Power to X

Yesterday, I attended a mini conference on power to X and the potential to generate green synthetic fuels in Greenland.

Power to X became a big thing in Denmark a few years ago and the government is keen to promote it. Danish company Topsoe are currently building a green fuel facility in Herning and they have a nice explainer on their website of the concept.

In Greenland the fuels could be anything from hydrogen to methanol (though I learnt methanol is least likely as it requires a CO2 source that Greenland doesn’t have, ammonia seems the most plausible initially).

It was an interesting meeting, lots of different companies, institutions and the Greenlandic MP Aaja Chemnitz as well as academics were in the room. The emphasis was very much on the social and economic aspects of power to X, but as the title implied: Greenland has the potential to be the “world’s largest energy island.” From a local point of view, Greenland has very high per capita emissions and is heavily dependent on energy imports for transport, though a majority of electricity, at least in the south west, is already hydropower.

Many other smaller and more remote communities however are dependent on diesel generators for heating and power as well as for shipping, fishing and flying between communities.* Transitioning away from these fuels will be challenging but the potential for much larger developments is clear.

Head of development at NunaGreen (the recently rebranded and reoriented NunaOil), Rasmus Wendt, emphasised just how cheap and in theory at least, abundant, Greenland hydropower is. Probably some of the cheapest electricity in the world is generated by Greenlandic dams already operating or planned. And indeed the potential is massive. As the ice sheet melts, enormous amounts of water are produced more or less endlessly in Greenland. It will take at least a thousand years to melt the whole ice sheet, even under a high emissions scenario. We’re not going to run out of water soon.

Figure 2 from Aschwanden et al., 2019.
Observed 2008 state and simulations of the Greenland Ice Sheet at year 3000.
(A) Observed 2008 ice extent (53). (B to D) Likelihood (percentiles) of ice cover as percentage of the ensemble simulations with nonzero ice thickness. Likelihoods less than the 16th percentile are masked. (E) Multiyear composite of observed surface speeds (61). (F to H) Surface speeds from the control simulation. Basin names shown in (A) in clockwise order are southwest (SW), central-west (CW), northwest (NW), north (NO), northeast (NE), and southeast (SE). RCP 2.6 (B and F), RCP 4.5 (C and G), and RCP 8.5 (D and H). Topography in meters above sea level (m a.s.l.) [(A) to (H)].

Wind energy too is extremely underdeveloped but potentially huge in Greenland. The problem is of course, all that potential energy is a long way from the end users as this screenshot from the global wind atlas, shared by energy scenario planner Brian Vad Mathiessen shows well.

Screenshot from the global wind atlas showing wind energy potential in Greenland and the north Atlantic margin of Europe

By sheer coincidence, this morning I stumbled over this article in the Dutch newspaper NRC on mastodon about the large green hydrogen facility currently under construction by Shell in Rotterdam.

It’s a really interesting read – (if you don’t speak Dutch try DeepL translation) and I was struck by many of the same issues being raised there as in the Greenland meeting: lack of trained staff, uncertain commercial environment, cost and competitiveness with other energy sources. Unlike in Greenland, energy in the Netherlands for producing synthetic fuels is scarce, but the market for using the energy is huge and nearby, and given the EU’s ambitions to produce and, crucially, import large amounts of hydrogen fuel by 2030, it seems like many of the important stars are aligning. Importing ammonia to Rotterdam for cracking back into hydrogen seems like it could actually be a viable future for Greenlandic generated fuels in Greenland he medium to long term.

We at DMI are shortly starting a project within the National Centre for Climate Research framework looking at exactly the potential to generate renewable energy from a climate and weather angle. But what I took away from yesterday’s meeting is that while the physical potential in Greenland really is HUGE, the regulatory environment – and probably the local population – is supportive, the economic certainty is not quite there yet.

