Tag Archives: NASA

In the News

Two people stand on the ice with their testing sticks, hooks visible at the top. The hook could be used to grab onto an article of clothing if someone fell into the water. Photo: Gay Sheffield

Two people stand on the ice with their testing sticks, hooks visible at the top. The hook could be used to grab onto an article of clothing if someone fell into the water. Photo: Gay Sheffield

From stranded walruses to the upcoming launch of a new research vessel and more, the Arctic has been in the news a lot lately. Here are some of the highlights:

Arctic Native Ice Testing Stick To Be Used on Sikuliaq

Alaska Public Radio reported that when the new National Science Foundation research vessel Sikuliaq launches in a few months, it will be equipped with about a half-dozen Arctic Native ice testing sticks. The sticks, which often feature a hook on one end and a point on the other, have been used for generations to help native inhabitants navigate the unpredictable ice and prevent accident falls through weak patches. To read or hear the entire story, click here.

Walruses on Shore

Late last month, more than 35,000 walruses were photographed by scientists working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on a beach near the village of Point Lay, on the Chukchi Sea in northwest Alaska. The walruses are forced onto land when sea ice, which they use to rest between dives for food, disappears, according to NOAA. A report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center on September 22 said Arctic sea ice had reached its lowest extent of the year on September 17, the sixth-lowest amount of Arctic sea ice on record.This year’s ice report and massive walrus haul-out come the same month that a NOAA report said sea surface temperatures across a vast expanse of the North Pacific are 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) higher than normal. For more on the walruses and sea ice, click here.

American scientists unearth lost 1960s polar satellite images

Barents Observer reports that scientist David Gallagher at the National Snow and Ice Data Center recently recovered and scanned satellite data from 1964—the earliest existing satellite photos of the earth. The result is a treasure trove for climate scientists studying time-series data. The paper reports:

It was worth the wait. What Gallaher and his NSIDC colleague Garrett Campbell had discovered was both the largest and the smallest Antarctic sea ice extent ever recorded, one year apart, as well as the earliest sea ice maximum ever just three years later; it was an inexplicable hole in the Arctic sea ice even while the overall extent agreed with modern trends; it was the earliest known picture of Europe from space; it was a picture of the Aral Sea with water still in it. 

It was, as Gallaher puts it, like looking at “the Precambrian of satellite data.”

To read the entire story, click here.

NASA to study Arctic Sea Ice

Scientists from NASA’s Earth Science Division recently announced a research project to fly an airborne mission over the Arctic Ocean. The mission’s name is ARISE, short for Arctic Radiation IceBridge Sea and Ice Experiment.” Bill Smith, the project’s principal investigator from the Langley Research Center says the project’s goal is to investigate the impact the loss of sea ice has on cloud creation. Currently scientists hypothesize that the loss of sea ice creates more clouds, which can act like a blanket and trap warm wait beneath them. According to a NASA press release, “The interplay between clouds and ice, cooling and warming, is complex. ARISE aims to unravel the knot by taking a lot of data.” For more information, click here.

Thermokarst in the Arctic Desert

The New York Times reports on the research of several scientists studying the impact of global warming in the Arctic High Desert, some 600 miles north of Alaska. Specifically, scientists are investigating the various thaw processes that give rise to the area’s unique landforms. One of those scientists is Wayne Pollard of McGill University, a 25-year veteran of high Arctic permafrost reach. The story quotes Dr. Pollard saying, “Most importantly under today’s climate are the potential impacts of global warming on permafrost temperature and distribution, which would affect surface erosion and vegetation through runoff and thaw.” For the complete story, click here.


Follow Islands of the Four Mountains fieldwork in real time

An aerial photo of the Islands of the Four Mountains. Photo: Ken Wilson, author of “The Aleutian Islands of AK: Living on the Edge”

An aerial photo of the Islands of the Four Mountains. Photo: Ken Wilson, author of “The Aleutian Islands of AK: Living on the Edge”

This spring we told you about the fascinating research project of Dixie West and Virginia Hatfield (Kansas University), Kirsten Nicolaysen (Whitman College) and Breanyn MacInnes (Central Washington University) in Alaska’s central Aleutians, one of the most inhospitable environments a person could imagine.

