Alaska’s Newest Lakes Are Belching Methane

 

A lake in Alaska. The lake surface is covered in floating plants and cattails and other grasses can be seen in the foreground of the image. The sky is gray and cloudy.
Big Trail Lake is one of Alaska’s newest lakes and one of the largest methane emission hotspots in the Arctic. Credit: NASA / Katie Jepson

By Sofie Bates / FAIRBANKS, ALASKA /

“This lake wasn’t here 50 years ago.” 

Katey Walter Anthony, an ecologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, dips her paddle into the water as her kayak glides across the lake. “Years ago, the ground was about three meters taller and it was a spruce forest,” she says.

Big Trail Lake is a thermokarst lake, which means it formed due to permafrost thaw. Permafrost is ground that stays frozen year round; the permafrost in interior Alaska also has massive wedges of actual ice locked within the frozen ground. When that ice melts, the ground surface collapses and forms a sinkhole that can fill with water. Thus, a thermokarst lake is born. 

Walter Anthony is a researcher collaborating with NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) project. She’s studying the formation of these thermokarst lakes and how this process is caused by and contributes to Earth’s changing climate. 

“Lakes like Big Trail are new, they’re young, and they are important because these lakes are what’s going to happen in the future,” she explained. 

They’re also belching methane – a potent greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere.

Small bubbles on a lake surface.
Methane bubbles appear on the surface of Big Trail Lake.
Credit: NASA / Sofie Bates

At first glance, Big Trail looks like any lake. But look closer and there’s something disturbing the surface: bubbles. 

Two things happen as the permafrost layer thaws beneath lakes: microbial activity increases and pathways form in the permafrost . At Big Trail Lake and other thermokarst lakes in the Arctic, microbes digest dead plants and other organic matter in the previously frozen soil in a process that produces carbon dioxide and methane. More rarely, permafrost thaw can form ‘chimneys’ under lakes that allow methane and other gases – previously trapped deep underground – to escape. This release of ‘geologic’ methane is happening at Esieh Lake, another of Katey Walter Anthony’s ABoVE study sites. In all thermokarst lakes, the gases bubble up to the lake surface and release into the atmosphere. 

“At Big Trail Lake, it’s like opening your freezer door for the first time and giving all the food in your freezer to microbes to decompose. As they decompose it, they are belching out methane gas,” says Walter Anthony. She leans over and pushes her paddle into the spongy ground under the water, causing clusters of methane bubbles to erupt on the surface.

As the lake freezes in the winter, the bubbles can prevent ice from forming and create pockets of open water that continue emitting methane throughout the season. In other areas, the methane bubbles create frozen domes of ice on the surface of the lake.

“Once ice has formed on these lakes, the rising methane bubbles will freeze into the ice,” explains Franz Meyer, Chief Scientist at the Alaska Satellite Facility in Fairbanks. Meyer is also one of the chief scientists for NISAR, a joint NASA and ISRO satellite that will study our planet. One of the instruments that will be on NISAR is a radar similar to the instrument the ABoVE team is flying over Arctic and boreal regions to study the ground, ice and lakes below.

“These bubbles that we see in the ice change the way that the radar signal interacts with the ice surface,” he explains. The radar can detect roughness – like from frozen methane bubbles – on the surface of the land, ice and water below. Thermokarst lakes with a high roughness, or more bubbles, tend to have higher methane emissions compared to smooth lakes. Combining the airborne radar data with measurements collected in the field allows scientists to estimate how much methane lakes are emitting across a large region.

The UAVSAR instrument, housed in a pod on the underbelly of NASA Armstrong’s NASA802 research aircraft, uses radar to study the ground, ice and water below.
Credit: Sofie Bates / NASA

 

 

Walter Anthony says she has something to show us and paddles over to what looks like a piece of trash: an upside down plastic bottle sticking out of the water. It’s a methane collection device, she says, explaining that the bottle traps methane as it bubbles up through the water. Walter Anthony turns a valve and collects a sample of the gas in a smaller bottle, which her team will chemically analyze to determine the age and concentrations of the various gases within.

But there’s a faster way to know if the lake is releasing methane.

Walter Anthony opens the valve, lights a match, and holds it to the opening. A burst of flame ignites. She lets the flame burn for a few seconds and then turns off the valve. It’s like a more extreme version of lighting a gas stove.

Katey Walter Anthony holds a methane bubble trap while sitting in her kayak in Big Trail Lake. Credit: Sofie Bates/NASA
Turning the valve on the bubble trap releases methane gas, which is flammable. Holding a match near the valve ignites the gas in a burst of flame.
Credit: NASA / Sofie Bates

There are millions of lakes in the Arctic, but only the newer ones are releasing high amounts of methane. That’s because most Arctic lakes are hundreds or thousands of years old. Those lakes used to be just like Big Trail Lake, but the microbes there have since run out of permafrost organic matter to decompose, and instead are emitting methane from more modern carbon sources. That means the older lakes are no longer emitting as much old methane.

“So what’s a concern for the future, when we think about permafrost carbon feedback, are areas that are newly thawed,” says Walter Anthony. Just like Big Trail Lake.

Walking Back in Time to Learn About the Future of Permafrost

 

Scientists and pilots with NASA’s ABoVE campaign got to tour the U.S. Army CRREL’s permafrost tunnel during their August 2022 field campaign in Fairbanks, Alaska. Credit: Sofie Bates / NASA

By Sofie Bates / FAIRBANKS, ALASKA /

There’s a freezer door in the mountainside outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. Tom Douglas opens it and we step inside, breathing in cold air and musky dust as we start to walk back through time.

This isn’t fantasy. It’s the Permafrost Tunnel run by the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Alaska, where Douglas is a Senior Scientist.