It felt a bit like being in a bunch of young seabirds clustered on the edge of the cliff, none quite daring to take the flight, in spite of the undoubted rewards. And indeed, this seems the situation in the Netherlands too. I was especially struck by this quote in the NRC piece:

“Another problem is that many parties are just waiting for each other to take the first step so that they themselves dare to go. Producers, for instance, invest only sparingly because they are not sure whether there will soon be customers, and customers in turn hesitate because they are not sure whether the producers will deliver. The classic chicken-and-egg story.”
(Translated with DeepL)

Chris Hensen, NRC, 17thnMay 2023 “De Europese waterstofambities zijn groot, maar bedrijven zijn nog altijd afwachtend”

Perhaps the diving in of Shell, a company that can afford to risk investing a billion Euros in a new facility in Rotterdam, is what the development of Power to X needs?

BP, Air liquide and Uniper already have plans to build follow on plants in Rotterdam. Once one of the birds have taken flight, others will surely follow.

Thanks to Aalborg University,and especially my Danish Arctic Research Forum colleague Carina Ren for an interesting and inspiring meeting.

*(As an aside, I was reflecting while on fieldwork just how difficult removing fossil fuels from scientific work in Greenland will be. We rely on petrol generators to power equipment and oil stoves to warm tents. What if we could develop an easy to operate “tabletop” (or even just room sized) electrolysis system to generate clean fuels from e.g. wind energy, that we could burn instead of paraffin and/petrol? I’d invest in that and it would be a quick win for Greenland science.)

Inside of the tent during fieldwork, note the primus stove, running on petrol, for melting ice for water and food and the paraffin powered oven to keep the inside warm and dry while camping.

Oh Vienna…

In the before times I would usually spend this week walking around a world class city humming an old 80’s hit (- don’t ask me why it was so durable in my head, probably something to do with being an impressionable age at a time when access to pop music meant half an hour on a Thursday evening).

Anyway, it is the time for EGU… Sadly I will not be wandering the streets of the ever beautiful (and most livable) capital of Austria this year. I have to get some actual work done, but I’m following the #EGU23 on mastodon and hoping to catch a few highlights on the sides. I do have a poster, which will be capably presented by PolarRES PI Priscilla Mooney and my DMI Colleague Abraham Torres on Thursday.

The topic is our PolarRES project – an ambitious Horizon 2020 effort to produce a large ensemble of regional climate simulations over both poles. These are state-of-the-art regional climate models run at unprecedented high spatial resolution and all data will be made open access and free via the CORDEX project.

I will also put it here later – feel free to comment here or ask questions on mastodon or get in touch by email if it sounds exciting.

Mottram, R., Mooney, P., and Torres, J. A. and the PolarRES Consortium: A first look at the new PolarRES ensemble of polar regional climate model storylines to 2100, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-14470, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-14470, 2023.

Other posters and talks I’ve contributed to from PolarRES are

Kristiina Verro’s talk on HCLIM_Arome results from the Antarctic peninsula:

Verro, K., van de Berg, W. J., Orr, A., Landgren, O., and van Ulft, B.: New non-hydrostatic polar regional climate model HCLIM-AROME: analysis of the föhn event on 27 January 2011 over the Larsen C Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-13864, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-13864, 2023.

Abraham Torres joined our group last year and is primarily working on PolarRES also. He will show some of our preliminary HCLIM results for both the Arctic and the Antarctic

Torres-Alavez, A., Landgren, O., Boberg, F., Christensen, O. B., Mottram, R., Olesen, M., Van Ulft, B., Verro, K., and Batrak, Y.: Assessing Performance of a new High Resolution polar regional climate model with remote sensing and in-situ observations: HCLIM in the Arctic and Antarctica, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-14090, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-14090, 2023

Quentin Glaude is a collaborator from Liege in the Horizon 2020 PROTECT project on sea level rise contributions from the cryosphere . Baptiste Vandecrux, a former PhD student with me here and now working at GEUS is also presenting some work based on the same models as Quentin, with a comparison to the PROMICE observation statons on the Greealnd ice sheet. It’s very cool application of machine learning and the results are very interesting.

