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Mechanical and Civil Engineering Seminar: PhD Thesis Defense

Monday, November 13, 2023
9:00am to 10:00am
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Gates-Thomas 115
Sea Ice Discrete Element Modeling: Melt and Fracture of Floes and Sheets
Rigoberto Moncada Lopez, Graduate Student, Civil Engineering, Mechanical and Civil Engineering, Caltech,


Over the last 40 years, the Arctic Ocean has experienced a significant reduction in surface area and thickness of sea ice for its minimum summer and year-round values. Sea ice, existing both as continuous ice sheets and distinct broken floes or blocks is disappearing earlier and faster over time. These changes are largely occurring within marginal ice zones, where ice is most vulnerable to thermal forcings from the sun and atmosphere and wind and ocean currents. Given that sea ice plays a vital role in regulating climate by delaying global energy exchanges, its loss is a vital factor in increasing global temperatures and the frequency of extreme weather events. Understanding and projecting seasonal variations in sea ice is imperative to improve climate predictions. However, many of the processes in sea ice are not fully described by most existing models, due to the limitations of continuum sea ice approaches. As a result, the use of discontinuum techniques on sea ice is a very active field. In this work, we combine discrete element methods with satellite image analysis to study changes in sea ice concentration and floe size distribution during the summer melt transition for ensembles of distinct floes decaying into open waters and continuous fast sea ice sheets breaking into multiple floes. For the pure floe-like behavior, we use the ‘Level Set Discrete Element Method for Sea Ice' or LS-ICE method. This model can resolve individual sea ice floes with realistic shapes and represent their physical interactions by leveraging level-set functions to detect contacts. LS-ICE can also be coupled to atmospheric and oceanic heat and momentum forcings and simulate associated melt and breakage processes. With it, we are able to reproduce sea ice concentration decline for the summers of 2018 and 2020 at Baffin Bay. Using LS-ICE we also unveil the sensitivity of sea ice loss and floe size distribution to different intensities of fracturing and ocean/solar melt and how sea ice floe size determines which is more dominant. For monolithic ice sheets, we use a bonded particle method within the level set discrete element model called LS-DEM-BPM. We explore the relationship between landfast sea ice breakage and area decline, ocean currents and floe size distribution for a region in Fram Strait during 2023. We are also able replicate its fracture characteristics, using idealized pulses and arbitrary eddying ocean currents, and unveil particular combinations of wavelengths and wave speeds that facilitate breakage. Our results give new insight on sea ice melt and breakage interactions and provide a numerical framework for simulating the complete transition of sea ice from intact sheets to open oceans.

For more information, please contact Jenni Campbell by email at [email protected] or visit