Recently, Douglas led a group of scientists and pilots with NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) on a tour through the Tunnel to learn about permafrost. Permafrost is any soil, ice, or organic matter like plant material or bone that has stayed frozen year-round for at least two years. The tunnel was initially excavated in the 1960s and has been expanded since 2011. Now, the Permafrost Tunnel has almost 500 meters of excavation. “There’s just nowhere else on Earth that has this type of access to permafrost,” said Douglas.

The ABoVE team studies permafrost thaw and its impact on landscapes and ecosystems across the Arctic from the air and above the ground. They also work in conjunction with CRREL and other scientists to figure out how measurements made in and above the permafrost tunnel can be extrapolated to airborne measurements taken from research aircraft. But for many of the ABoVE team members, this is their first time getting to see permafrost up close.

Around 18,000 years ago, mammoths and steppe bison roamed Alaska. Their bones are frozen and preserved into the permafrost layer. Credit: Sofie Bates / NASA
A tusk frozen in the wall of the Permafrost Tunnel. Credit: Sofie Bates / NASA

The frozen soil near the tunnel entrance is the same ground that mammoths and steppe bison walked on around 18,000 years ago – and it has the bones to prove it. But as we move deeper into the tunnel and further back in time, these signs of animal life disappear.

Douglas stops at a yellow tag in the deepest, farthest back part of the tunnel. He points out an alder branch sticking out of the wall. “This is the oldest thing in here,” he says. “It’s nearly 45,000 years old.” 

Scientists use a technique called Carbon-14 dating to determine the age of sticks – like this one, the oldest thing in the tunnel – rocks, bone and other material in the permafrost tunnel. Credit: Sofie Bates / NASA

Most of the permafrost tunnel is densely compacted dirt and rock. In some places, frozen grasses and other dead plant matter are buried within the walls or hanging from the ceiling. As we walk down further into the tunnel, Douglas points out different features: the thin horizontal lines that show how the land surface moved up over time, strips of ice from water that pooled atop the permafrost and froze, and giant ice wedges.

Tom Douglas shines a flashlight on a giant ice wedge in the permafrost tunnel. Credit: Sofie Bates / NASA

Arctic permafrost is thawing at an accelerating rate. As permafrost thaws, those ice wedges in the permafrost melt. This creates holes in the ground that can cause the land surface above to subside. This process is called thermokarst – and it’s drastically changing landscapes not only above the Permafrost Tunnel but at locations across Alaska and northwestern Canada. In some areas, the ground is sinking or caving in. In others, new bodies of water called thermokarst lakes are forming.

As we walk through the tunnel, Douglas reminds us that just above our heads is a boreal forest with grasses, shrubs and trees. CRREL scientists have taken measurements above and belowground to try to relate changes in the land surface above to features  in the permafrost layer belowground.

Different vegetation types grow on ground that has frozen versus on thawed permafrost, he explains. Black spruce and sphagnum mosses tend to grow above the hard, frozen silt of permafrost. In areas where permafrost is thawing, the trees are often stunted or tilting to the side. Areas with thermokarst features also tend to have vegetation often found in wetlands. wThawing permafrost also changes the soil moisture content. The ABoVE team is measuring both of these factors – vegetation type and soil moisture – from aboard the NASA 802 research aircraft with a radar instrument called UAVSAR.

Above the permafrost tunnel is a common scene in interior Alaska: a boreal forest with spruce trees and a thick layer of spongy ground covered in grasses. Credit: Sofie Bates / NASA

The work scientists are doing at the CRREL permafrost tunnel helps connect features in the permafrost layer to changes in the ground above that can be remotely sensed with airborne radar instruments – changes the ABoVE team is studying across Alaska and northwestern Canada with research aircraft. 

“Measurements we make here at the tunnel can be projected and scaled to help us track these changes across the broader Arctic,” said Douglas.

NASA’s Summer Storm Research Is Flying Into The Next Stage

A small aircraft coming in for landing at sunset.
NASA’s ER-2 landing after a day spent flying above thunderstorms for the DCOTSS field campaign. Credit: NASA/Cameron Homeyer

By Jude Coleman

A low, surging wind picks up as the first few raindrops splatter onto dusty ground. Dense cumulonimbus clouds, like soot-stained cotton balls, knot tighter and tighter in the sky. While the thick scent of petrichor and ozone invades the air, an electric burst of lightning slashes through the sky; deafening cracks of thunder follow, like the footsteps of some celestial giant crashing through the atmosphere.

Summer thunderstorms like this may last just a few minutes, or for several hours. In their wake, the NASA Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere, or DCOTSS, operations room buzzes with activity. After a storm, the Kansas-based crew sends out a high-altitude plane loaded with instruments to take measurements and make observations.

In a process called convection, thunderstorms’ roiling activity draws up warm air from the lower atmosphere and cools it as it travels higher, sometimes shooting it into the next atmospheric layer above called the stratosphere. The DCTOSS team aims to figure out exactly what material swirling in the air gets transferred between atmospheric layers when this happens.

“Until this mission, nobody had ever tried to do this,” said Ken Bowman, DCOTSS principal investigator. “There haven’t been direct observations to tell us how this happens or how important it is.” Bowman and his crew completed their final fight in July, and are now back at in the lab to begin sorting through the data they’ve collected.

View out of the cockpit of the ER-2 cockpit while in flight. The view looks down on fluffly clouds below and the deep blue sky is above.
The view from the ER-2. Credit: NASA/Greg Nelson

For the last two summers, DCOTSS team meteorologists kept their eyes peeled for thunderstorms in North America, which is a global hotspot for thunderstorms that overshoot air into the stratosphere. When a storm erupted, the team had to estimate if and where the storm’s plume would overshoot and air at the top of the storm would mix with stratospheric air, called the storm’s outflow. While the meteorologists used radars and satellites to direct the pilot of NASA’s high altitude Earth Research or ER-2 aircraft to the storm outflow, scientists closely monitored water vapor measurements aboard the aircraft. A spike in water vapor indicated that the plane had entered the outflow plume.