Glaude, Q., Noel, B., Olesen, M., Boberg, F., van den Broeke, M., Mottram, R., and Fettweis, X.: The Divergent Futures of Greenland Surface Mass Balance Estimates from Different Regional Climate Models, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-7920, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-7920, 2023

Vandecrux, B., Fausto, R. S., Box, J. E., Covi, F., Hock, R., Rennermalm, A., Heilig, A., Abermann, J., Van As, D., Løkkegaard, A., Fettweis, X., Smeets, P. C. J. P., Kuipers Munneke, P., Van Den Broeke, M., Brils, M., Langen, P. L., Mottram, R., and Ahlstrøm, A. P.: Historical snow and ice temperature compilation documents the recent warming of the Greenland ice sheet, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-9080, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-9080, 2023.

Nicolaj Hansen (who finished his PhD with me and Sebastian Simonsen at DTU Space last year) has just submitted a beauty of a paper which he will talk about – also partof PROTECT.

 Hansen, N., Sørensen, L. S., Spada, G., Melini, D., Forsberg, R., Mottram, R., and Simonsen, S. B.: ICESat-2 Ice Sheet Mass balance: Going below the surface, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-12349, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-12349, 2023

Mathias Larsen is a current Phd student with me and is presenting a poster on the CARRA dataset and an application in surface mass balance modelling. This work falls under the danish National center for klima forskning

Larsen, M., H. Mottram, R., and L. Langen, P.: CARRA-driven simulation of Greenland Ice Sheet surface mass balance at 2.5 km resolution, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-5852, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-5852, 2023

Last year I co-organised a bootcamp for early career researchers on Arctic processes in the CMIP6 models. It was super fun and would not have been possible without the support offered by Anne Fouilloux, Tina Odaka and colleagues from the Pangeo project. Their poster is super interesting and if you’re interested in optimising the use of big climate data, go and check it out!

Fouilloux, A., Marasco, P. L., Odaka, T., Mottram, R., Zieger, P., Schulz, M., Coca-Castro, A., Iaquinta, J., and Eynard Bontemps, G.: Pangeo framework for training: experience with FOSS4G, the CLIVAR bootcamp and the eScience course, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-8756, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-8756, 2023.

Excitingly, at least 3 of the projects at the bootcamp will also be presented at EGU this year. So, lots to be getting on with, for now, here’s a link to Ultravox’s finest…

Q is for Qaanaaq

Back in Denmark after 2 weeks in Greenland. Always a bit strange to come back, not just that transition from Arctic cold to European Spring but the sheer abundance of the fertile mid-latitudes, colours, plants, trees, the sheer number of people.

Not to mention that expedition frame of mind, where you are really focused on accomplishing a given set of often quite complex tasks (almost) without distraction. It is the ultimate deep work task, and naturally readjusting to family life, not to mention the tsunami of work tasks left on hold is… difficult.

This particular deep fieldwork has been carried out in Qaanaaq, Northern Greenland, as I’ve written about before. The community of about 600 people (and maybe a 1000 dogs), was established in the 1950s when the US established the Thule air base. It is almost the most northern settlement in Greenland – and certainly the largest. The small village of Siorapaluk is about 45km (or 6 hours by dog sled) further away.

The town was formerly a summer hunting spot, but after Thule was decided on, the community was moved to Qaanaaq year round. It has an association with the famous Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, whose old house is a museum (allegedly. I’ve never actually had time to visit it..)

DMI established a geomagnetic observatory there in the 1950s and today its part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation network that DMI operates on behalf of the Danish government from what we now call the DMI geophysical facility. There is transnational access to this via the INTERACT network.

This year we again visited the glaciers at the head of the Inglefield Fjord – expanding a new research programme we piloted last year. We also did a lot of work on the sea ice – not just Steffen Olsen‘s ocean programme, but a new NCKF research programme looking at biological productivity and carbon cycling in the fjord, led by Anna Pedersen, a DMI PhD student also at the University of Southern Denmark. I and another colleagues also did a lot of work on snow processes that is something of a pilot programme for a processes project we’d like to establish next year that will also involve (hopefully) our weather forecasting colleagues and perhaps also the GEUS PROMICE programme.

