Roundup: Iceberg-Tsunami Dynamics, Backcountry Avalanche Risk Rises, and Cruikshank Receives Prestigious Award

Study Aims to Better Understand Iceberg-Tsunami Dynamics

Iceberg calving can create powerful waves when large chunks of ice fall from glaciers into the ocean. A recent study conducted 66 experiments to better understand the features of iceberg calving to determine iceberg-tsunami strength and parameters.

Read the story by Elza Bouhassira on GlacierHub here.

The pool used by the researchers during the experiments. In the image, a gravity-dominated experiment is being conducted (Source: Figure 2/Heller et al).

Crowded Backcountry Ski Slopes Increase Risk of Skiers Endangering Each Other

Avalanche risk is on the rise as more people enter backcountry alpine terrain. A new study seeking to quantify the risk to multi-party avalanches hopes to raise awareness and provoke discussion.

Read the story by Grennan Milliken on GlacierHub here.

A skier during a run down Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Washington State. (Credit: National Park Service)

Cruikshank Awarded Polar Knowledge Canada’s 2019 Northern Science Award

From the Polar Knowledge Canada press release: “Polar Knowledge Canada is pleased to announce that the recipient of the 2019 Northern Science Award is Dr. Julie Cruikshank. The award was presented at the ArcticNet Annual Scientific Meeting on December 5, 2019, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“Dr. Cruikshank, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, has a long and distinguished record of documenting the oral histories and life stories of Athapaskan and Tlingit elders, and exploring Yukon First Nations’ systems of narrative and knowledge. Her work, built on a foundation of respectful relationships, has helped Yukon First Nations recognize and honour the strengths of their cultural traditions, and has brought new insight into the nature of history and the interplay of different knowledge systems. Yukon Indigenous governments regularly draw on Dr. Cruikshank’s work and her knowledge.”

Read the story published by Polar Knowledge Canada here.

Dr. Julie Cruikshank (Source: University of British Columbia).

Study Aims to Better Understand Iceberg-Tsunami Dynamics

Iceberg tsunamis can be dramatic and violent events. A recent paper used large-scale experiments to better understand tsunamis generated by iceberg calving. The team of scientists set up a large tank and used heavy blocks to create waves under controlled conditions. The different iterations of the experiments revealed some of the differences that can be found when icebergs fall into water or rise to the surface in various ways. 

The findings were published at the 38th International Association for Hydro-Environmental Engineering and Research World Congress (IAHR 2019) in Panama City. The researchers sought to better understand the different features of iceberg-tsunamis that result when icebergs of different sizes calve. They aimed to expand their research by comparing the new findings to the features of tsunamis caused by landslides. The team hopes that their work will serve to create benchmark test cases that future research can benefit from.   

Lead author Valentin Heller, a professor of environmental fluid mechanics at the University of Nottingham, highlighted the work’s immediate and future impacts. “The research enables the efficient systematic prediction of iceberg-tsunamis for a wide range of calving mechanisms for the first time,” Heller told GlacierHub. “In the longer term, this is likely to impact the design of coastal infrastructure and disaster risk assessment in areas where iceberg-tsunamis occur.”

The process through which blocks of ice break off the terminus (end) or margins (sides) of glaciers, ice shelves, or ice sheets and fall into a body of water, typically an ocean, is called iceberg calving. Calving events range from rarer instances in which very large chunks of ice break off, like in the video above, to more frequent events with much smaller pieces of ice separating, like in the video below. Calving events can cause iceberg-tsunamis, examples of which can be seen in both videos.

Though glacier melt is increasing worldwide due to the climate emergency, Heller said an increase in ice loss will not automatically bring about an increase in number or strength of iceberg-tsunamis. This is because other melting mechanisms are playing a role as well. “Ice mass loss is primarily driven by two main components; (i) melting of ice and runoff in the form of water from the ice sheet surface and (ii) discharge through glaciers terminating in the sea in the form of iceberg calving.” He continued, saying that “an acceleration of ice mass loss through (ii) does not necessarily result in larger iceberg-tsunamis.” 