Their research in the “Islands of the Four Mountains” is currently underway, and since it’s virtually impossible for most of us to actually accompany these intrepid researchers, they’re bringing their work to us.

Their Facebook Page is being updated in real time, so you can read about their research vessel, view pictures of life in the field, and more.

If Twitter is more your speed, follow the team here.

Why should you follow them?

This aerial view shows theIslands of the Four Mountains. Photo: NASA

This aerial view shows the Islands of the Four Mountains. Photo: NASA

In addition to being tough as nails and super smart, these scientists are probing for some very interesting information. Specifically, they’re looking for connections among geological, ecological, and human systems in the Islands of the Four Mountains. This area contains some of the world’s most active volcanoes, and the data they contain could shed insight on prehistoric human risk management and adaptations to “geological instability” which entails climate change, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, sea level change, and more.

The Islands of the Four Mountains is so challenging to reach that very little data exists about the region.  —Rachel Walker

Understanding ice-ocean interactions in west Greenland

Part of the research involves surveying the conditions at the glacial terminus. Here a team is pictured in front of an iceberg in a Zodiac. Photo: Marcy Davis

CTD casts from a Zodiac to investigate water mass changes due to iceberg melting. Photo: Dustin Carroll

For years, scientists have understood that Greenland’s ice sheet contributes to rising sea levels through the combination of surface melting and accelerating outlet glaciers. What’s less understood is the behavior of different glaciers in different locations. One scientist, Ginny Catania, Research Scientist and Associate Professor at the University of Texas in Austin, is studying how and why some glaciers behave differently than others.

“In some areas of the Greenland Ice sheet, glacier velocity is very similar from one glacier to the next, although the glaciers may be located several hundred kilometers apart. This suggests that glaciers respond similarly to atmospheric or oceanographic changes,” explains Catania. “In other regions of Greenland, like the central west coast, neighboring outlet glaciers often behave very differently from each other. We want to understand why, so we are studying three glaciers that behave very differently, but drain neighboring branches of the ice sheet.”

The team installs a GPS station on a glacier. Photo: Lauren Andrews

The team installs a GPS station on a glacier. Photo: Lauren Andrews

Neighboring glaciers

Those three glaciers are Rink Isbrae (RI), Umiamako (U) and Kangerdlugssup Sermerssua (KS). Catania’s research kicked off last year when three teams visited Greenland over three separate months (July, August, and September 2013) to collect oceanographic, atmospheric, and glaciological information about the neighboring glaciers, which terminate in fjords north of Uummannaq, off Greenland’s west coast.

Interdisciplinary teams

Each team surveyed different sections of the glaciers’ systems in a collaborative, multi-institutional effort to understand how fast glaciers advance and recede. In the upcoming field season, two teams will return to recover data and service and redeploy instruments.

The "cruise crew." Having an interdisciplinary team adds to the research depth and scope, according to PI Ginny Catania. Photo: Marcy Davis

The “cruise crew.” Having an interdisciplinary team adds to the research depth and scope, according to PI Ginny Catania. Photo: Dave Sutherland

“Our approach is interdisciplinary between glaciologists and oceanographers, with each PI bringing unique skills to the project,” Catania says of the collaboration.

The first team included Dan Duncan and Marcy Davis (University of Texas) and George Roth (University of Oregon). They arrived in Greenland in mid-July with the task of making geophysical and oceanographic measurents in the fjords.

Unchartered territory

Very little bathymetric (i.e., seafloor) data exists in most of Greenland’s fjords, and West Greenland charts are dated and often sparse with information. Some waters remain completely uncharted. Detailed surveys have been done in active harbors in populated areas and in some areas where mining or oil exploration requires some knowledge of the seafloor topography.

