Robotic Kayaks Discover High Rates of Underwater Glacier Melt

The LeConte Glacier in southeast Alaska is a 21-mile long fast-flowing tidewater glacier, which terminates abruptly in a fjord––spilling its contents into the ocean. The glacier sheds ice from its 200-meter face in calamitous calving events when large blocks of ice drop into LeConte Bay. Researchers seeking to collect data on the glacier’s submarine melt rate needed a way to get close enough to the terminus to collect the data they needed—the solution: a fleet of robotic kayaks sent into waters too dangerous for human researchers to enter.

The LeConte Glacier from above.
Source: Jeremy Keith/ Flickr

The November 2019 study, which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, was led by Rebecca Jackson, an assistant professor of physical oceanography at Rutgers University, and a team of researchers from Oregon State University, University of Alaska Southeast, University of Oregon and University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

Tidewater glaciers are glaciers that reach all the way to the ocean. At their border with the sea, they melt either through calving or through submarine melting. 

Submarine melt matters because it is a significant contributor to glacier melt and is sensitive to rises ocean temperature and shifts in ocean circulation. It’s also more difficult to observe directly than surface melt because it occurs on the underside of glaciers. It can take place through two processes. The first is more easily detectable and comes from the drainage of freshwater discharge due to upstream melt on the glacier. It creates fast-moving plumes of water entering the ocean at the glacier’s terminus. The second type of submarine melting is the slower and harder to measure process of ambient melting where a glacier melts directly into the sea. 

Ambient submarine melting is hard to measure: as a result it is typically estimated using laboratory experiments and models. The idea that emerged from theory and lab experiments suggested that ambient melting was responsible for only a small amount of total terminus melting. 

One of the autonomous kayaks used in the study in front of the glacier terminus. 
Source: David Sutherland/ University of Oregon

Jackon’s study used autonomous kayaks to study plumes created by ambient melting at LeConte. The glacier has been recorded moving at velocities of up to 18 meters per day along its one kilometer-wide terminus. The kayaks were deployed along the length of LeConte over a seven-day period in September 2018. As they cruised close to the steep face of the glacier, they used complex instruments to observe water velocity, temperature, and salinity. The near-glacier data they gathered was supplemented with data collected downstream aboard a research vessel. 

Plumes created by ambient melt only exist within 400 meters of a glacier’s terminus and as such were difficult to access without technology given the risks created by the glacier. The autonomous kayaks were essential to this project because of the hazards of working directly next to a glacier’s terminus, where calving pieces of ice can crash into the water without warning, producing life-threatening waves––or in the case of LeConte, from below the surface, too. The glacier is known for “shooter” icebergs that calve beneath the water and launch up to the surface, propelled by their buoyancy. 

A shooter glacier emerging from below the surface at Dawes Glacier, another glacier in Alaska. Source: AdventureM/ Youtube

Glaciologist and founding director of The Dasht Foundation, Faezeh M. Nick, who was not involved with the study, told GlacierHub “The autonomous kayaks taking measurements in front of the calving glaciers sound very promising. It has been very risky and expensive to get this kind of data at glacier fronts. It would be very beneficial if these kayaks are not too expensive and are robust enough to be used at several locations.” 

The kayaks used in the study were developed at the University of Oregon and are called Robotic Ocean Surface Samplers (ROSS). They were designed to function in harsh conditions, to be resilient in the face of unforeseen challenges due to redundancies of critical systems, and to be inexpensive enough that they could be used in areas with high risk of being lost.  

The kayaks’ base component is a commercially available Mokai gas-powered kayak. The researchers then built upon it, adding in the necessary control electronics, communications systems, and scientific instruments needed for the tasks it would be sent to accomplish. 

Kayaks have historically been associated with Indigenous peoples of the Arctic, though in earlier times were only found in the areas further north. Monitoring climate impacts in Alaska has brought scientific and Indigenous technologies together as people strive to understand the changes taking place on the planet. 

The data gathered by the autonomous kayaks show that ambient melting is a significant contributor to total melting at a glacier’s terminus and represents a large part of the total submarine melt flux. It revealed that ambient melt has been underestimated by a factor of up to 100. 

“We need these types of measurements being performed in front of several other glaciers in different regions before making a new statement about the general pattern or magnitude of submarine melt and its effect on sea-level rise,” Nick said. This finding increases scientists’ understanding of submarine glacier melt and opens the door for further research to establish a generalizable melt parameter for modeling ocean‐glacier interactions. As scientists’ understanding of glacier melt dynamics improves through studies like this one, they are one step closer to being able to generate predictive models on critical issues like sea-level rise with greater accuracy. 

Using Kayaks and Drones to Explore Glaciers

Field study sounds cool: a group of scientists take boats out into untraveled waters on an important scientific mission, even witnessing extraordinary scenery like an iceberg calving event along the journey. However, the breathtaking beauty of such a trip can also come at a price, sometimes even human life!