All of this work involved 6 days of travelling over and camping on the sea ice, plus an additional day trip. We were lucky with the weather, although it was *extremely* cold, around -25 to -28C most days, and dipping well below -30C at night (though being after the equinox it was never truly pitch dark). However, in general there was little wind, no fresh snow (which can really slow the dogs down as they struggle to pull through deep soft snow) and the sun shone every day. This meant we basically managed to achieve the full planned programme – including our extra-optimistic goals – which almost never happens in fieldwork.

Camping on the sea ice at sunset. Northern Greenland
This work by Ruth Mottram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

I intend to write a whole series of posts based on what we have been doing scientifically and technically as well as some general observations. There have been various hints already in my preferred social network. The whole trip was super inspiring, it’s always valuable to get out and observe the real world when you’re trying to model it, understand it and make projections of sea level rise.

I also promised to make another Lego scientists series and took quite a few photos in between times to do so. However, the research programme was packed, so I had no time at all to make the comic during fieldwork, that will have to wait a few weeks.

Expect my pixelfed account to host gratuitous numbers of dog pictures. And ice pictures. And unexpectedly clear blue skies. For now it’s time to unpack, get the washing machine going and spend some time with my family.

Sunset over sea ice near Qaanaaq, North West Greenland
This work by Ruth Mottram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

As ever, thanks to my amazing colleagues Steffen Malskær Olsen, Andrea Gierisch and Anna Pedersen for an incredible trip and to DMI station manager in Qaanaaq Aksel Ascanius without whom most of this work would be impossible.

Special thanks to our friends in Qaanaaq, the local hunters, whose unfailing energies and knowledge are absolutely essential to these scientific projects. We literally could not do this without them and of course their dogs.

I must also credit DMI and the Danish Government for funding via the National Center for Klima Forskning and thanks also to Horizon Europe projects PROTECT on sea level rise and PolarRES for additional inspiration and funding and to my colleagues at the Horizon Europe/NERC project OCEAN:ICE for indulging my two weeks away. All three projects will benefit from the insights gained in this fieldwork.

The further adventures of batgirl…

I wrote this series of comics to amuse and inform my kids while I was on fieldwork a few years ago. It turned out to be quite a success and my kids classes both read the Danish versions at their school.

Last year I started https://icemangoeshome.wordpress.com/more-arctic-adventures/ the further adventures of batgirl on the ice with her new friends the Lego scientists and a couple of stowaways.. but last year’s season was extremely busy and I never managed to finish it.

I asked yesterday on mastodon if I should do another this year, and the only feedback I got was I should try to finish the one I started last year. So maybe that’s what I’ll try to do. It’s always challenging fitting around field tasks though so no promises.

This is just a quick post from the airport: you’ve been warned, bat girls and her friends are on their way back with a new season!


Lego figures in the snow

Signs of Spring

Currently, I’m very busy getting ready with colleagues to travel to Greenland next week. We have an extremely full programme of fieldwork activities covering oceanography, biology, sea ice, snow and glacier processes as part of our NCKF work. More on these no doubt in a future post…

Yesterday, one of my ace DMI colleagues (without whom most of the work we plan would definitely not happen) shared the first optical satellite image of the area this year – taken by ESA’s Sentinel 2 (a truly astonishing source of free imagery and everone should know about it). Because the area is very far north, it has been in the Polar night until now so we have been reliant on the ESA Sentinel 1 imagery based on radar.

First Sentinel-2 optical satellite image of the year downloaded from Sentinel Hub’s EO Browser today. Processing with Sentinel Hubs optimised natural colour filter has introduced some artefacts, notable the brigh white patches which probably represent areas of shadow due to the low solar angle. The area is blanketed in thin cloud and only parts of the glaciers, sea ice and icebergs are clearly visibe.

It’s a wonderful thing to see the first satellite image of Spring, akin to other signs like the first cuckoo (in the UK), the first peewit egg (in the Netherlands), and the timing of the cherry blossom in Kyoto.