The Minna Martek near Nugatsiaq. Photo: Marcy Davis

The Minna Martek near Nugatsiaq. Photo: Marcy Davis

“A detailed map of the fjords gives us a snapshot of the glacier at the terminus and provides the modelers some topographic boundaries to work with,” Duncan explains. “Our other objective was to find potential mooring sites for the oceanographic team arriving later in the summer.”

Mapping efforts

To map the seafloor, the team used a multibeam sonar system, which sends out pulses of sound. When the sound reaches the seafloor, it bounces back and is recorded by the instrument, which creates an image of the seafloor topography.

The team sailed aboard the Minna Martek (owned and operated by Martek ApS), a vintage (1962), 22m-long, Norwegian-built cargo vessel, now based in Nuuk. From IIlulissat, they sailed north to Nugaatsiaq, a hamlet on the southeast end of Qeqertarssuaq Island, where they set up a temporary GPS base station and a pressure sensor to record tidal and temperature variations during the survey.

Next, the team spent three sunshine-filled days working in KS fjord followed by three overcast days in the ice-choked RI, Karrat, and Umiamako  fjords. The multibeam, a large horseshoe-shaped instrument, was mounted on a pole and bracket over the side of the ship adjacent to the “control room,” a snug port-side space that housed the brains and gumption behind the system.

GPS Tracking

Following a successful survey, the team returned to Ilulissat sans Duncan, who disembarked in Uummannaq to join team two: Leigh Stearns and Steve Foga (University of Kansas), Lauren Andrews (University of Texas), and Tim Bartholomaus (University of Texas).

Tim Bartholomous installs a tide gage at Rink. Photo: Lauren Andrews

Tim Bartholomaus installs a tide gauge at Rink. Photo: Lauren Andrews

In a few days of helicopter runs, team two deployed 10 high-resolution GPS receivers on the three glaciers. The GPS stations track glacier movement and are outfitted with solar panels and batteries to keep data logging year around. Seismometers and tide station will track calving events at the glacier face. Cameras aimed at the glacier termini will take still shots every half hour to monitor calving throughout the year.

“Our field component aims to quantify the sensitivity of different outlet glacier systems to oceanic and atmospheric forcings,” says Stearns. “All three of these glaciers have unique seasonal and inter-annual flow behavior. Our results will help us tease apart the relative importance of forcings and improve our understanding of unique traits in ice flow.”

Oceanographic survey

In September, team three (Jonathan Nash and Emily Shroyer, engineer Jed Smith, Saskia Madlener (Oregon State University), John Mickett (APL-UW Seattle), Laura deSteur (Netherlands), David Sutherland, Dustin Carroll (University of Oregon) arrived in Uummannaq to complete an oceanographic survey aboard the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources’ 61-m ship, the R/V Sanna.

Team three deployed seven subsurface moorings, long strings of instruments weighted to the seafloor by train wheels. They outfitted moorings with temperature sensors and instruments designed to measure water flow velocity and other water properties such as salinity and turbulence. Moorings were placed at locations throughout the fjords between the glacier face and the open ocean. Their unique design allows the upper 150 meters to break away should a passing iceberg entangle or damage the mooring.

Challenging work conditions

“Fieldwork in Greenland’s outlet glacier fjords is difficult, to say the least. Icebergs with drafts over 1000 feet, inaccessibility, [and] strong katabatic winds all combine to make it a hard place to get data–thus, subsurface moorings are our best friends,” Sutherland explains. “They sit happily underwater (in sometimes subzero degree waters!) and gather data year-round on water properties and velocity, allowing us to give temporal context to our limited summertime shipboard data. It’s important to get the year-round time variability as it will let us piece together a picture of the fjord circulation in both areas and, more critically, allow us to examine differences in the two fjords that might be controlling the glacier speeds at their heads.”

Critical models

In combination with two years of field observations, the scientists will also analyze remote and visible satellite imagery. Ryan Walker (University of Maryland/NASA) will incorporate these data along with results of in situ data into ice-ocean computer models.

