Moving a mountain on a needle

The cold weather and lack of snow has lead to several beautiful ice formations. (c) Mathew Reeve

It’s been cold in Bergen the past few days. And before that it was wet, very wet. This combination has lead to some interesting effects. For the first time in several years, we have seen the fjord freeze over around town. Usually, this does not happen because of a layer of extra-salty water from salted road run-off. However, with two weeks of mild temperatures and bucket-loads of rain (see table) behind us, the top layer of the fjord is much fresher than usual. Much fresher means much easier to freeze.

2013 started very wet for Bergen with 183 mm between Dec 28 and Jan 10. Then the temperatures dropped and the ground froze.

2013 started very wet fr Bergen with 183 mm between Dec 28 and Jan 10. Then the temperatures dropped and the ground froze (

Up along the mountain sides, less obvious and extremely delicate phenomena have been sprouting up. If soil moisture creeps up over a magical 34% and the temperature drops below 0°C, frozen pins shoot up from the surface. Needles of ice reach upward; usually laden with dirt and soil from the surface below (Rempel, 2012). These ‘ice needles’ are well known phenomena in soil science, but rarely seen in Bergen.

Lifting soil particles up from the surface on ice needles roughly 1mm in diameter. But there’s a lot of them! (c) Mathew Reeve

With the forecast staying under 0°C for the next week, it doesn’t look like these formations will be going anywhere. However when they do melt, the suspended soil particles will fall straight downward and thereby ending up slightly downslope to where they started. At this point, a tiny portion of the mountain side has made it’s way slightly closer to the sea. In my experience, this kind of erosion occurs rarely in Bergen and is of minuscule importance compared with the overwhelming power of huge amounts of rain. In other parts of the world, ice needle erosion is an important factor in hillside erosion, especially in areas where freeze-thaw processes occur on a daily basis. In some studies, ice needle erosion is estimated to account for up to 43% of river bank erosion. One study estimated that if sufficient moisture is present, these seemingly delicate spikes can lift upto 4 kg/m2 (Lawler, 1993).

More ice moves the mountain side slowly down towards the sea.

More ice moves the mountain side slowly down towards the sea. (c) Mathew Reeve

With quantities such as this, it is not then surprising that soil creep of this nature is the dominant soil transport mechanism on many sub-Antarctic islands. This is especially the case on Marion Island where favourable conditions occur from 60-200 days per year (Nel, 2012).

With the formation of needle ice so dependent on soil moisture and ambient temperature fluctuations, climate change will clearly influence how much of the mountain is moved in this way in the future (Sweeney et al, 2012). The influence of climate change could vary non-linearly due to the interaction of factors such as cloud cover, cyclone paths, precipitation amounts and air pressure (Nel, 2012).

In the meantime, they make a very pretty curiosity for anyone taking a mountain hike in Bergen at the moment.


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Mathew Stiller-Reeve

I am a postdoc researcher at NORCE Climate and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research. I research the monsoon in Bangladesh and I am the founder of ClimateSnack; a community that hopes to give all young and early career climate scientists an opportunity to practice and improve their scientific communication skills.

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