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.
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
UPDATE: The Arctic Sea ice Outlook I mention in the post below has just been published for 2016. We will follow this up in September when the final results will be known, but here are the 30 entries using a rage of different techniques including sophisticated computer models, statistical estimates and what is kindly called “Heuristics” but which may be characterised as an educated guess by people who have been studying this field for a while…
Professor Wadhams has not contributed an estimate this year but it can easily be seen that none of the estimates reach as low as the putative 1 million square kilometres. Nonetheless the view of 27 expert climate scientists put forward by Kay, Bailey and Holland (pdf), not to mention the very sophisticated RASM model (one of the most sophisticated in this area, run by the US Naval Postgraduate school), put the September extent at a very low 3-4 million km2, in the same range as the record low of 2012.
It will be interesting to see how low it does go. The latest results from the polar portal show that Arctic sea ice is currently still on the record low 2012 line but a careful look shows also that the 2012 and 2013 curves diverge around mid to late June. The year 2013 is pretty representative of a “new normal” over the last 4 years or so, it is therefore difficult to tell based on simply extrapolating along the curves which path 2016 is likely to follow.
I trained as a glaciologist originally, but even then I came across sea ice and was first of all unnerved by it, crossing on scooters to visit glaciers in Svalbard, and then fascinated by it. Recently I have been working pretty closely with my colleagues in DMI who are sea ice scientists and I have learnt quite a lot. We even published a paper together in the journal Polarforschung earlier this year. Not only that, I am now part of a big ERC Synergy project known as ice2ice with scientists at four institutions in Bergen and Copenhagen working on the complex connections between sea ice, ocean, atmosphere and ice sheet in the Arctic. More on that another time, but suffice to say it’s fascinating work and I know a hell of a lot more about sea ice than I did even three years ago.
So when this news story crossed my email this evening courtesy a BBC researcher and journalist I knew pretty well straight away what it was about. Basically the scientist Professor Peter Wadhams had made some statements about the extent of Arctic sea ice which might be considered somewhat eyecatching.
Professor Wadhams is a well-known scientist who did some incredibly valuable and indeed ground-breaking early work on sea ice. More recently he has also done some very valuable work reconstructing thickness based on submarine observations during the Cold War (see below on why this is important). I well remember seeing him talk about this as a young graduate student, he is an excellent speaker and gave a very interesting and compelling talk. In the last few years he has made several statements that have been widely reported and perhaps misinterpreted, with regard to the future fortunes of the Arctic sea ice.
Now, I need and want to be clear about this. Most of the global climate models we use are not very good at reproducing the observed historical sea ice extent. They have improved significantly in the last few years but still struggle to reproduce the actual observed decline in sea ice area from satellites. And there are actually very good reasons why this should be. There are some very good stand alone sea ice models which have done a very good job and the key difference between these models is our clue. Sea ice models are generally partly forced with actual observations, or climate reanalyses which assimilate observations, so the atmosphere and the ocean are close to reality. Basically sea ice responds to weather, and if you have a more accurate weather driving your sea ice model you will get a better fit to the observations.
So, is Professor Wadhams correct? Will the sea ice “disappear” this year.
Well, it is pretty clear that given the changes we have already observed in the Arctic, as well as what we know about Arctic amplification and the general direction that anthropogenic emissions are heading in, that unless something changes pretty soon, we will likely see an end to a significant cover of sea ice in the Arctic at some point in the next few decades. But was does that actually mean?
Reading his actual comments in the article he appears to define 1 million km2 as “no sea ice” and that partly reflects how we define sea ice extent. Since most of the data sets use a cut-off figure (typically 15%) to define when a grid square or pixel is or is not a sea ice point. This is known as sea ice concentration and is really something of a hangover from the days when sea ice was observed from ships and an attempt was made to estimate how much sea ice in the area was around the vessel.
There are however lots of things that can affect sea ice extent, including winds and currents and melt ponds. The latter also affects how different algorithms assess the area that is or is not covered by sea ice. As there are a number of different sensors in use and a number of different algorithms processing that data, it is not entirely surprising that there actually a number of different estimates (I will use OSISAF) for how much of the Arctic is covered in sea ice. And this number will vary in years with more winds for example, or stronger ocean currents, sea ice will disperse faster. It is quite likely that much of the variability in sea ice area in recent years is at least partly attributable to different winds, as well as, for example in 2012, big storms that have arrived at just the right moment (or wrong one depending on how you look at it), to break up the sea ice into smaller, more easily transportable pieces.
As an aside, a better measure for how much Arctic sea ice there is actually present is sea ice volume. Unfortunately this is very difficult to measure, especially outside the winter freeze up season, though a research group at the UCL, centre for Polar Observation and Monitoring have developed a way to do so. Here for example is the most recent plot, which as you can see has not been updated since May 2016 due to the presence of melt ponds on the surface of the sea ice which the Cryosat radar cannot penetrate.
So 1 million km2 is probably a reasonable cut off for assuming an “ice-free” Arctic in the sense that it indicates that there will still be some sea ice drifting around (it always forms surprisingly quickly when the winter begins) in summer, even if it is dispersed.
Over the last 40 or so years (we have good observations going back to 1979, it gets patchy after that), in September, when the area covered by sea ice is at it’s lowest, that extent has been between about 7 and 9 million km2, more recently that has dropped and 2012, the lowest on record had an extent of about 4 million km2, which you can see on the latest polarportal sea ice chart below.
I well remember 2012, we had a large melt event over Greenland that year also, but it was still quite a long way from the 1 million km2 quoted by Professor Wadhams. Again, let me be clear, we are pretty sure that at some point on a time scale of a few years to a few decades, the Arctic will become “ice-free” in the summer time. We can predict this, even if we don’t know exactly when, since, as I hope is clear now, sea ice conditions are very dependent on the weather. The weather this year so far, at least this Spring has been very warm and congenial to sea ice melt. The big dive shown on the graph above is no mystery when considering some of the temperature anomalies in the Arctic, as shown also on the Polar Portal.
