EGU Image of the Week: Algal blooms on GrIS

A short article I wrote for the EGU blog about biological darkening of ice and snow was posted last month. The article was built around an aerial view of our 2016 field camp on the Greenland Ice Sheet, where large areas of dark ice are clearly visible.

Aerial view of the field camp in July 2016

The dark colour is due to a collection of dusts, soot and algal cells, with the algal cells doing the bulk of the darkening. A second figure in the article shows the algal cells under the microscope along with the spectra of reflected light from the algal ice surfaces. This was one of several EGU blog posts about icy biology, including this one and this one!


Storm at Camp Bloom

Summer 2017 seriously challenged the idea that summer in SW Greenland has a reliably stable, clear, dry meteorology. Our field work was characterized by unpredictable swings between weather extremes from blizzards dropping 1ft of snow in an evening to bright sunshine and low wind, to rain and tens of centimeters of surface lowering in a few hours. Most of this was inconsequential and actually scientifically very interesting since we experienced what would normally be a year’s worth of surface change in a few weeks. However, we did have to deal with a particularly vicious couple of days of unexpected storm… Here are the notes from my field diary…

Unseasonal snow early in the trip (ph. J Cook)

19th July:

Wind steadily increased through afternoon with frequent periods of heavy rain. No real work got done b/c too windy for drones and spectrometer needs to stay dry. As dinner time approached winds continued to strengthen. Tedstone cooked a killer dahl while Stefan and I redrilled the stakes holding down all the tents and added extra guy lines to the mess on the windward side. Side of mess pushing in towards middle of mess during dinner. The fabric was looking a bit delicate and the flex in the tent wall was knocking things off the cooking table – boxes and stove etc gradually moved into the middle of the tent over about an hour as we ate. Downloaded data from AWS – winds averaging 48 kmph with much stronger gusts. Getting a little concerned about the longevity of the mess.

Early on in the evening, adding guy lines to the windward wall of the mess tent (ph. A Tedstone)


By 2300 the mess was pressing in and becoming quite concave during stronger gusts. Avoided going outside because of rain, but some tent maintenance was now essential. Intense surface lowering around the ply under the mess has caused poles to float in space – tent not so geodesic now! To try to counter this, poles on opposite sides of the tent were tied together with accessory cord to try to maintain dome shape. Outside tent, tags were tied up to the fly sheet to try to stop poles coming out. Predict chance of mess tent survival 40%, so all contents packed down into Zarges boxes and/or tied down, gas disconnected from stove, electrics and batteries dry-bagged and stored. Essentials moved to personal tents or stashed in dry bags for moving later.

The mess tent starting to get badly misshapen at about 2130 (ph. J Cook)

Tedstone went to bed, but almost immediately came back with ‘bad feeling’… Bang on. On cue, a strong gust ripped the tent fabric on the windward side, which was now bending inwards to touch the plyboard floor in the centre of the tent. Now no chance of maintaining tent shape. We evacuated the tent, thankfully the rain had died down, and watched the tent collapse inwards. Seeing poles bending and breaking, we pulled as many as possible out of their tags to allow them to flop safely downwards rather than pinging dangerously as they or the fabric snapped under tension. Zarges boxes pulled onto the edges of the fabric to stop tent flying away entirely.

The collapsed mess tent at about 0200 (ph J Cook)

Now early morning and personal tents also looking in poor condition, with surface lowering causing stakes to bob uselessly in shallow drill holes and strong winds bending the tents out of shape. No sign of storm passing –  front after front lining up on horizon and winds only getting stronger. Tom and Stefan looking very cold, so sent to their tents to get warm. Buddy system established: in event of any problems with personal tents, warmth etc Tom would get into my tent and vice versa, and the same for Andrew and Stefan. Tedstone and I extracted the drill and flights from the wrecked mess and redrilled holes to stake down all of the personal tents. Agreed that if one personal tent goes down, we call in search and rescue. Rationale was that once a personal tent goes, the others will follow and we then have no shelter. With no sign of storm abating the risk of exposure and hypothermia was not justifiable. However, both know chances of heli getting here soon are slim. No panic yet – personal tents standing up OK and everyone dry and warm. At 0120, Tedstone and I went to our personal tents with agreement to reconvene and check all tents again in 2 hours, and also call back to the UK for up to date forecast.

