared surface in the dam foundation posed significant uncertainty throughout the design process”, and, after eliminating overtopping and human intervention, assigned maximum likelihood to the scenario of foundation failure stemming from preferentially oriented glaciolacustrine deposits underlying the dam.

While glaciofluvial deposits and glacial tills were also present beneath the dam, the fine silt and clay of the glaciolacustrine deposits made them the most likely culprit for instability. The presence of glaciolacustrine deposits was well documented in borehole records. In c. 2005 the mine operator (Mount Polley Mining Corporation) recorded that “the glaciolacustrine deposit encountered in [borehole] GW96-1A is a discontinuous unit and will not adversely affect the dam stability”. The breach occurred c. nine years later 300 m due west of borehole GW96-1A.


Breach of the earthen dam at the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond in August 2014 (from CBC.ca).

Although the Mount Polley Mine is located more than 50 km away from present-day glaciers, the site was covered by the Cordilleran Ice Sheet during the last glaciation, which reached a maximum c. 22 kaBP. During the subsequent deglaciation, which lasted until c. 11 kaBP, proglacial rivers and lakes evidently left substantial lacustrine deposits as the ice margin retreated through the site. Despite the last deglaciation ending millennia ago, the strong residual imprint of glacier processes on local stratigraphy compels them to be considered in the design of sensitive infrastructure in formerly glacierized areas.

The Kumtor Mine, Kyrgyzstan, shares some analogous geotechnical challenges with the Mount Polley Mine. At the Kumtor Mine, an earth dam impounds a c. 3.4 million m2 tailings pond, which is located c. 7.5 km downstream of the Petrov Glacier. The Petrov Glacier terminates in the proglacial Petrov Lake, which is itself impounded by glacial moraines and tills. Given the equilibrium line lowering and growth of glaciers during the past glaciation2, it is very likely that glaciolacustrine and glaciofluvial deposits are present in the vicinity of the Kumtor tailings pond. The growth of Petrov Lake upstream of the tailings pond, from 1.8 to 4.3 million m2 between 1977 and 2014 (due to climate change enhancing glacier retreat and melt), presents an additional geotechnical hazard: glacial lake outburst floods upstream of the tailings pond3.


Evolving hydrological and glaciological features in the vicinity of the Kumtor Mine, Kyrgyzstan, between 1977 and 2014.

When existing infrastructure is confronted with such unique geotechnical challenges associated with operating in a proglacial setting, adaptive engineering solutions are often be employed. For example, deformation and creep of glaciolacustrine sediment rich embankments can be monitored with cm-scale accuracy using spaceborne radar, and mm-scale accuracy with ground-based radar. While this may potentially allow embankments to be reinforced as needed, given that the Mount Polley tailings pond instability progressed to a complete breach in just a few days, monitoring alone may be insufficient to avoid a breach. Perhaps the lesson from the Mount Polley Mine, for sites like the Kumtor Mine, is to ensure that unstable glacial sediment is comprehensively identified and factored into robust hazard management and infrastructure design plans!

1Mount Polley Review Panel. 2015. Independent Expert Engineering Investigation and Review Panel: Report on Mount Polley Tailings Storage Facility Breach. Province of British Columbia.

2Koppes et al., 2008. Late quaternary glaciation in the Kyrgyz Tien Shan. Quarternary Science Reviews. 27: 846-866.

3Jansky et al., 2009. The evolution of Petrov Lake and moraine dam rupture risk (Tien-Shan, Kyrgyzstan). Natural Hazards. 50: 83-96.

Twitter: @GlacierBytes

Tags: , , , , , ,