Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Operation IceBridge: Birds-Eye View of Arctic Ice Cover

Operation IceBridge takes scientists to new heights (literally!) to collect aerial ice cover data to help us better understand how changes in polar ice connect to the broader global climate system. The six-year project is the largest airborne survey of polar ice ever. The long-term data scientists gather using specialized airplanes and instruments will supplement data collected by the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) and provide a 3-D view of earth’s rapidly changing ice cover. ICESat is currently orbiting earth measuring polar ice sheet mass, cloud cover, topography and vegetation.

Operation IceBridge scientist Michael Studinger is based at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center just outside Washington D.C. and travels to the Arctic and Antarctica for the project. He’s responsible for the overall scientific success of the project and oversees the planning and coordination of missions. The IceBridge field schedule is intense with annual March-May flights over Greenland and October-November operations in Antarctica based out of Punta Arenas, Chile. This month, Studinger shares some of the most recent IceBridge findings with field notes.

NASA Operation IceBridge scientist Michael Studinger on the P-3 during an arctic flight in 2011. Photo: NASA/Jefferson Beck

Please tell us about the 2012 field season in the Arctic–what types of data were collected and where did NASA researchers survey?

IceBridge utilizes a highly specialized fleet of research aircraft and the most sophisticated suite of innovative science instruments ever assembled to characterize annual changes in thickness of sea ice, glaciers and ice sheets. In addition, IceBridge collects critical data used to predict the response of earth’s polar ice to climate change and resulting sea-level rise. IceBridge also helps bridge the gap in polar observations between NASA’s ICESat satellite missions. This year we collected data over sea ice in the Arctic Ocean and the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off of Alaska. We surveyed large parts of the Greenland ice sheet and glaciers and the Canadian ice caps.

What advantages are there to collecting airborne data about ice cover?

For starters it allows us to target scientifically interesting areas to get a more detailed look. Also, some of the instruments we use, such as the MCoRDS radar depth sounder and magnetometer, can’t really be used from space.

Briefly, what types of equipment and technology–from the airplanes to the smaller instruments–are used to collect data?

We have two specially equipped flying laboratories that carry our instruments, the P-3B and the DC-8. Both planes allow us to stay in the air for a long time to gather large amounts of science data. On the 2012 arctic campaign, we had nine science instruments on board the P-3B: four radar instruments, a laser altimeter, a digital mapping system, gravimeter, magnetometer and a sensor that measured ice and ocean surface temperature.

The P-3 arriving at Thule from Fairbanks and taxiing on the ramp. Photo: NASA/Kyle Krabill

What is a day in a research aircraft like for you and your colleagues?

Days on research flights are long. We get up early to meet with the weather office and finalize where we are flying that day. The instrument operators show up early to get things ready for the flight and the pilots and flight crew are preparing the aircraft for hours before and after the day’s flight.

A view of the NASA P-3B cockpit. Photo: NASA/Michael Studinger

Are there some interesting or surprising recent findings about arctic ice cover that you can share?

The changes that we observe in the Arctic are dramatic. IceBridge started in 2009 and even over such short time scales we are starting to see significant changes in some areas. We observe that the glaciers in the northwest area of Greenland are starting to thin, a process that seems to accelerate. We also observed that the thinning spreads further and further inland and that we have often needed to expand our detailed survey areas in order to capture the increasing spatial extent of the thinning. After flying over Greenland for four years in a row we are starting to build a very detailed time series of changes in the ice sheet and glaciers. That is for me an incredibly exciting thing.

What’s next for Operation IceBridge?

We’re preparing for our next Antarctic campaign right now, which is keeping all of us busy. We’ll continue gathering data for the next few years and work with the ICESat-2 team as they prepare for their 2016 launch. In the future we’ll likely move more toward Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, but the details are still unknown.

In addition to providing some of the most comprehensive data on ice cover, Operation IceBridge has yielded some stunning images of the Arctic. Scroll down for a selection of images taken during the spring 2012 flights above Greenland, the Arctic Ocean and other locations.

Icy water in the fjord of Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier in eastern Greenland, as seen from NASA's P-3B aircraft on Apr. 14, 2012. The wire seen at the top of the frame is a high frequency radio antenna attached to the aircraft, and appears curved due to the use of a fisheye lens when taking the photograph. Photo: NASA


In July 2012, a massive ice island broke free of the Petermann Glacier in northwestern Greenland. On July 16, the giant iceberg could be seen drifting down the fjord, away from the floating ice tongue from which it calved.


The sun reflects over thin sea ice and a few floating ice bergs near the Denmark Strait off of eastern Greenland, as seen from NASA's P-3B aircraft on Apr. 14, 2012. Photo: NASA/Jefferson Beck

Frozen melt-water lake along the northeast Greenland coast. Photo: NASA/Jim Yungel


To learn more about Operation IceBridge and related projects, visit: –Alicia Clarke

3 thoughts on “Operation IceBridge: Birds-Eye View of Arctic Ice Cover

  1. Pingback: World War II history frozen in time in Greenland

  2. Jerry C. Waldroup ADRC USN RET

    I was Crew Chief/Plane Captian of WV13 Operation Birdseye 1961 thru 1964
    aircraft EC121 Bu no 141325. We did the same thing Operation Bridge is doing now

  3. kiprithner

    ADRC Waldroup,

    Do you have pictures, reports or other memorabilia from your time flying for Operation Birdseye? We hear from history buffs and others looking for primary sources on U.S. activities during the time when you served; if you’re interested, we could put you in touch. In any case, thank you for writing – and for reading field notes!

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