0330 Reconvened with Tedstone – tents looking ok but storm still raging. Called Martyn (project PI) on satellite phone to ask for urgent weather forecast. Text response indicated clear weather after this storm, but could be a further 6-8 hours. Still satisfied with safety of personal tents, so 0430 back to tent to sleep with agreement to meet at 0730.

0730 Reconvene with Tedstone. Storm still strong and still looks heavy all the way to horizon. Back to tents to sit it out. Tried to snooze.

1000 Fetch stove and emergency dehy food from wrecked mess tent and cooked in porch of my personal tent. Tedstone delivered very odd breakfasts to very hungry researchers in their tents. Personal tents now looking ropey, so agreed to sit out until next break in rain, then repitch. 4 hours until next break in weather. By this time calmer weather was on the way. Cooked a second dehy meal for team and waited another 2 hours. Rain stopped and wind calmed through day. Once manageable, wrecked mess was packed down and entire camp rebuilt. No science done today!


On the ice with the BBC

The BBC Science team joined us for our first twenty-four hours on the ice this year, documented our work on algal darkening of the Greenland Ice Sheet. This started in the dusty town of Kangerlussuaq, where I took David Shukman, Kate Stephens and Jonathon Sumberg out to Russell Glacier. There, while I flew the drone to get aerial shots for the news broadcasts, the team did their ‘to camera’ pieces and filmed the melt pouring off out out of the glacier’s calving front. Here’s one of the short UAV clips showing the dramatic front of Russell.

The next morning it was onto the ice. We worked as quickly as possible to get a camp established, including the mess tent, personal tents, equipment cage and toilet. The BBC team filmed their on location pieces and Andrew and I flew the various UAVs and set up the science kit to demonstrate the measurements we’d be taking after the film team were gone. We all gave our interviews which were used for the 6 O’clock and 10 O’clock Evening News, the Morning News, Radio 4 and BBC On Demand. I also recorded a more light-hearted interview about living on the ice sheet which is linked to in the online news article.

Here’s the online article:

and the Radio 4 show:

The next morning the team packed up and shipped out back to dry land, leaving four of us (me, Andrew Tedstone, Stefan Hofer and Tom Gribbin) on the ice to start making our measurements of surface reflectance and algal growth. The picture below shows our camp from the air, looking roughly west.


One of our team, Tom Gribbin, also made this short film about the season using his GoPro camera.

Final UAV mods

After testing the UAV performance in Svalbard in March, I realised the original ‘tripod’ landing assembly was not going to cut it for work in the Arctic. To prevent damage from landing in cryoconite holes and to spread the drone’s weight when landing on snow, I have added some ski’s modified from off-the-shelf landing gear for RC helicopters. This also has the added advantage that if one attachment point fails, the UAV is still landable, which is not the case for the tripod design.


As well as the ski’s, I have now added the Red-Edge camera’s down-welling light sensor to the top of the casing. This will automatically correct the images for changes in the ambient light field in each wavelength.


New TCD paper: Dark ice on Greenland Ice Sheet

Our new discussion paper, led by Black and Bloom PDRA Andrew Tedstone, examines in detail why there is a stripe of dark, fast-melting ice on the Greenland Ice Sheet, particularly in the south-west. This ‘dark zone’ is clearly visible in satellite imagery of the Greenland Ice Sheet and is important because darker ice melts faster. It is crucial to understand what causes the ice to be dark there because if it grows or darkens in a warming climate then we can expect the deglaciation of Greenland to accelerate more than is currently predicted. There are two main competing hypotheses that could explain the presence of the dark zone: 1) dust melting out from ancient ice is darkening the ice; 2) algae are growing on the ice sheet and changing its colour.

An aerial view of the Black and Bloom Camp at S6 (Greenland Ice Sheet) in 2016, in the heart of the ‘dark zone’.