“There’s definitely been some cheering,” said Kate Smith, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Miami who works with instruments aboard the ER-2. “It’s really kind of amazing that they’re able to predict where [it’s] going to happen.”

The rapid updrafts in thunderstorms can push all kinds of material into the stratosphere, including water vapor and pollutants from both man-made and natural sources. Because the stratosphere has its own delicate chemistry, chemicals from the lower atmosphere could alter it, explained Smith. For example, some compounds can wreak havoc on the atmosphere as they break down and interact with the fragile ozone layer that protects Earth from the Sun’s harmful radiation.

Though scientists have known storms overshoot in the stratosphere, little is known about their interactions with the climate. Some compounds such as water vapor and methane are strong greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming. It’s important to understand their role in the atmosphere to predict how it will change in the future due to human-caused climate change, explains Bowman.

A shot of the underside and instrument pod under the wing, near the body of the aircraft.
Preparing the ER-2 for flight during the DCoTSS field campaign in Salina Kansas, July 2022. To the right in the image, under the wing is a pod that carries science instruments. credit: NASA/ Darick Alvarez-Alonzo

One instrument pivotal to those predictions is the Advanced Whole Air Sampler: a manifold of 32 canisters that collects air samples as the plane flies. The AWAS measures 50 different compounds, including carbon monoxide, methane, hydrocarbons, molecules made up of only hydrogen and carbon, and halocarbons, molecules that contain halogen atoms such as chlorine and bromine.

The halogen-containing gases break down and produce radicals, a kind of free-roaming atom that can destroy the ozone layer, explains Smith, who is part of the AWAS team. Smith and her colleagues are particularly interested in short-lived compounds that typically wouldn’t make it into the stratosphere on their own.

“Because of this chimney type process, where [the storm] shoots them up fast, we can identify and detect some of these species in the lower stratosphere,” added Smith.

Another instrument collecting short-lived compounds is the Compact Airborne Formaldehyde Experiment (CAFE) from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which measures levels of formaldehyde with a laser-based technique. Formaldehyde measurements help tease apart how air is transported into the stratosphere since only freshly transported air will have formaldehyde in it.

Both CAFE and AWAS will contribute vital information to the mission, but they are just two of a dozen total instruments the team depends on.

“They’re like your children, you know? You love them all equally,” said Bowman.

With the flights finished and the ER-2 back in the hangar, the next phase of the mission is analyzing all the collected data. While the team sampled around 20 storms during their deployment, hundreds more occurred that weren’t sampled. The first step in their analysis will be to use their data to make models that estimate how much collective material thunderstorms eject into the stratosphere. Then, they can start unraveling what that material does when it gets there—advancing NASA’s understanding of Earth’s climate and preparing for the changes ahead.

 

 

Student Scientists Flying High

Six students pose in front of the P-3 aircraft.
Posing with friends in front of the P3 Orion before boarding Photo Credit: Raffa

by Deb Hernandez

A handful of college students recently got to fly through the skies over the Mid-Atlantic as part of a NASA airborne science program.

Freshman and sophomore students from minority-serving institutions joined NASA researchers on a P-3 aircraft based at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, as part of the Students Airborne Science Activation (SaSa) program coordinated by the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Carrying instruments that collect atmospheric data, the five flights from July 5-16 followed various paths along the I-95 corridor from Baltimore to Hampton, Virginia, as well as over the Chesapeake Bay.

Several SaSa students wrote personal blogs about their experiences, which are excerpted as quotes in the narrative here.

In the cockpit of an aircraft a woman facing away from the camera sits behind the pilots with headphones on, looking out hte windows.
Neima Dedefo sitting in the flight deck and looking out over the Chesapeake Bay. (Credit: Daniel Harrison (Fellow SaSa Intern))

Flying at altitudes between 1,000 and 10,000 feet – which included low-level passes and several spiral tracks on each outing – had some of the students a little nervous.

“I didn’t know what to expect from my first non-commercial flight. All I knew was that the flight had valuable data related to my research, and all I had to do was endure the spirals to get it,” wrote Neima Dedefo, an aviation science major at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

Dedefo picked the lucky number before takeoff and got to sit next to the pilot during one of the flights. “I sat up front, with the rush of adrenaline coursing through my veins. Listening to the pilots communicate with Air Traffic Control (ATC), looking at the view from my window was a solidifying moment for my career,” she noted.

A woman stands next to the beige, curved interior wall of the P-3 hold a rectangular-folded paper air sikness bag.
Trisha poses with her motion sickness bag before takeoff. Credit: Neima Dedefo

Trisha Joy Francisco, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said she was so excited for the flight she asked the program manager to put her on the first flight.

“Everyone was required to be in the hangar by 9 a.m. sharp for the flight briefing,” Francisco recalled. “Our task as students was to listen, observe and ask questions to gain a better understanding of being in the airborne science field. Watching the discussion felt surreal to me. It felt like I was in an episode of Star Trek watching the officers plan for their missions.”

Francisco said the flight day “was filled with anticipation” because the weather forecast the night before had been for stormy skies.

A view out of the aircraft window of fields and trees in greem and then the stark line of the horizon, blue with fluffly clouds.
Flying over Wallops Flight Facility in the NASA P-3 (Credit: NASA SaSa/Vanessa Hua)

“7:45 a.m. – that was the moment to ultimately decide if our last airborne science flights were going to take place,” explained Stephanie M. Ortiz Rosario, a physics and atmospheric sciences major at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. “Pilots, scientists, students, and coordinators gathered at the conference table in the hangar to listen to the information that would influence their decision: the weather briefing.