“I like working in Alaska, but I face the difficulties of any ice or ocean research project,” said Erin Pettit, an associate professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Pettit finds it hard to find a reliable boat and captain for her trips, and too much ice in the fjord often limits how close she can get to the glaciers. The risks to her personal safety rise when she has to work on cold or rainy days.

A group of scientists are collecting data from Le Conte Glacier (source: Cal Dail/Flickr).

“It can be really dangerous in Alaska, so we send the kayaks out,” said June Marion, the principal engineer for a new study using remote-controlled kayaks to research Le Conte Glacier. The oceanic robotic kayaks are controlled by a laptop a few miles away, according to Marion.

“When the calving event happens and an iceberg falls onto the kayak, we do not need to sacrifice valuable human life,” she said. “More importantly, the kayak can go further into unexplored regions. We are more hopeful to collect data.”

Mechanical engineer June Marion works on the kayak’s engine assisted by her dad, Bobby Brown. Working on the rear kayak is robotics science students Nick McComb and Corwin Perren (source: Angela Denning / NOAA).

With a radio controller or a computer, the researchers navigate the kayak by clicking on points on a map, sending the kayak directly to the location for study. The engine can even be started using a computer program.

“There are always new technologies being used on glaciers,” said Pettit.

Guillaume Jouvet et al. figured out another way for scientists to avoid danger during field work. They used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, to study calving of the Bowdoin Glacier in Greenland in 2015. They combined satellite images, UAV photogrammetry, and ice flow modeling, drawing important conclusions from the results.

With UAVs, researchers are able to obtain high-resolution orthoimages taken immediately before and after the initiation of a large fracture, including major calving events. In this way, Jouvet et al.’s study demonstrates that UAV photogrammetry and ice flow modeling can be a safer tool to study glaciers.

Measurement of surface temperature of a glacier using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) (source: W. Immerzeel et al.).

This technology has also been successfully applied to monitor Himalayan glacier dynamics: the UAVs can be used over high-altitude, debris-covered glaciers, with images of glacier elevation and surface changes derived at very high resolutions, according to W. Immerzeel et al.. UAVs can be further revolutionized to develop current glacier monitoring methods.

Scientists like Marion and Pettit are excited to see these new technologies developed to study glaciers and save lives. They are hoping for more methods to achieve this goal.

Roundup: Kayaks, Snow Machines and Drones

Roundup: Kayaks, Regrowing Glaciers, and the Bowdoin

 

Research Using Remote-Controlled Kayaks

From Alaska Public Media: “LeConte Glacier near Petersburg… [is] the southern-most tide water glacier in the northern hemisphere and scientists have been studying it to give them a better idea of glacial retreat and sea level rise around the world… to get close to the glacier, which is constantly calving, a team of scientists is relying on unmanned, remote controlled kayaks… these kayaks have been completely tweaked by Marion and an ocean robotics team from Oregon State University… The boats are customized with a keel, antennas, lights and boxes of computer chips and wires.”

Find out more about the kayaks and research here.

LeConte Glacier’s calving front (Source: Gomada / Creative Commons)

 

Regrowing Morteratsch Glacier with Artificial Snow

From New Scientist: “The idea is to create artificial snow and blow it over the Morteratsch glacier in Switzerland each summer, hoping it will protect the ice and eventually cause the glacier to regrow… The locals had been inspired by stories that white fleece coverings on a smaller glacier called Diavolezzafirn had helped it to grow by up to 8 metres in 10 years… Oerlemans says it would take 4000 snow machines to do the job, producing snow by mixing air blasts with water, which cools down through expansion to create ice crystals. The hope is that the water can be “recycled” from small lakes of meltwater alongside the glacier… But the costs… are immense.”

Find out more about how this works here.

Snow cannons like this could help regrow Morteratsch Glacier (Source: Calyponte / Creative Commons)

 

Drones Capture a Major Calving Event

From The Cryosphere: “A high-resolution displacement field is inferred from UAV orthoimages (geometrically corrected for uniform scale) taken immediately before and after the initiation of a large fracture, which induced a major calving event… Modelling results reveal (i) that the crack was more than half-thickness deep, filled with water and getting irreversibly deeper when it was captured by the UAV and (ii) that the crack initiated in an area of high horizontal shear caused by a local basal bump immediately behind the current calving front… Our study demonstrates that the combination of UAV photogrammetry and ice flow modelling is a promising tool to horizontally and vertically track the propagation of fractures responsible for large calving events.”

Find out more about the study here.

Drones are increasingly being used to study glaciers (Source: Creative Commons)

Roundup: On Glaciers This Week: Raves, Yoga and Kayaks

Icelanders Celebrate Solstice with Glacier Rave

Revellers at the Secret Solstice Festival (Source: Entirety Labs)
Revellers at the Secret Solstice Festival (Source: Entirety Labs)

From The Daily Beast: “Sure enough, there he was: a man dressed in a head-to-toe panda costume running toward the bus and waving his hands, a sweaty tornado of furry stress, desperate not to miss the bus that would transport him to the Langjökull Glacier—and the 500-meter tunnel that will take him to the party held 25 meters beneath the icy surface.