Iceberg-tsunamis are dangerous to coastal communities, tourists, and the fishing and shipping industries. Greenland has been the site of multiple significant iceberg-tsunamis; one tsunami at the Eqip Sermia glacier in 2013 produced waves so substantial a tourist boat landing was destroyed. The inhabitants of the village Innaarsuit, located in Greenland, were on high alert in 2018 when a 330-foot tall iceberg drifted into the waters near their homes, bringing with it the threat of flooding

The research team conducted 66 unique, large-scale experiments in a 50 by 50 meter basin with heavy blocks of up to 187 kilograms each with different variations of iceberg volume, geometry, kinematics, and initial position relative to the water surface. They looked at five iceberg calving mechanisms; capsizing, gravity-dominated fall, buoyancy-dominated fall, gravity-dominated overturning, and buoyancy-dominated overturning. The researchers wrote that “gravity-dominated icebergs essentially fall into the water body whereas buoyancy-dominated icebergs essentially rise to the water surface,” distinguishing the two categories. 

The pool used by the researchers during the experiments. In the image, a gravity-dominated experiment is being conducted. 
Source: Figure 2/ Large-scale experiments of tsunamis generated by iceberg calving

The researchers looked at nine parameters influencing iceberg-tsunamis that could impact wave heights and their decay. The parameters monitored were released energy, water depth, iceberg velocity, iceberg thickness, iceberg width, iceberg volume, iceberg density, water density, and gravitational acceleration. 

The data showed that tsunami heights caused by gravity-dominated fall and gravity-dominated overturning are approximately an order of magnitude larger than those generated by capsizing, buoyancy-dominated fall, and buoyancy-dominated overturning. In other words, icebergs that fall into the water from above are much more hazardous than icebergs released underwater. Heller told GlacierHub that the researchers were surprised about this large difference because it had not been quantified before.

Diving deeper into the researchers’ analysis reveals that the wave magnitudes generated by the gravity-dominated overturning mechanism created the largest tsunamis, the gravity-dominated fall mechanism created the second largest tsunamis, and the three other mechanisms had waves that were up to a factor of 27 smaller. In other words, the two processes that result from icebergs essentially falling into the water created much larger tsunamis than the mechanisms where icebergs rise to the water surface.

A further difference between the two largest wave producers and the three smaller is that for the gravity-dominated mechanisms the largest wave amplitude was observed earlier in the wave train. For the three processes that resulted in smaller waves, the largest wave amplitude was found in the middle of the wave train. 

The results of the study will be useful to both scientists and policy-makers. Heller told GlacierHub that the “results [will] help scientists looking into wave runup at shorelines and wave impact on infrastructures, such as coastal buildings, by providing the necessary offshore wave parameters to support their work.” He elaborated, saying that predicting the heights of iceberg-tsunamis “helps to make decisions on how close to a glacier front ships can safely navigate or if evacuations are necessary, as in the case of the village Innaarsuit on Greenland.” 

“Iceberg-tsunamis is a relatively new field of research and people are just starting to realize the significance of such waves for coastal infrastructure, tourists and coastal communities,” Heller said. As the body of research grows, we will have a better understanding of how iceberg-tsunamis function. Once more information is available, impacted communities will be better able to prepare for such events.

Not All Iceberg-Generated Tsunamis Are Alike. Here’s How They Differ

Many people are familiar with ocean tsunamis caused by earthquakes, such as the devastating Japan 2011 tsunami, but fewer know they can also be caused by iceberg calving. As glaciers and ice sheets undergo intensified melting, we can expect to see more frequent tsunamis triggered by icebergs dropping off the face of the world’s glaciers. These events threaten the lives of people in nearby coastal settlements, whether residents or tourists, and infrastructure as well.

In a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, lead researcher Valentin Heller and colleagues investigate the potential for five different calving mechanisms in producing tsunami waves. They knew that iceberg calving, also known as glacier calving, accounted for most of the mass loss from the Antarctic Ice Sheet and about a third for the Greenland Ice Sheet between 2009-2012. Their research could not only contribute to science but have practical effects. Identifying the impacts of  different calving scenarios is beneficial for implementing disaster management strategies and strengthening disaster resilience in coastal regions.