“And there was me, the one in charge of delivering the forecast,” she said.

“As my first time doing it for the team in real time, it was a nerve-wracking moment, especially knowing that the data I brought in was critical for their decision, and I needed to provide it as clearly as possible,” Rosario said. “The reality is that I was ready to do it. My mentors have been incredible in helping me build up my forecasting and science communications skills. It was the perfect time to showcase myself as a future atmospheric scientist. I just needed to take a deep breath and step in with confidence.

“After what seemed like the most terrifying 3 minutes of my life, I felt the overwhelming support of the team, with their applause and comments. I instantly knew how happy I was to accept the challenge to deliver the weather briefing and see that as a student, my knowledge was useful and appreciated in NASA,” Rosario wrote.

A woman int he center of the photo poses with a small NASA aircraft in the hangar.
Vanessa Hua learning more about the various aircrafts flown by NASA at the Langley Research Center Hangar (Credit: NASA SaSa/Michelle García)

Vanessa Vuong Hua, an environmental studies major with a concentration in atmospheric sciences, University of California, Riverside, did research on trace gases and their impact on the atmospheric chemistry of cities. She was motivated by her concern for her hometown of Riverside, California. “I am no stranger to the poor air quality that plagues the city on a regular basis,” she noted.

“My journey through STEM has been a flight full of missed approaches, spirals, and cruising,” Hua related. “While my destination is not certain, I know without a doubt that environmental science will always be a field I would love to contribute to. In a world where degradation and climate change are occurring at a rate faster than we can prevent it, scientific intervention is more needed than ever. Flying on the P-3 Orion has served to further solidify my passion for atmospheric science and giving back to communities in need of environmental justice.”

Two students sit next two each other in airplane seats inside the P-3 aircraft.
Romina Cano (left) and Sophia Ramirez (right) buckled up and ready for take off! Credit: Sophia Ramirez

Sophia Ramirez, a biology major from California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, has known since middle school that she wanted to follow a career path in science. She noted that “taking off for a flight in a STEM career can be difficult as a first-generation student with little knowledge of resources, guidance, and representation in the desired field.”

“Fast-forward, and I am now in my seat, buckled up, headset on, and ready for take-off,” Ramirez wrote. “As the pilots and head scientist used the headsets to ask each scientist if their instrument was ready to commence take-off, I had a flashback of teachers taking attendance in class. But, instead of doing so to begin class for the day, it was done to begin a flight that would collect atmospheric and Earth data that can be used for research projects and potentially to educate all students of the world about atmospheric processes conditions.”

Ramirez continued, “Throughout the flight, I felt my dreams of becoming a scientist become more tangible, as I saw the science happening in front of me. As I was immersed in science myself. Although I could not take steps with a feeling of stability as I walked down the aisle of the plane, I felt a stability in my career as a woman in STEM.”

A woman in a blue hat and sleeveless top stands in a boat with the blue green water of the Chesapeake and the horizon with a clear sky int he background.
Camila Hernández Pedraza. Boat trip at The Chesapeake Bay on July 1, 2022. Part of NASA SaSa program designed to collect water samples using the Multiparameter. (Credit: Trisha Joy Francisco/ SaSa student)

SaSa intern Camila Hernández Pedraza, a biology major at the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey Campus, enjoyed a slightly different experience as she traversed the Chesapeake Bay via boat to collect data for her research.

“As an intern in the SaSa program, I enjoy researching, studying, and increasing my understanding of how anthropogenic and natural climate change impacts life,” she wrote. “The most gratifying moment was being able to analyze and relate our findings with my previous studies in biology and chemistry.”

Although she was having a good time and learning as much as she could about water quality, Pedrazza got hit by a rough bout of motion sickness.

“After the boat had docked, I found myself using ice packs and wet towels, while laying at a restaurant with air conditioner and telling myself that everything was going to be okay,” she recalled. “I knew becoming a scientist would be challenging, but I also knew that discovery and answers would be worth it. Despite the tribulations, I strive to thrive, because this is what I love.”

 

 

An Arctic Treasure Hunt

A fuzzy veil of musk ox fur drapes over a pink wildflower plant on the ground.
Musk ox wool, called qiviut, is caught on wildflowers near Thule Air Base, Greenland.
(Credit: NASA/Ramsayer)

by Kate Ramsayer / PITUFFIK, GREENLAND/

It was a duck that led me to treasure. And a plane that led me to the duck.

I set out that afternoon from Thule Air Base, walking down a gravel road with the Greenland Ice Sheet looming in the distance. I was trying to find an interesting view to film NASA’s Gulfstream V as it came back from a flight measuring sea ice for our ICESat-2 field campaign. I failed miserably, the plane landing as a spot in the distance far away.

A fuzzy picture of the long-tailed duck in water.
A fuzzy picture of the long-tailed duck that led the author to fuzzy treasure. (Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer)

Annoyed, I turned around and glanced at a pond of water by the road and spotted a duck – a fancy duck! I’m not a great birder, but I had studied up on the area birds and recognized it as a long-tailed duck. I crept closer to try to take a picture with my cell phone. It paddled away. I crept. It paddled. And then….

Treasure.

On the far side of the pond, a dull brown piece of fuzz blew in the wind, held by a clump of grass.

I gasped, forgot the duck, and ran over.

It was a dream come true for this knitter – qiviut, the undercoat of a musk ox, softer than cashmere, warmer than wool. I picked it up and rubbed it between my fingers – OK, I picked out a little dirt from it first, then rubbed it through my fingers – and had to laugh at how such a delicate and delicious fiber came from such a hulking beast.