“The models will allow the group to simulate seasonal variations in tides, winds, meltwater and determine which atmospheric and oceanic mechanisms are responsible for glacier variability in this region,“ says Catania. “Our overarching goal is to understand the physical controls on mass balance of marine-terminating outlet glaciers in central western Greenland. Ultimately, we care how much glacier melt there is and where glacial melt goes because of the potential impact on sea level and changes to large-scale ocean circulation.” —Marcy Davis

Scientists Build and Test Autonomous Robotic Rover to Explore the Arctic

GROVER on June 3, 2013 while being controlled from Idaho. After a month of testing and adapting the electronics for the cold weather, the rover was ready for long-distance control via satellite link. All photos: courtesy NASA

GROVER on June 3, 2013 while being controlled from Idaho. After a month of testing and adapting the electronics for the cold weather, the rover was ready for long-distance control via satellite link. All photos: courtesy NASA

NASA’s rover technology isn’t just for space exploration anymore.

Scientists are deploying the rover concept and technology to collect more earthly data in the Arctic. The Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research, or GROVER, is an autonomous robot that can travel over long distances and harsh conditions to collect data for scientists.

Earlier this GROVER touched down at Greenland’s Summit Station as Mark Robertson and Gabriel Trisca, graduate students at Boise State University, tested the robot’s accuracy, ability to be controlled remotely and data collection capabilities. Robertson and Trisca helped design, program and modify GROVER for terrestrial use in the Arctic.

GROVER on the move during a sustained test of the power consumption on June 2, 2013. The rover was sent a list of coordinates in a big circle outside of Summit and it went around the loop three times, hitting all of the waypoints.

GROVER on the move during a sustained test of the power consumption on June 2, 2013. The rover was sent a list of coordinates in a big circle outside of Summit and it went around the loop three times, hitting all of the waypoints.

“GROVER, as an idea, began as a way to help scientists with tasks that don’t require much human intervention, span over vast geographical areas and are risky,” Trisca said.

Not Your Ordinary Robot 

At nearly six feet tall and weighing 800 pounds, GROVER is a rugged data-collecting machine. The frame is mounted on two snow mobile tracks that hold batteries and motors powered by two large solar panels arranged in an inverted v-shape. In between the two snow mobile tracks is a control box that contains all the computers that collect and transmit data.

“GROVER is an autonomous vehicle that can navigate to GPS coordinates and report back to base via satellite from any location in the world while it collects scientific information,” Trisca said. “It’s a very versatile scientific platform that we think will change the way science is carried [out] in the polar regions and beyond.”

Student-designed Robotics

Gabriel Trisca (left) and Mark Robertson, graduate students at Boise State University, repair connectors on the motor controller for GROVER. June 1, 2013.

Gabriel Trisca (left) and Mark Robertson, graduate students at Boise State University, repair connectors on the motor controller for GROVER. June 1, 2013.

The first GROVER prototype was designed in 2010 and 2011 by teams of interns participating in a summer engineering boot camp at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. NASA supported further testing and refinement in Boise.

The interns had a list of specifications and requirements, like being able to withstand subzero temperatures. It also needed to be light enough to be moved forward by electric motors, and its sensors needed to perform in the cold. Trisca created the software that enables the robot to navigate autonomously and communicate via radio or satellite.

Summit Station Tests

From May 6 to June 8, 2013, the GROVER team was in Summit Station to test the robot’s capabilities and its ability to withstand Arctic weather conditions. Working conditions included winds of up to 23mph and frigid temperatures that sank to nearly -30F.

Summit Station is funded and managed by the U.S. National Science Foundation in cooperation with the Government of Greenland.

Testing the control features was a key part of the exercises at Summit Station. “There are two ways GROVER can be controlled. One is by wireless connection. It can also be controlled via satellite. We tested both and demonstrated that they worked,” Robertson said.