The first lapwing (peewit) egg of the year was traditionally presented to the Dutch monarch – these days, given the

There was recently a very illuminating thread on phenology on mastodon in reply to a query by Pauline von Hellerman where the Diagram Monkey John Kennedy pointed out the existence of the Pan European Phenology network – not something I was aware of before (though I’d suspected it’s existence) – and who have all sorts of interesting data.

Where biology is clearly showing us earlier springs due to climate change, the date of the first optical image is unlikely to change any time soon due to climate change.

A newer updated version of the Economist’s cherry blossom flowering date plot provided by Datagraver after I posted the old one. See: https://mastodon.social/@Datagraver/110021046678442071

Nor are species assemblages (it’s not quite certain that it’s the same variety of cherry blossom for the whole 1200 year period), or biodiversity losses (the cuckoo is down 65% since the early 1980s alone in the UK, and heaven knows it was not particularly common then) likely to affect it. Not to mention human behaviour changes, the lapwing has gone from being a common agricultural bird to near threatened over the same period, which probably also affects the reliability of that data.

Of course, quite a bit of what you might call bulk phenology can be done by satellite too now…

Copernicus land dataset showing biological activity in Europe basedon satellite data available here

As for Qaanaaq, there is not much in the way of biological phenology, but a compilation and analysis of data on sea ice cover and thickness over the last 60 years would probably be as instructive. Do get in touch if you’re interested in doing this as a student project…


I have been meaning to write about my return to field science (after 10 years mostly working on climate models) for the last 2 years, but prompted by this beautifully written piece in the Danish Newspaper information, I decided Christmas Day was the day (it for sure beats the washing up)…

“For at forstå, hvad der er ved at ske ved kloden, rejste vi mod isens ende”
“To understand what is happening to the earth, we travelled to the end of the ice”

Martin Bahn og Anders Rye Skjoldjensen (foto) in Information 23rd December 2022

To make one thing very clear straight away, and as the newspaper article also makes very clear, my colleague Steffen Malskær Olsen has established and maintained a very long-running programme of observations in the fjord near Qaanaaq. This town in northern Greenland on the edge of a large fjord, and close to the North Water polynya has a uniquely interesting location to study and understand Arctic processes. The DMI facility there is long established and part of the INTERACT network of Arctic field stations. The 15-year record collected by Steffen is more or less unbroken and uniquely valuable. None of the science I’m planning to do or to work on would be possible without his dedication, hard work, insight and bridge building within the community in Qaanaaq. He and my other DMI colleagues involved in this programme are brilliant scientists and great field companions and I feel privileged to be able to work with them in this incredible place.

In the field: Steffen and team retrieving an oceanographic mooring with instruments on it after a winter out in the fjord in 2021.

Secondly, as the article also makes clear, scientists are not individualistic heroes who beat the odds, it’s a team sport. And it’s especially true in Greenland where the true heroes of this story are probably not scientists but the local hunters and fishers who guide and transport us and whose knowledge and experience is unmatched. I include also on this category our DMI colleague Aksel Ascanius who lives and works in Qaanaaq has been an essential part of the programme since the earliest days, as well as keeping other long-term observations in the network running in this part of the world.

Collaboration with the people who live in the Arctic has been essential for success in Arctic science since since the days of Franklin and Rae (for British readers) or Suersaq, aka Hans Hendrik, (after whom Hans Island is named) for Danes..

Anyway, back to the science of the present-day. DMI has progressively added more and more elements to the field laboratory in Qaanaaq in addition to the longer running observations. A non-exhaustive list would include an infrasound monitoring station that is part of the CTBTO, weather observations (of course), surface emissivity measurements by drone, fjord salinity, temperature and photosynthetically available radiation measurements plus snow and sea ice measurements as well as work with satellites and biology. One glaring omission, up to this year at least, was the glaciology of the region. How does the ice sheet affect the regional climate, how does the ocean affect the glaciers that calve into the fjord? Can we learn about some important but poorly understood processes like calving and melange dynamics using this area as a test bed? What about surface mass budget and snowfall and snow melt?