A large shaggy musk ox with stringy brown wool grazes on short grass.
A musk ox – look at that wool it is shedding! – forages near Thule Air Base, Greenland. (Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer)

Musk ox are found across the Arctic, and we had spotted several the weekend before on a drive out to the ice sheet. (What do sea ice scientists do on a day off of work? Visit an ice sheet, of course!) The first musk ox we saw was just over a mile from Thule Air Base, and I was surprised to see it so close to noisy humans, grazing peacefully in the hilly tundra of northwestern Greenland.

Although there isn’t a huge diversity of mammals in the region, they’ve been easy to spot on this campaign. That first trip beyond the base, we saw three musk oxen and several huge Arctic hares. I’ve started to recognize the Arctic foxes that live under the building I’m staying in, including a skittish brown kit and shaggy adults shedding their white winter fur.

Top image shows a brown Arctic fox. Lower image shows a white Arctic hare nibling on grass.
An Arctic fox and an Arctic hare
(Credit: NASA/ Kate Ramsayer)

It’s possible the lack of trees makes wildlife-spotting easier. Lack of trees doesn’t mean a lack of flora, however. I was thrilled to realize that our summer campaign overlapped with wildflower season. Yellow poppy-like flowers, white puffballs of Arctic cottongrass, purple petals sticking up from a bed of moss, all thriving in the harsh environment. Walking to the ice sheet, one of the scientists and I fell behind while taking pictures of these hardy plants, growing in the rocky glacial moraine.

Four images of pink and yellow wildflowers grouwing out of crevices in the rocks.
Wildflowers bloom in the rocky soil of northwest Greenland.
(Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer)

Back to the qiviut. I found that first bit, then looked around and saw more. Other clumps were hooked on a piece of wood, or a little flower. Musk ox hoofprints and poop provided further evidence of what had wandered by. I followed the prints and poop, picking up clumps of qiviut, like a kid on an Easter egg hunt. If you ever need to lure me into a haunted cottage in the woods, just leave a trail of heavenly fiber – I will skip merrily into the trap.

A clump of musk ox wool piled up on a table.
Qiviut, the soft undercoat fiber from musk ox, the stuff of a knitter’s dream.
(Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer)

Walking back to Thule with a pocket stuffed with musk ox wool, admiring flowers poking up from the side of the road, watching a snow bunting flit across another pond, I know how fortunate I am to explore this unique environment. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before, and I doubt I’ll see anything like it again.

The Arctic is warming four times faster than any other region of the planet. I wonder how these hardy animals and plants, so well suited to their frozen ecosystem, will fare. A recent study described a population of polar bears in southwestern Greenland that now rely on glacial ice, instead of the sea ice that is typical seal-hunting grounds for other polar bears, as the sea ice in their habitat has disappeared for most of the year due to climate change.

As a writer who works with NASA scientists investigating how a warming climate impacts our planet, I’m continuously amazed at how well we can measure change even in these remote places. As a visitor to this incredible spot beyond the Arctic circle, I truly hope these flora and fauna can adapt to this ongoing change.

The Greenland landscape. The lower part of the image shows brown rocky ground with four tiny dots of people walking toward the ice sheet in the midground. The horizon is above the ice show blue sky lightly overcast with a sheet of white bumpy clouds.
Scientists with the ICESat-2 field campaign walk across the tundra toward the Greenland Ice Sheet. (Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer)

Rocking and Rolling Over Summer Sea Ice

An airplane view of sea ice in mottled white and blue with cracks.
The thickness of melting Arctic sea ice, seen here north of Greenland on July 11, 2022, is tricky to measure from space, but a NASA campaign is designed to improve height measurements from the ICESat-2 satellite. (Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer)

By Kate Ramsayer / PITUFFIK, GREENLAND/

I can’t quite find the right words to describe summer sea ice from the air – which is unfortunate, since I’m writing this post about NASA’s ICESat-2 summer sea ice airborne campaign.

It’s like miles and miles of shattered glass, these bits and pieces of ice broken apart and jammed back together. It’s like a honeycomb pattern, except, well, more a mishmash of geometric shapes, no neat hexagons. A 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of white ice floes and teal melt ponds and dark open ocean? Let’s go with that.

We’re flying above the Arctic Ocean in NASA’s Gulfstream V plane, a repurposed corporate executive jet (the swoosh branding of the previous owner still adorns the stairway). Onboard are two laser instruments that precisely measure the height of the ice, snow, melt ponds and open ocean below. Hundreds of miles above us, earlier that morning, the ICESat-2 satellite flew the exact same path, measuring the same ice. Scientists will compare the sets of data to improve how we use the satellite measurements, and better understand how and when sea ice is melting in the warming summer months.

The view of sea ice out the airplane window. White extends in all directions to the horizon line, cloudless blue sky above.
Arctic sea ice and clouds, as seen from NASA’s Gulfstream V jet on July 11, 2022. (Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer)

Two women and two men are gathered around a pair of laptoms, looking at the screens in carpeted hotel room.
NASA Goddard scientists, from left, Nathan Kurtz, Michelle Hofton, Marco Bagnardi and Rachel Tilling study weather forecast models and ICESat-2 flight paths to plan a flight over the Arctic Ocean. (Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer)

Lining up the instrument measurements and the satellite measurements is no easy feat. Starting days before, the scientists had gathered in a common room at our hotel on Thule Air Base in northwestern Greenland, comparing the orbit paths of ICESat-2 with weather forecasts of clouds. Clouds are the scourge of summer airborne campaigns in the Arctic – large storm systems can cover almost the entire ocean, and weather forecast models are not as reliable at this high latitude.

But on this first flight of the campaign the clouds clear for long stretches, sending the scientists, instrument operators and yours truly to the windows to oooh and ahhh at the spectacular ice below.