“Our tests were a massive success!” Robertson said. “We worked through the problems we encountered, and demonstrated that GROVER works.”

Data Collection Capabilities

Mark Robertson, a graduate student at Boise State University, checks the depth of the snow pack just after GROVER passes. The pole has graduated markings along its length. Mark is checking the depth of the ice layer formed after the big melt of summer 2012.

Mark Robertson, a graduate student at Boise State University, checks the depth of the snow pack just after GROVER passes. The pole has graduated markings along its length. Mark is checking the depth of the ice layer formed after the big melt of summer 2012.

Under its current configuration, GROVER is equipped with radar technology the team can use to measure snow accumulation on the ice sheet over time. This year’s tests showed that the radar system mounted to GROVER could successfully transmit real-time data.

“Having an autonomous vehicle is important because it’s very expensive, a little dangerous, and very difficult to have people out in the Arctic for long stretches of time. Once we get GROVER up and running, it could be traversing the ice sheet collecting radar data the whole summer—as long at the sun is out [to power the batteries driving the motor],” Robertson said. “And it would certainly collect a lot more data that someone on a snowmobile.”

Lessons Learned  

Although the trial runs earlier this year were a success, not everything was smooth roving.

The GROVER team is still processing the data from the Summit Station tests, and has already identified one area they want to improve: maximizing battery power so GROVER can cover more ground in the future.

A Powerful Tool for Arctic Science and More

Back in Boise, Robertson and Trisca are taking what they learned at Summit Station and moving forward. In the future they hope to conduct more studies in Greenland and possibly expand to Antarctica. The success of the GROVER tests is opening the doors to other applications outside the earth’s polar regions.

“At Boise State there are other people interested in using the idea, the platform for seismic surveys,” Robertson said. “You could really do anything with GROVER—even put it on a ship—and that’s the beauty.”  —Alicia Clarke

To learn more about GROVER, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/grover.html

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.

Continue reading

Polar Careers: Peter Wasilewski’s Frizion

Illume (Photos by Peter Wasilewski)

Peter Wasilewski  retired from NASA’s Goddard Space Filght Center  in April, 2010, but he’s not resting on his laurels. Instead, he’s having a great time with his hobby – Frizion.  Pronounced fri-szhun, from the combination of frozen and vision, Wasilewski’s photographs explore the visual beauty of ice crystal formation.

“I always thought that nature, and in particular ice, has a particular fascination,” Wasilewski says. “Water and ice polymorphs are so fascinating! There are more of them than any other compound in nature – so many ice forms throughout the universe. Mars has a different surface  pressure and temperature structure so the Martian ice would be different from Earth ice. There are many other ice forms. In space, some are amorphous forms of ice.”

A planetary scientist and six-time visitor to the Antarctic, Wasilewski studied the magnetic properties of lunar rocks and meteorites. His first look at ice through the microscope came while collecting meteorites from the Allan Hills in Antarctica. This remote area in the Transantarctic Mountains acts  to collect unusually high concentrations of meteorites that have fallen into high-altitude ice fields and were subsequently transported downhill, trapped in glacial ice in a basin at the foot of the hills. From the dense, blue ice at Allan Hills, Wasilewski created his first thin section, a sliver of ice mounted on a glass slide. The method is generally used for identifying minerals in rocks. Wasilewski was curious to apply the method to ice just as glaciologists do when examining ice cores.

Morning Dragon

“Old ice, like the ice found in the glaciers near Allan Hills, is not very ‘beautiful’ under a microscope. To identify minerals, we use polarized light, which plays with light waves,” Wasilewski explains. “Minerals, including ice, show characteristic properties under polarized light, but with old ice, the crystals are too large and bulky and only clear or white light passes through. It’s with the smaller ice crystals that things get interesting.”

Wasilewski’s curiosity piqued during the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, where he made thin sections of ice cores taken from the rink where the hockey and figure skating competitions were held. He noticed that special care was taken to ensure that particular properties of ice were taken into consideration when preparing for each event and, consequently, the ice could be used to reveal the recipe used to create the ice surface – a kind of quality assurance.

