Principal Investigator

At a Glance

Climate changes involve atmospheric motions, ocean flows, and evolution of ice on land and in the sea. These dynamics are closely interrelated; insights into individual processes can help to illuminate poorly understood aspects of global climate dynamics, such as factors affecting the maintenance of sea ice cover in the Arctic basin. Sea ice cover can impact fresh water fluxes, local ecology and ocean circulation. The Stone group is providing simplified models for understanding the movement and distribution of ice during the formation of polynyas, which refer to localized regions of water surrounded by ice, and through narrow straits, which can affect flow, mixing and ecology in the ocean. The approach seeks to draw generalizations valid for various geometric and climate conditions.


Research Highlight

A polynya is a region of persistent open ocean water surrounded by sea ice (Figures 1.5a and 1.5b). Polynyas remain open from a regional balance between the rate of ice production (due to freezing seawater) and the rate of ice depletion, for example, due to flow. Such polynyas may exist either in the open ocean or close to coastal boundaries. The latter are formed when winds sweep ice away from the coast, exposing open sea water that freezes to form new ice. Thus, these coastal polynyas, especially along the Antarctic coast and some regions of the Arctic, are an important source of new sea ice, are crucial to ocean-atmosphere energy exchange, and are thought to regulate thermohaline circulation, i.e., the circulation of temperature and salinity, in the ocean. In addition, phytoplankton and other marine life thrive in polynyas, especially in summer months, and so these water-ice structures are important to ecology.

Although some qualitative mechanisms of polynya formation have been identified, modeling their extent precisely has proved challenging. In particular, previous attempts have predicted unrealistically large or unstable polynyas. Alternatively, they have relied on high-resolution numerical simulations, where a clear connection between polynya formation dynamics and the mechanical stresses due to the ice motion is lacking. Recently, the Stone group has succeeded in developing simplified descriptions of ice motion due to wind in the context of ice bridge formation in straits, taking into account the frictional stresses in ice. These simplified models accurately represent the mechanical behavior of ice and ice flows, agreeing both with measurements and with numerical simulations. This approach forms the basis for our more recent investigation of coastal polynyas.

Figure 1.5. (a) Map of the Arctic indicating coastal polynyas in orange and sea ice in blue. Adapted from Barber and Massom, 2007. Elsevier Oceanography Series. 74: 1-54. (b) Aerial view of the Weddell polynya (dark blue) off the Antarctic coast (white) surrounded by ice on all sides; image from ACE CRC, Australia. (c) Results of a preliminary numerical simulation of a wind-driven coastal polynya downstream of an island (white), showing a pileup of ice (red) upstream of the island with open water (dark blue) downstream. The arrows indicate the velocity of the ice, shading indicates ice thickness, and the contours indicate the ice area fraction.

The Stone group’s current efforts are focused on modeling polynya formation in coastal regions, including islands and fjords. As with our previous studies of ice flows, we have interacted closely with Michael Winton at GFDL as part of regular discussions we have had with GFDL colleagues. These studies of polynyas quantify the formation of new ice by freezing seawater, while incorporating findings from the group’s previous work to quantify the stresses and motion of the formed ice in response to wind. The study will develop a fully resolved numerical model, as well as a simplified model to predict the roles of freezing (ice production), flow, and ice accumulation in determining the extent of coastal polynyas. The combination of modeling approaches will provide clear connections between the mechanics of sea ice motion and the thermodynamics of sea ice production. Thus, our modeling efforts not only explain a complex geophysical phenomenon but also provide a means to refine the modeling of sea ice in the more general context of Arctic and Antarctic ice flows near land boundaries.

A related theme that is being pursued by the Stone group is to understand the mechanics of ice more broadly in the context of granular flows. Although the qualitative similarities of ice motion to flowing grains has been recognized in the ice-modeling community, no systematic quantification of these similarities has been attempted previously. This quantification will be particularly important as the structure of sea ice changes with climate change, requiring a reworking of current ice models, and the insights may also be useful to the community focused on granular mechanics.