“Now this is the good stuff,” said Rachel Tilling, sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, as the abstract stained glass mosaic (that any better?) of sea ice appears under sunny skies.

It’s mesmerizing, watching all the ice go past, seeing the cracks between flows and the ridges where the bits of ice have slammed into each other and refrozen. This campaign is particularly interested in measuring melt ponds, bright bits of teal where the snow covering the sea ice has melted and pooled, causing the ice to thin from the surface.

On the aircraft a scientists sits in gront of a boxy instrument, looking at the screen readout.
NASA Goddard’s David Rabine monitors the LVIS instrument as it gathers height data on the melting Arctic sea ice below. (Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer)

The view of sea ice from directly above taken by the LVIS instrument. Mottled white and pale blue sea ice with thin cracks fills the scene.
NASA’s Land, Vegetation and Ice Sensor (LVIS) uses a laser to measure the height of what it flies over, and also carries a camera to collect images like this one, over the Arctic Ocean north of Greenland on July 11, 2022. (Credit: NASA/LVIS team)

As we kneel in front of the port windows, looking out, the laser instruments are right next to us, looking down. On this flight, Goddard’s Land, Vegetation and Ice Sensor (LVIS, pronounced like The King) is firing its laser to time how long it takes for light to go from the plane to the ice or pond or water and then return; ICESat-2 is doing much the same thing from orbit.

It’s not all smooth sailing, though. To calibrate LVIS, the plane has to do a series of pitches and rolls. In the air. Over the polar ocean. With me on board.

I’m not a huge fan of flying. It’s only been a decade or so that I can fly without imagining a fiery death every time we hit a bit of turbulence. (I know, “physics,” but still.) I tolerate it, though, because I love going places.

A view from the plane of Grenland's white glaciers on land in the top and top right of the image. Brown rock of the cliffs and shoreline are a buffer between the land ice and the gray-blue sea ice on the ocean. Broken chunks of icebergs are on the right edge of the image, and a brown rocking island is in the bay.
Glaciers flow into a frozen fjord dotted with icebergs in northern Greenland, as seen from NASA’s Gulfstream V jet flew from Thule Air Base to measure sea ice for the ICESat-2 airborne campaign. (Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer)

But now we’re in a small plane, intentionally doing a series of pitches (up fast, then down fast) and rolls (one wing down, then the other wing). Intentionally. Three times. The first time is the worst, says Nathan Kurtz, ICESat-2 deputy project scientist and the campaign’s leader. Maybe for some; not for me. The first time was kind of fun, I’ll grant you, and there’s video evidence somewhere of me laughing nervously.

The second time: “Isn’t the LVIS calibrated well enough?” was the primary thought in my mind, which is why I’m not an instrument scientist.

The third time, I was regretting the snacks I had brought along for the flight. Look to the horizon, I told myself – right as the plane started its rolls. The horizon quickly disappeared, and then the plane rolled the other way, and it was all ice, and then it rolled the other way….

I closed my eyes, took deep breaths, and imagined the spectacular view, a patchwork of ice and water, that would be there once the plane stopped rolling.

NASA Airborne and Field Data Workshop, March 29-30, 2022

Four images in a grid, two with aircraft and two without, showing different views of Earth's surface. Text reads: NASA Airborn and Field Data Workshop, March 29-30, 2022
Credit: NASA

NASA’s Earth Science Data Systems (ESDS) Program Airborne Data Management Group (ADMG) and the Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) Project are holding a two-day NASA Airborne and Field Data Workshop March 29-30, 2022. This workshop offers an opportunity for stakeholders to provide input on ways to improve the usability of NASA airborne and field data. The first day of the workshop will focus on input from data users, and the second day will focus on input from data producers.

Skier, Mountaineer, Snow Scientist: In the Field with the Women of SnowEx

By Gabrielle Antonioli, Montana State University /BOISE, IDAHO/

“Watch me,” I say to Megan as I tip my skis over the edge of snow at the top of a steep gully in the southern portion of the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. She nods knowingly from the ridge above. Not letting her eyes leave me, she watches as I quickly pop off my skis and get my shovel out of my backpack to dig a snow pit. Though this pit is smaller than the snow pit we dug the previous day at the Banner Summit weather station and radar site, it gives us a similar glimpse at the structure of the layered snow under our feet. After a quick test to assess the strength and stability of the snowpack as well as look at the overall structure of the top meter of snow, I determine the snow looks stable (which means the risk of avalanche is low) and we start our ski descent down the narrow snow gully. 

abrielle Antonioli assessing the snow atop the Elevator Shaft ski line in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho.
The other side of snow science: Gabrielle Antonioli assessing the snow atop the Elevator Shaft ski line in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho in March of 2021. Credit: Megan Mason

The intersection between scientists who study snow and those who are fascinated with mountaineering and avalanches is an interesting one, to say the least.  Like many other Earth sciences, we must venture out into the element of study and observe it carefully and with a curious mind to start to understand the complex dynamics by which it operates.  And though the snow-centric field of cryosphere science is infinitely interesting, it is an intimidating path to choose. Women in cryosphere sciences – whether on the path of data scientist, glacier researcher, or avalanche forecaster – are few and far between. I met like-minded women like Megan Mason and Isis Brangers when I joined HP Marshall’s Cryosphere Geophysics and Remote Sensing group (CryoGARS) at Boise State University and the NASA SnowEx 2020-2021 campaign he led as co-project scientist. Isis is currently finishing her Ph. D. with the CryoGARS group and previously worked on a project studying snow depth over the European Alps with the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite. Megan is currently a research scientist for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. 

Megan Mason using an SMP on the Grand Mesa SnowEx campaign in 2020, photo: C. Hiemstra.