The paper shows that the dark zone changes its shape, size and duration each year. This appears to be most strongly controlled by the sensible heat flux (air temperature) between June and August, number of days with air temperatures above zero, and timing of the snow-line retreat.

This figure from the paper shows the extent of the dark zone between June and August each year between 2000 – 2016.

These findings provide some insights into which surface processes are most likely to explain the dynamics of the dark zone. The spatial distribution of the dark ice is best explained by the melting out of dust particles from ancient ice, although these particles are not dark enough to explain the colour change of the dark zone. However, these dusts may be crucial nutrients and substrates for ice algae, suggesting that the dusts control where the dark zone is, and the algae determine how dark it gets. Our other recent TCD paper showed how algae can darken ice and snow; however, there are also meteorological conditions required for algal growth including sufficient sunlight and liquid water. We suggest in the paper that the most likely hypothesis is that dust melts out from ancient ice and stimulates the growth of algae when meteorology allows it. Algae need the dust to grow, and the dust is not dark without the algae.

Bioalbedo: new model and TCD paper

I’m very pleased to report our new paper is now in open discussion in The Cryosphere. The paper presents a new model for predicting the spectral bioalbedo of snow and ice, which confirms that ice algae on ice surfaces can change its colour and by doing so enhance its melt rate (“bioalbedo”). We also used the model to critique the techniques used to measure bioalbedo in the field. The model is based on the SNow ICe and Atmosphere Radiative model (SNICAR), but adapted to interface with a mixing model for pigments in algal cells. We refer to the coupled models as BioSNICAR.

The darkening effect of algal growth (bioalbedo) in the visible wavelengths can be seen in this UAV image of our 2016 field camp at S6 on the Greenland Ice Sheet

The model uses Mie theory to work out the optical properties of individual algal cells with refractive indices calculated using a pigment mixing model. The user can decide how much of each pigment the cell contains, the cell size, the biomass concentration in each of n vertical layers, the snow/ice optical properties, angle and spectral distribution of incoming sunlight and the mass concentration, optical properties and distribution of inorganic impurities including mineral dusts and black carbon (soot). From this information, the model predicts the albedo of the surface for each wavelength in the solar spectrum. This can then be used to inform an energy balance model to see how much melt results from changes to any of the input values, including growth or pigmentation of algae.

This figure shows the effect of algal cells with different pigmentation on spectral albedo of snow/ice. In A) the cells have 1.5% chlorophyll a and 10% photoprotective carotenoids, B) 1.5% chlorophyll a and 5% photoprotective carotenoids, C) 1.5% chlorophyll a and 1% photoprotective carotenoids and D) 1.5% chlorophyll a only. These percentages are % total cell dry mass. The biomass is shown in the legend, which applies to all four subplots.


The model shows that smaller cells with photoprotective pigments have the greatest albedo-reducing effect. The model experiments suggest that in most cases algal cells have a greater albedo-reducing effect than mineral dusts (depending upon optical properties) but less than soot.


A) An equal biomass concentration with varying vertical distribution in the snow/ice; B) mineral dusts in varying mass concentrations doing a good job of recreating the ‘red-edge’ (see previous post); ) mineral dusts obscuring the spectral signature of algal cells; D) the effect of water in interstitial pore spaces. Ice grains are 1000 microns in diameter and the legend refers to the thickness of liquid water coating around the grains (microns). Note the shift of the absorption feature centred at 1030 nm towards shorter wavelengths when more water is present.


As well as making predictions about albedo change, the modelling is useful for designing field experiments, as it can quantify the error resulting from certain practises, such as using devices with limited wavelength ranges, or neglecting to characterise the vertical distribution of cells. I’ll cover this in some further posts. The most important thing is metadata collection, since standardising this enables the measurement conditions to be as transparent as possible and encourages complementarity between different projects. Importantly, following a protocol for albedo measurements and collecting sufficient metadata will make it easier to couple ground measurements to satellite data. We outline two key procedures: hemispheric albedo measurement, and hemispherical-conical reflectance factor measurement. To accompany the discussion in our paper, we’ve produced some metadata collection sheets that might be useful to other researchers making albedo measurements in the field (download here: metadata sheets) and made our code and data available in an open repository.