In 2001, Wasilewski founded NASA’s History of Winter program, a professional development course for upper middle school and high school science teachers. Each February, 25 teachers spend one week living at Northwood School in Lake Placid learning to use the tools and methodologies for the study of  snow and ice. Participants spend most of their time outdoors learning the science behind ice climbing, digging snow pits for snow stratigraphy exercises, drilling lake ice cores, and making thin sections of the ice.

“My approach is to provide content and hands-on experience. We don’t teach [the teachers] how to teach but we teach them how science is done using snow and ice,” says Wasilewski. “The science they do on site provides the basis for ground truth for NASA satellites and other weather observation data and also gives them the tools to be better science teachers. For each teacher we have at our camp, perhaps they influence 1000 students.”


It was during the 2001 History of Winter that Wasilewski ‘s Frozen  Vision began to take shape. While looking at a thin section of ice core from Cascade Lake, he noticed a spiral pattern frozen into the ice, probably related to the spiral distribution of  methane bubbles escaping from the bottom of the lake and freezing in the ice.

Since then, Wasilewski’s kitchen has become his Frizion lab. He experiments with temperature gradients and photographs the water using polarized light as it freezes. Over time, he’s learned to crudely manipulate freezing water into several categories of shapes. Variations in ice thickness create different colors.

“Like snowflakes, no two [Frizions] are the same,” Wasilewski explains. “If I had ultrapure, unagitated water I could get to -40°F before it would freeze instantly, but I cannot get there with my freezer. I’ve stayed up all night in my kitchen taking pictures because once you get into it, you can’t stop.”

Wasilewski has big plans for Frizion’s future. He currently has exhibitions at several galleries across the country including Peabody Essex Museum’s Ripple Effect, The Art of H2O,  in Salem, Massechusetts,  an extended special exhibition on water, and he has several  prints up at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia.

Wasilewski will continue  his involvement with the History of Winter and included his Frizions in CryoConn, a program for Alaska educators to learn about snow science spawned by the History of Winter.

Peter Wasilewski (right) with John Cogswell outside the Cogswell Gallery in Vail, Colorado. Photo: Peter Wasilewski

Over the last couple of years, Wasilewski has been experimenting with installation pieces like at the Cogswell Gallery in Vail in January, 2010, where he printed a Frizion image on clear plastic and froze it into a block of ice that became the lead into the rest of the display. Through Facebook, he’s establishing friendships with performance ice sculptors in hopes of  understanding the necessary place for Frizions in trendy ice bars and other spectacular ice displays all over the world. Wasilewski plans to experiment with his technique as well by photographing ice crystals as they begin to melt from a solid and will take photographs through large blocks of ice. He also plans to develop short stories to accompany ice-related non-Frizion art.

You can see more of Peter Wasilewski’s work at the Frizion website, the Polar Artist Group website, and on Facebook. For more information or to order Frizion prints, contact Wasilewski directly at magnetman22@gmail.com. –Marcy Davis

Studying Complex Glacial Hydrology

Dr. Ginny Catania and colleagues are studying glacial hydrology at remote sites near Swiss Camp in Greenland. After setting up GPS units to measure ice movement last summer, the team plans several 2011 field work expeditions to gather data. All photos: Matt Hoffman

Scientists have predicted that if Greenland’s glaciers melted, sea level could rise up to six meters, devastating coastal cities and having enormous impacts. Consequently, understanding the complex dynamics of the country’s glaciers—both coastal and inland—has become increasingly important.

Given the widely accepted evidence that Greenland loses more ice mass than it gains every year, some glaciologists have begun pursuing the question of what factors influence and expedite glacial melting.

Studying water and ice

Enter Dr. Ginny Catania, a glaciologist and polar adventurer with the Institute for Geophysics at The University of Texas at Austin (UT). Dr. Catania is the principal investigator on an NSF-supported project called “ROGUE: Real time observations of Greenland’s under-ice environment.