Scientists observed that iceberg calving events in polar regions interact differently with the surrounding waters through distinct calving mechanisms. They investigated five types of calving events: capsizing, gravity-dominated fall, buoyancy-dominated fall, gravity-dominated overturning, and buoyancy-dominated overturning.

To test the tsunami energy potential of each type of calving event, large-scale experiments were conducted in a 50 by 50 meter wave basin at Deltares in Delft, Netherlands. Sixty-six experiments were conducted , at depths of 1 or 0.75 meters. The researchers used PPH blocks, a thermoplastic material with similar density to ice, as a proxy for icebergs.

The researchers implemented various methods of control to simulate the five types of calving events. To represent capsizing, for example, the researchers  fed a wooden rod through the centers of the blocks in order to control the rotation. They simulated buoyancy-dominated fall by pulling the blocks underwater with rope and stabilizing them with a steel beam from above.

Falling and overturning icebergs, and sketches of calving mechanisms (Source: Heller et al.)

They then quantified the maximum heights and energies of the iceberg-tsunamis and found the relative energy releases of the iceberg calvings. They then  analyzed and compared the results with the predictive methods of landslide-tsunamis. By doing this, researchers aimed to transfer knowledge from a well-established research field to the relatively new field of iceberg-tsunamis.

The team found large differences in tsunami height between the mechanisms. The two gravity-dominated mechanisms were found to be better predicted by landslide-tsunami models than the others. These results are significant in understanding the relative impact and prediction capabilities of specific calving events, which is vital to disaster management. Yet the results will be of most use for cases of gravity-dominated calving events. More research will need to be done to better analyze the other calving mechanisms.

One thing not considered in the comparison was the movement of icebergs along coastal locations such as harbours. Researchers noted that even significantly smaller iceberg-tsunamis from capsizing can cause large destruction. They team also scrutinized the existing landslide-tsunami models for failing to capture the physics of the capsizing and buoyancy-driven mechanisms of A, C, and E, which are important iceberg events.

Calving at the Hubbard glacier in eastern Alaska (Source: Navin Rajagopalan/Flickr)

Lead author Valentin Heller, who’s an assistant professor of hydraulics at the University of Nottingham, said the experiments showed that icebergs falling into water were about 10 times larger than those breaking off underwater and moving to the surface, as well as capsizing icebergs. He said the researchers were surprised that this large difference has never been quantified before.

“The overall aim of the study is to be able to predict the tsunami magnitude in function of the size of the iceberg, its initial position relative to the water surface, and on how it interacts with the surrounding water,” Heller said. “This helps to predict the iceberg-tsunami height at any location in front of the glacier front to provide guidelines for tourist boats on how close they can safely approach a glacier front.”  

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Earthquakes Rattling Glaciers, Boosting Sea Level Rise

An iceberg from the Helheim Glacier in calm waters, Sermilik fjord, East Greenland. ©  Mads & Trine
An iceberg from the Helheim Glacier in calm waters, Sermilik fjord, East Greenland.
© Mads & Trine

Talk of earthquakes likely calls to mind giant fissures opening up along the earth’s crust, the trembling of rock, buildings crumbling to their knees and, depending on your age and cast of mind, the love of Superman for Lois Lane. But it does not likely conjure up images of giant tongues of sliding ice or the splash of calving icebergs. And yet it should.

Most earthquakes are generated by the friction produced by two bodies of rock rapidly sliding past each other on a fault in the Earth’s crust, but a different breed of earthquakes was discovered in 2003: glacier earthquakes.