“This is the second year that the Secret Solstice festival has held the special event. Whispers of last year’s party—not to mention the insane photos—helped land not just the excursion, but Iceland’s four-day music marathon itself, on the top of the must-attend list in the world’s festival circuit.”

Read more here.

Indian Army practices Yoga on Siachen Glacier

Indian soldiers practice yoga on world's highest battlefield
Indian soldiers practice yoga on world’s highest battlefield (Source: IANS)

From Business Standard: “The second International Day of Yoga was celebrated by Army’s Fire and Fury Corps today at the Siachen Glacier, along with several other high-altitude forward locations in Leh and Kargil.

“The has incorporated Yoga Asanas into the daily routine of the soldier in High Altitude Areas deployed in harsh climatic conditions.

“Practice of Yoga by soldiers in such an environment helps them to combat various diseases such as high altitude sickness, hypoxia, pulmonary oedema and the psychological stresses of isolation and fatigue.”

Read more about it here.

 

Film-maker kayaks in Vatnajökull Glacier’s lake

From Vine.co: Watch film-maker Henry Jun Wah Lee explore the Vatnajökull Glacier, and its proglacial lake by kayak.

More stunning footage here.

Icy Adventures in Norway

Hiking in Sunnmøre, Part 4: Regndalen. (Source: Severin Sadjina/Flickr)
Hiking Site in Sunnmøre, Regndalen. (Source: Severin Sadjina/Flickr)

If you want to walk and climb on glaciated areas for an extraordinary experience, you should visit Norway before the glaciers melt away. You do have some decades ahead, though, before glaciers really become scarce there. Still, rising  temperatures have caused a dramatic decrease in glacial volume in Norway as in other parts of the world. As this trend intensifies, glacier tourism will be largely limited in the future.

Norwegian sunset near Tromso, Norway (Source: Diana Robinson/Flickr)
Sunset near Tromso, Norway (Source: Diana Robinson/Flickr)

There are many opportunities to explore glaciers. There are over 1600 glaciers in Norway, which cover an area of roughly 2600 square kilometers. Most of the glaciers are in mountainous regions along or near the coast, particularly in southwestern and northern Norway. You could choose among guided day tours, longer tours, glacier surface walks, glacier lake kayaking, terminal face walks, ice climbing, and more. But climate change will change the nature of glacier tourism. A 7-year follow-up study conducted by Trude Furunes and Reidar J. Mykletun considered five components of the development of glacier tourism: natural resources, access, demand, entrepreneurship, and the need for skilled delivery of tourism services. Data in the study was collected through analysis of websites, repeated interviews, and participant observation.

Engabreen (Source: Nathanael Coyne/Flickr)
Engabreen (Source: Nathanael Coyne/Flickr)

Most glacier tourism activities involve the edges of the glacier, especially the glacier arm area, which are neither too steep nor too dangerous to enter. Glacier tourism generally occurs from June to August, when snow accumulated during winter has finished melting. A large portion of the study’s respondents expressed concern about impacts of climate change on glacier recession. After all, ice melting limits the accessibility of glaciers. In 2003, some operators decided to include more mountain walks in the tour package due to ice melting, which in the end led to dramatic decline in clients. In 2007, as some glaciers became inaccessible, some operators had no choice but to move to different glaciers in order to minimize financial loss.

Low entry cost attracted many investors into the glacier tourism business, causing a great deal of competition in the region. “Several activity companies pop up. But the Briksdal glacier is now closed due to the reduced glacier area, which makes it difficult to run safe glacier guiding here. This has led to increased tourism on the Nigard glacier,” said one respondent. More and more companies chose to tailor activities for their clients instead of providing highly commercialized products. “Competitors still exist, but they have changed their activity,” said another respondent.

A route between Aurlands and Briksdal in Norway. (Source: Lee Gwyn/Flickr)
A path between Aurlands and Briksdal . (Source: Lee Gwyn/Flickr)

Many operators claimed that they treated safety as priority and few accidents had occurred. “We focus strongly on safety, and use two guides per group, where one is certified. We also focus on equipment needed. It is important that the clients don’t perceive high risk, but get a unique experience.” Another operator stated that, “we have had no accidents, only bone fractures.”

According to T. Furunes and R. J. Mykletun, there was a 30% decrease from 2003 to 2009 in the number of visitors and operators, due to decline in natural resources and access. However, they suspected that relatively rapid melting of glaciers in Central Europe would likely to prompt glacier tourism in Norway. In a sense,  glacier loss in Central Europe could make Norwegian glacier tourism seem more attractive.  This study thus confirms the uneven and complex effects of global warming and its consequences for glacial retreat on national tourist industries.