The project is collaborative across two US-based institutions—UT and Dartmouth College, NASA researchers and colleagues at ETH in Switzerland.

“Greenland is losing ice, and the fast moving glaciers are accelerating,” says Dr. Catania. “We are interested in what happens to land-terminating glaciers when surface melt water travels to the glacial bed. There is evidence that the melt lubricates the bed, and the glacier can speed up.”

Post-doctoral fellows install GPS units to measure glacial activity.

When that happens, the glacier moves from higher to lower elevations where warmer temperatures expedite melting.

Looking at the entire glacier, from surface to bed

Specifically, Dr. Catania and her team aim to examine the nature and cause of short-term ice velocity changes near Swiss Camp, Greenland. They will be studying the interactions between the ice sheet, the atmosphere, and the bed through an integrated observational approach that involves borehole geophysics, surface-based measurements, satellite data and modeling.

Following the flow

Want to find a moulin? Just follow the stream.

Their work will focus on the hydraulic system underneath the glacier. Taking precise measurements, the team aims to investigate how surface water travels to the bed of the glacier, causes it to slide and how this system evolves through the melt season.

As a result, the top of the ice may move at a different speed than the bottom of the ice, which at times is sliding on a water layer at the base of the ice sheet.

“We want to measure the amount of sliding at the base,” says Dr. Catania.

Planning and operations

After selecting 3 sites last summer, a small team will travel to Swiss Camp in May to set out GPS measuring devices on the glacier surface. Then, from June through August, researchers will drill a total of 18 boreholes at three different sites with differing ice thicknesses of 650 meters, 750 meters and 850 meters.

The team will place instruments near the base of the ice sheet to measure water pressure—or the amount of overlying water in the borehole column.  This water level will fluctuate over daily/seasonal/yearly time scales, says Dr. Catania.

“Monitoring the water levels over time allows us to understand how the water is moving under the ice sheet,” she says.

Understanding ice dynamics

In addition, the boreholes will allow scientists to measure how the ice deforms to determine how much of the surface speed (measured by GPS) is due to ice deformation.

By directly observing the basal processes, the team will develop a more precise understanding of the evolution of what happens when water from a glacier’s surface travels to its bed.


Moulins like this one provide routes for surface water to travel to a glacier's bed.

Scientists already know the water descends through features known as moulins, which are naturally occurring and prevalent on glaciers. Dr. Catania’s team will drill near existing moulins this summer.

Not your average drill

The drilling itself is no easy feat. The drill is a high-pressure, hot-water drill that can quickly reach the base of the ice sheet in a day.

“There are lots of GPS on the ice sheet surface, but we don’t yet know how much of the glacier’s movement is due to sliding on the bed or how much is ice deforming,” says Dr. Catania. “We will be able to measure deformation, and we’ll measure sliding.”

A glacier’s surface speed can be different than the speed the ice moves at the base, where the glacier meets the ground.

The team will also measure water quality, testing for salinity to understand where the water in the boreholes comes from. Water that is closest to the glacial bed will be saltier. They also plan to send down cameras, which, if successful, will allow them a rare glimpse of the glacial bed.

Improved modeling

The data collected will be correlated to melt and surface water volume proxies based on remote sensing data, meteorological data available from surface-based weather stations and measured lake volume.

This research will be part of a growing movement to better understand how glaciers work, says Catania. By developing a better understanding of how water gets to a glacier bed and what impact that has on ice speed, the scientists will produce data that can help modelers better predict the causes and impacts of glacier melt.  —Rachel Walker

End of a Satellite Era

An artist's rendering of the ICESat satellite. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation satellite (ICESat), which for seven years gathered data about ice sheets and sea ice at Earth’s poles, was guided out of orbit and plunged into the Barents Sea on Aug. 30, the agency reported.