SnowEx campaigns utilize traditional snowpit observation techniques alongside techniques aimed at being able to monitor and infer properties about the snow from afar. These include Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), light detection and ranging (LiDAR), SnowMicroPenetrometry (SMP), liquid water content sensors, ground-penetrating radar, and airborne inferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR).

HP Marshall and Isis Brangers doing a full snow pit profile. Credit: Megan Mason

Remote detection of snow water equivalent (SWE) – or how much liquid water a snowpack contains – has long been a goal of hydrologic scientists. SWE is important to other branches of the snow world, like avalanche control and forecasting, which attracts a variety of scientists with specialized skill sets that enable them to reach mountain locations in winter. This work is challenging and involves risk, and I’m continually inspired by the women I meet that can troubleshoot a faulty weather station, dig a full profile science snow pit in a blizzard, and handle adversity of any kind with positivity and determination.

Isis clearing the solar panels on a radar station.
Isis clearing the solar panels on a radar station at Banner Summit, Idaho. Credit: HP Marshall

Large hydrology-focused projects like SnowEx can directly benefit the snow and avalanche community, and subsequently many economies across the mountain west. This is where the intersection between backcountry skier and snow scientist occurs. Mapping SWE throughout a mountain range in real-time would shift the entire landscape of forecasting for both snow hazard and spring water run-off monitoring. Currently, these monitoring efforts are based on using index sites such as Snowpack Telemetry sites, or SNOTELs, combined with historical knowledge and experience, to help extrapolate how much water the snowpack holds.  Even with current technology, precipitation estimates are relatively unreliable in some places and can be highly uncertain in both amount and type of precipitation. With remote sensing technologies like those being tested with SnowEx, and the women behind the scenes working to improve these technologies, we can fill that gap.

Megan Mason in the snow in Grand Mesa.
Megan Mason on the Grand Mesa 2020 campaign. Credit: K. Hale

The focus of the 2021 SnowEx airborne and field effort in Idaho was part of an experiment at sites in the Boise and Sawtooth mountains, in addition to sites in Utah, Colorado, and Montana. Radar sensors were flown at 40,000 feet each week across all sites from January through March, producing a time series. The sensor that was used has shown promise for mapping changes in SWE and a similar sensor may one day be launched into space in 2023 by a joint NASA and Indian Space Research Organization satellite mission called NISAR.  

Though the 2022 SnowEx campaign was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, data collection continued at ground-based radar station sites and helicopter LiDAR flyovers continued over these zones. This data is key to refining remote sensing technologies for snow. Collecting data that is both accurate over large areas and sampled at frequent time points is important because accurate snow data estimations require that our instruments are precise. 

Snow research is a challenging field to enter, but barriers to that entry are getting lower. Women like Isis and Megan forge a path for others to enter the field with less resistance and support to reach even further. Snow’s ability to serve as a water reservoir is shifting beneath our feet due to climate change, whether we sense it or not.  Disparities in weather patterns, rising rain lines in the mountains, and unpredictable climate patterns are at our doorstep.  Research like the NASA SnowEx campaign is key in developing new tools to observe these environmental changes.  Our efforts to synthesize and utilize new and non-traditional tools as well as offer a diverse and supportive workplace can help us better understand the past and the changing future. 

Gabrielle looking into the Sawtooth Range in Idaho.
Gabrielle looking into the Sawtooth Range in Idaho in March of 2012. Credit: Megan Mason
Gabrielle setting a trail on skis.
Gabrielle demonstrating some of the more unique skills of snow science– setting a good trail! Credit: B. Kniveton
Megan Mason skiing the Elevator Shaft in the Idaho backcountry.
Megan Mason skiing the Elevator Shaft in the Idaho backcountry. Credit: Gabrielle Antonioli

 

Planning, Coordinating and Communicating: The Science Behind Winter Storm Chasing Experiments

by Abby Graf

As the snowstorm headed through New York on February 24, one professor at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York spent the hours leading up to it preparing his students to head right into the storm.

Brian Colle, atmospheric science professor at Stony Brook University, is part of many operations in NASA’s Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms (IMPACTS).

Whether it’s preparing a team to operate radars and mobile trucks, launching weather balloons, or flying in the cockpit of one of two aircraft used in the experiment, Colle’s job deals with the fun of coordinating and communicating, and the heart of the mission: science. IMPACTS aims to understand the precipitation mechanisms within snowstorms. The campaign uses two aircraft, ground-based radars, weather balloons, computer simulations, and airborne instruments to help answer questions about how snowstorms form and develop, and how to better predict them.

“One of my jobs is serving as the liaison between the teams,” said Colle. “We start with a briefing the morning of, then I’m making sure I know the plan of the day. I’m coordinating, sending emails, making sure the radar truck is ready. As the mission goes along, I’m in contact with the teams the whole time, making sure we’re collecting data. The job isn’t finished until the storm is over.”

Using Mobile Radar Trucks at Key Locations to Capture Data 

Colle sent teams of students out midday on February 24 to prepare for the overnight storm. One of the teams operates the mobile radar truck that has a Skyler-2 radar on it, which sends out pulse signals every few seconds to collect observations about the atmosphere from lower altitudes, providing high-resolution data from the large geographic regions it samples. “This is the next generation of radars; [helping us] understand rapid storm evolution,” said Colle.

Radar truck parked in a snowy lot with instruments on the back.
The Stony Brook University radar truck deployed during a storm. The instruments on the back of the truck provide data from the Skyler-2 radar, snow size particle sizes from the Parsivel instrument, as well as pressure, temperature, humidity, wind direction, and wind speed of the storms they sample. Photo courtesy of Brian Colle.