Map showing 252 glacial earthquakes in Greenland for the period 1993–2008, detected and located using the surface-wave detection algorithm. (b) Map showing the improved locations of 184 glacial earthquakes for the period 1993–2005 analyzed in detail by Tsai Ekström (2007). ©  Glacial Earthquakes in Greenland and Antarctica, Meredith Nettles and Göran Ekström, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University
Map showing 252 glacial earthquakes in Greenland for the period 1993–2008, detected and located using the surface-wave detection algorithm. (b) Map showing the improved locations of 184 glacial earthquakes for the period 1993–2005 analyzed in detail by Tsai Ekström (2007). © Glacial Earthquakes in Greenland and Antarctica, Meredith Nettles and Göran Ekström, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University

These newly documented earthquakes are occurring in glaciated areas of Alaska, Antarctica and Greenland and are caused by the dumping of giant icebergs–equal in size to, say, 400,000 Olympic swimming pools–into the sea. They produce seismic signals equivalent to those found in magnitude 5 earthquakes, which can be felt thousands of kilometers away. And there are many more of them today than there were just a couple of decades ago: six to eight times more than in the early 1990s have been recorded at outlet glaciers along the coast of Greenland.

This sudden surge in glacier earthquakes is expected to set off a series of events that will result in faster sea level rise over the coming century than had previously been estimated, according to research conducted there by Dr. Meredith Nettles, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, and some of her colleagues, as a part of Project SERMI. In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revised estimates for the next century dramatically upward (from 11-17 inches by 2100 to 10-39 inches) when taking Dr. Nettles and her colleagues’ earthquake research into account for the first time. This upward revision reflects the fact that the earthquakes change the internal dynamics of the glaciers, causing them to flow more rapidly, and to shed more ice into the ocean.

Monitoring station on Helheim glacier. © SERMI
Monitoring station on Helheim glacier. © SERMI

Nettles gave a talk on glacier earthquakes last November at the American Museum of Natural History. In the summer of 2006, she and 11 other scientists from six institutions in the U.S., Denmark and Spain traveled to a small town in East Greenland to take seismic, GPS and time-lapse photography measurements of the Helheim Glacier. They wanted to examine the location, dynamics and frequency of glacier earthquakes and to develop a method for using seismic data to map changes in the ice. They also wanted to learn how these earthquakes shape the behavior of outlet glaciers, which cluster around coastlines and deposit ice and meltwater into the oceans.

After setting up camp in town, the scientists flew a helicopter out to the glacier, drilled holes 6 feet deep in the ice, and drove 9-foot poles into those holes to anchor their GPS, time-lapse and seismic equipment. From the data they collected, they learned that short-term acceleration of glacier ice flows—up to 25% increases in velocity—coincided with the earthquakes. They also found that the increase in glacier earthquakes corresponded to net retreat of the ice front in Greenland. In particular, the section of the Greenland coast with earthquake-producing glaciers expanded northward. And whereas in the 1990s, a few glaciers were causing earthquakes; by 2005, those glaciers were associated with more frequent earthquakes, and other glaciers began to have seismic activity as well.

Map showing locations of GPS stations (blue and yellow dots). Arrows show average velocities over this time period. Red dots represent locations of rock-based GPS reference sites. Dashed lines show the location of the calving front at the beginning (eastern line) and end (western line) of the network operation period. Inset shows location of Helheim glacier in southeast Greenland (black arrow) and locations of glacial earthquakes (white dots). © Glacial Earthquakes in Greenland and Antarctica, Meredith Nettles and Göran Ekström, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University
Map showing locations of GPS stations (blue and yellow dots). Arrows show average velocities over this time period. Red dots represent locations of rock-based GPS reference sites. Dashed lines show the location of the calving front at the beginning (eastern line) and end (western line) of the network operation period. Inset shows location of Helheim glacier in southeast Greenland (black arrow) and locations of glacial earthquakes (white dots).
© Glacial Earthquakes in Greenland and Antarctica, Meredith Nettles and Göran Ekström, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University

Future research should focus on ice-ocean interactions that promote or reduce glacier calving, said Nettles. And scientists still need to better understand the specific mechanisms of loss of ice at the calving front and the effects of loss of ice on flow speeds. Nettles’ current research examines the impact of tides on glacier calving. Preliminary analysis of the data suggests that glacier earthquakes are more likely to occur at low tide.

Nettles and her colleagues collected most of their seismic data and GPS observations of the glacial earthquakes through facilities run jointly by IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology) and the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey). Thanks to grants from the USGS and the National Science Foundation, that data is open sourced and available to the public.