NASA launched ICESat in January 2003 as the first mission dedicated to specifically studying the polar regions using a space-based laser altimeter. It was intended to transmit data for only five years.  However, ICESat’s lasers lasted until February. Flight controllers started lowering its orbit in June until it reached 200 km (125 miles) above the Earth. At that point, its orbit naturally lowered until it mostly burned up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere with the few remaining chunks landing in the Barents Sea.

The satellite has helped scientists better measure changes in the mass of the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, sea ice thickness at both poles, vegetation height and the height of clouds and aerosols. In the Arctic, for example, researchers used ICESat to watch as thin, seasonal sea ice replaced thick, older sea ice. In Antarctica, scientists were able to identify the network of lakes underneath the ice sheet that actively drain or fill.

“ICESat has been a tremendous scientific success,” said Jay Zwally, ICESat’s project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement on NASA’s website.  “It has provided detailed information on how the Earth’s polar ice masses are changing with climate warming, as needed for government policy decisions.”

NASA has begun designing ICESat-2, which it intends to launch in late 2015. In the meantime, the agency’s Operation Ice Bridge has been underway since last year to bridge the gap in polar data in between ICESat missions. Operation Ice Bridge uses NASA aircraft to target areas of rapid change at either pole to get 3-D views of ice sheets, ice shelves and sea ice. It’s the largest ever aircraft-based survey of Earth’s polar ice.

– Emily Stone

Arctic Science on a Roll?

Sometimes thinking outside the box means thinking inside the sphere.

At least that’s what the designers at New York City’s Studio les bêtes did in coming up with the concept for the Arctic Drifter, an enormous inflatable ball that can hold a crew inside and roll around the Arctic collecting data.

The Arctic Drifter’s exterior would be made of inflatable Hypalon airbags — a material similar to that used in rugged inflatable boats — so it could roam across ice, water or flat land in all sorts of weather. When fully inflated, the contraption would be 15 meters (50 feet) in diameter. An inner sphere that remains permanently upright would house a crew, electronics and, as the company’s website notes, a composting toilet.

The outside of the ball would be decked out with a network of visual sensors that would project the external environment onto the inner sphere’s walls in real time for the crew to see and navigate.

There’s no word on when, or if, the idea will become a reality. But if it seems too off-the-wall to be plausible, remember that NASA tested its Tumbleweed Rover, a 2-meter (6.5-foot) rolling, unmanned data collector, at Summit Station in 2003 in hopes that it will someday tumble over the surface of Mars.  —Emily Stone

Greenland Sheds a Massive Iceberg

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image of Petermann Glacier on August 5, 2010. The image was acquired almost 10 hours after the observation that first recorded the event. By the time Terra took this image, skies were less cloudy than they had been earlier in the day, and the oblong iceberg had broken free of the glacier and moved a short distance down the fjord. NASA image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon. Caption by Holli Riebeek and Michon Scott.

An iceberg roughly four times the size of Manhattan is making its way toward the Arctic Ocean after calving off Greenland’s Petermann Glacier earlier this month.

The 251-square kilometer (97-square mile) behemoth broke off the Petermann in northwestern Greenland on Aug. 5, causing the glacier to lose about one-quarter of its 70-kilometer (40-mile) floating ice shelf, according to NASA. It’s the largest Arctic iceberg to form since 1962.

Researchers at the Byrd Polar Research Center at The Ohio State University said the chunk represents the largest single loss of ice ever recorded in Greenland. Jason Box, an associate professor of geography and atmospheric sciences, wrote in a blog post that the glacier retreated 15 km (9 miles) in that one event, which represents a new known minimum for the glacier.

Box and others studying the glacier have recorded its increasing disintegration since 2000. It’s retreated a total of 21 km (13 miles) in that time. The Aug. 5 break is three times larger than any previous ice loss in Greenland or elsewhere in the Arctic since at least 2000.

“While it is unreasonable to pin an individual cracking event of a glacier on Global Warming, even if enormous, the retreat of Petermann glacier is most certainly part of a pattern of global warming,” Box wrote.

— Emily Stone