A lead in the sea ice – these fractures in the ice have sea water (the black) welling up between two thick plates of sea ice. The conditions were perfect for frost flowers to grow on the surface. Sea ice turns out to be a lot more interesting – and complex- than I’d ever imagined…

Now, as a glaciologist, I’ve mostly worked with the interface between atmosphere and ice sheet (at least the last 14 years or so, but I am also still (after my PhD topic on ice fracture and crevasses) interested in calving glaciers and the processes that control how fast icebergs form. And the fjord, Inglefield Bredning has *a lot* of calving glaciers in it. It is a natural laboratory for glaciology and for developing numerical models. Calving is actually a surprisingly difficult thing to model with computer models of glaciers.

Or perhaps it’s not that surprising?

Observations are difficult to get (to put it mildly). There are a number of (possibly wild) theories of “calving laws” that remain poorly constrained by observations as a result. Common parameterizations of ice flow makes it hard to deal with fast flowing glaciers where calving is common. Dealing with grounding lines, where glaciers meet the sea and start to come close to flotation can give notorious numerical errors and retreat requires the remaking of ocean grids in fully coupled climate models.

Satellite image from ESA’s Sentinel-2 satellite showing glaciers calving icebergs into the head of the Ingle field Bredning fjord. The black is open water, icebergs show up as blueish dots, the land is carpeted in snow. Low winter sun (in late September 2022) casts deep shadows.

These are not easy or computationally cheap problems to solve. And where there are at least thousands (maybe even tens of thousands?) of scientists working on atmospheric weather and climate modelling, the community working on ice sheet dynamic models is probably only in the low hundreds.

And of course, we really lack long time series of measurements – essential in a system that changes only s l o w l y, but likely irreversibly and which we are, only now as the system is changing rapidly, starting to understand.

This of course is why the fjord observation record of Steffen is so valuable – these are reliable, repeated measurements of ocean properties that are known to affect the outlet glaciers that meet them. It is indeed a natural laboratory.

What we are now also working on is a field lab to study these calving processes in-situ. I have already found the return to the field scientifically valuable. There is really no replacement for going to observe the earth system you want to understand. (My PhD supervisor used to call it “nurturing your inner glacier”). Observations taken in spring/summer 2022 have already changed how I think about some processes and hopefully the follow-up we have planned in 2023 will confirm our new theoretical framework.

Heading home from the deployment of instruments out near calving glaciers at the head of the fjord.

I am fortunate indeed in that at the same research department, we also have colleagues collecting and analyzing satellite data and developing the numerical models we want to use to understand how ice sheets fit into the earth system. All three of these elements – field, satellite and numerical model- are essential.

In this project we are using the satellite observations to extend the time series of field data and we can use both sets of observations together to develop and test a numerical model of this fjord and the glaciers that calve into it. The numerical model we can then extend to other glaciers in Greenland. Hopefully, we can also use this work to understand how Antarctic glaciers might also respond to a warming ocean. Ultimately, the aim of all this work is to understand the contribution of these glaciers to sea level rise both now and in the future.

This is not a frivolous question. In fact, if large (more than a couple of metres).of sea level rise is expected, it is a question that is basically existential for Denmark.

I will add more on the specifics and science in coming months, this is already long enough. However, I’d like to mention a couple of other points:

Firstly, DMI is by no means alone operating up here. Many of the key articles, particularly on glaciology in this region, have been written by the Japanese group at Hokkaido University and their collaborators at the Meteorological Research Institute, the national institute for polar research and others. We at DMI are also working directly with the Greenland institute of natural resources, Asiaq, GEUS, KU, DTU, AU, SDU, ESA, Eumetsat and many others in this research programme.

Secondly, if you want to read more about it, I made these comics for my kids featuring some of their Lego pieces while out in the field this year and last. They’re kind of fun (I hope) and also informative (I hope).

Finally, this work is currently being carried out under the auspices of the Danish National Centre for Climate Research (NCKF), funded by the Danish Government though with contributions also from other research projects mostly funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe frameworks as well as ESA’s climate change initiative for the Greenland ice sheet.