Nevertheless, the recent plots seem to show that the 2 metre air temperature in the Arctic is returning to close to normal and there is little reason to suppose that will change significantly anytime soon.
Having said that, weather forecasting has improved massively in the last few decades, a true quiet revolution, but we still do not know how the weather will pan out over the whole of this melt season. I am sure that at some point Professor Wadhams will be proved correct, but we do not know when and it is even possible or rather likely that we will have a few years where we switch back and forth between ice free and not ice free conditions. So, the answer to the question I pose above is probably no. But don’t bet on it remaining so for too long.
UPDATE: I recalled this morning on my way in to work that I had somehow failed to mention the Sea Ice Prediction network. This group of people under the auspices of ARCUS, gather predictions on y´the end-of-season sea ice extent ever year. The call for predictions for the 2016 season is now open. Many different research groups as well as one or two enthusiastic amateurs will post their predictions over the next few weeks. It is an interesting exercise, as you can see based on last year’s report (see also figure below), it is not the first time that Profgessor Wadhams has predicted a 1 million km2 extent in September, and his is the lowest (and least accurate) in the rankings.
Endnote: There has been quite an absence of posts from this blog recently. I have been too busy with work, family, travel and more recently the EU Referendum (for which I have been threatening a post for quite some time and may yet get around to before polling day). However, a question about Arctic sea ice has been flickering on the edges of my consciousness for a while now so this was a quick (EDIT: not so quick!) blogpost to try and address it when I should actually be writing something else…
I have found myself shovelling a lot of snow this winter. As with last winter, it has been cold and snowy across northern Europe so far, which has led to the usual questioning of climate change by the usual suspects. There is some very good work examining this on the real climate blog and Marcus Brigstocke did his usual amusing beston the Now Show towards the end of last year, so I’m not going to write about the difference between weather and climate, or about how regional and global average temperatures differ. Rather, the time spent shovelling snow and wandering around the city streets camera in hand to take photos, really brought home how many of the snow processes that are subjects of active research in remote or mountainous areas are currently on display in our cities.
For instance, today in the local park I noticed that there is preferential melt occurring around the trees. The dark tree trunks absorb and emit more radiation that then melts snow around the trees faster than it melts in the open areas of the lawn. This is an important consideration in the planting of forests in snowy areas, since the presence of vast forests can significantly alter the albedo of the earth’s surface, that is how much radiation is reflected back in to space. Planting trees in the tundra to combat climate change may have the unintended effect of actually enhancing warming through changes of this kind.
The process can also be seen to spectacular effect on glaciers, where rocks and boulders shield the ice below them from melting but enhance it around them, leading to the formation of so-called glacier tables, such as this one in Switzerland (from glaciers online).
More seriously, the heavy snow on rooves around the city is currently posing an avalanche hazard rarely encountered outside the mountains. The effect of sunshine on heavy snow, which is resting on a slope of a critical angle, can be extremely dangerous to the unwary. As are the large numbers of icicles which have developed. These are not just a sign of poorly insulated buildings (where the heat leaking out has caused the snow to melt and then quickly refreeze in the low temperatures we’ve had). Icicles falling from buildings show the same mechanics as seracs falling from the steep parts of glaciers known as ice falls. In this case, the ice builds up to such a degree that the sheer weight of it eventually causes fracture when a critical threshold is reached. Pedestrians are learning to walk on the outside of pavements and to look up frequently at the overhanging cornices of snow and ice.
But back to the snow shovelling. I have not done so much digging since fieldwork last winter in Svalbard, where we set up some experiments to study the properties of snow and how this affects the melt, or conversely the growth, of glaciers. Specifically, we were studying the effects of liquid water from snow melt or rain on the snow pack and the glacier surface. Liquid water filters into the snow, or else runs off bare glacier ice if there is no snow and will typically freeze, forming ice lenses in the snow pack, or large areas of what is known as superimposed ice on the glacier surface. As you can imagine, there was a lot of snow shovelling, especially as the high winds on the glacier kept filling in the trenches we dug to work in.
Now this probably sounds like a fairly esoteric set of experiments, but the purpose is actually quite serious, since we need to know how much melt water refreezes to work out how much the glaciers and large ice sheets of the world are melting and how sea level rise is likely to progress in the future in a warming world.
Identifying the melt area of a glacier or ice sheet is a relatively straightforward task using satellite imagery, but identifying how much of that melt runs off or refreezes is impossible at present, so we generally use a model, based on observations and experiments like these, to make an approximation. We also need to factor in the effect of latent heat, (heat that is released when liquid water becomes solid ice) since this can warm up the snow pack significantly. In Greenland for instance, it is likely that the effects of higher temperatures over the last 20 years or so have been buffered somewhat by the snow pack and refreezing processes. However, as temperatures continue to increase, melt will probably accelerate partly because the saturated snow pack cannot absorb additional melt water but also because it has a higher temperature from the release of latent heat and thus requires less additional energy to melt.
Last winter I tested out some of the techniques we used in Svalbard, in a pile of snow in my back garden. I am also aware of at least one study into permafrost, where patterned ground usually found in Arctic climates was created in a back garden in St Andrews, so it’s even possible to do valid experimental work during the winter time when conditions are right. However, the climate of glaciated regions is generally unlike that of the cities of Europe so there will still be a need to go to places like Svalbard to do experiments quantifying these kind of processes. Nevertheless, I still find this kind of weather inspiring and I’m hoping to get more insights as the winter progresses.