The truck is also outfitted with a Parsivel instrument, which is a vertically pointed radar that samples the sizes of snowflakes or raindrops, along with a standardized weather instrument package including thermometers, gauges, pressure sensors, and more. Some of the team headed up to the storm hours before it began to find a location with good visibility in all directions. The goal is to have an area where trees and buildings are not blocking the sensing instruments. While collecting data would’ve begun around 1 a.m., internet issues prevented the team from getting the experiment running, but they have collected a great amount of data from past storms. 

Launching Weather Balloons in the Depths of the Storm

Back at Stony Brook University, Colle organized a group of students to launch weather balloons on campus to measure temperature, pressure, and humidity at different altitudes. An instrument package is attached to the balloon and can “communicate” with a computer on the ground, sending data back as the balloon rises in the air.

A group of students prepares to launch a weather balloon from a snowy field.
A group of Stony Brook students getting the weather balloons ready for a past storm on January 28, 2022. The instruments are tied to strings attached to the balloons, including a parachute and GPS system that provides the location of the balloon. Around 8 kilometers (5 miles), the communication drops off and contact is lost with the system. Photo Courtesy of Brian Colle.

These balloons are launched from a radar truck, which is also equipped with instruments to measure snowflake characteristics. The team started collecting data hours before the two aircraft reached the storms. The P-3 aircraft flies directly into the storm, with instruments aboard to collect data and images from various altitudes. This gives scientists a deeper look at the microphysical properties of the storm, while the ER-2 aircraft flies at roughly 65,000 feet, capturing data with six remote-sensing instruments from above the clouds. The ER-2 arrived at the storm around 4:30 a.m., but the P-3 faced mechanical issues that delayed its launch until the morning of February 25.

The Full Flight Experience

Though not on the P-3 flight this time around, Colle has had the opportunity to fly in the cockpit of the aircraft a few times the past two months, including the February 17 snowstorm in the Chicago area. This falls under his one of many roles but is one of the reasons he joined this mission early on. Interested in studying snowstorms for years, being in the cockpit of the plane during these storms is a lot of fun for Colle. He’s the mission scientist when on the plane, helping interpret the data collected, modify flight tracks, communicate any changes to the pilots, and helping with coordinating the instruments on the plane to make sure everything is functioning and communicating. 

One of the lessons he’s learned is how the pilots navigate the busy airspaces. In populated areas like Chicago or New York, there are a lot of planes taking off, flying, and landing, requiring the pilots to coordinate where the aircraft is headed. It requires a team effort to figure out how to best orient the aircraft. 

With a radar snapshot showing the storm being sampled by the P-3 aircraft, Colle snaps a selfie in the cockpit of the plane. Photo Courtesy of Brian Colle.
With a radar snapshot showing the storm being sampled by the P-3 aircraft, Colle snaps a selfie in the cockpit of the plane. Photo Courtesy of Brian Colle.

“It’s awesome to be a part of the mission. For many years we didn’t have these opportunities. In the past, I’d take measurements on the ground, collecting snowfall and looking under a microscope at the crystal shapes and habits. Looking at data in real-time, looking out the window, and then interacting with the pilots and hearing what they have to deal with…it’s a continuous science experiment and participating in regions we haven’t sampled before has been very exciting,” said Colle.

As IMPACTS winds down its science experiments this winter, Colle and the rest of the team are looking forward to their opportunities next time around. Winter storms aren’t always the easiest to sample, and the scientists are constantly learning. But the instances in which challenges and difficulties occur only make Colle more confident that the data collected this year will give them better opportunities for improvement next year.

Storm Chasing Scientists Fly Into the Clouds to Understand Winter Snowstorms

By Abby Graf

Imagine the feeling of flying on an airplane. Smooth sailing, clear skies, not a cloud in sight. It’s a relaxing ride that many take for work or recreational travel. Now imagine flying through clouds, with the turbulence of different intensities. While some sink and hold onto their seats, others view it like a rollercoaster ride with their adrenaline pumping. Christian Nairy and Jennifer Moore know a thing or two about that.

Nairy and Moore, two atmospheric science graduate students at the University of North Dakota, are part of NASA’s Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms (IMPACTS). Their job is to operate probes on one of two aircraft used in the experiments. The P-3 aircraft that houses their airborne office flies directly into the snowstorms, allowing the instruments Nairy and Moore operate to measure snow particles and atmospheric properties within the storm clouds.

The P-3 aircraft on the tarmac at NASA Wallops.
The P-3 aircraft at NASA Wallops on February 3 before a science flight. Credit: Vidal Salazar

IMPACTS is the first comprehensive study of snowstorms in the Northeastern United States in 30 years. The campaign combines satellite data, ground-based radars, weather balloon launches, computer simulations, and airborne instruments to understand snowstorms. The goal is to develop greater comprehension of winter storm formation and development by using several instruments that examine the microphysical characteristics of snow particles at various temperatures and altitudes. The data collected during the multi-year IMPACTS campaign can help advance the future of snowstorm forecasting and predictions.

“If we understand the microphysics of the clouds, what we’re seeing, when we’re seeing them, and how we’re seeing them, it gives scientists in other disciplines a better understanding of what they’re studying,” said Nairy. The IMPACTS experiments will provide robust datasets about winter snowstorms for scientists to analyze and incorporate into their own research.   

Nairy and Moore have spent the last few months based at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, spending their days troubleshooting problems and revamping the nine probes that are on each flight. When a storm is in the forecast, it’s go time. They arrive at the hangar to prepare the probes, computers, and flash drives that will accompany their research in the air. An hour before the plane takes off, they board the P-3 and continue prepping the cloud probes.

All but one of the probes hangs off the tips of the plane’s wings, away from the propellers, each having its own job: taking high-definition photos of ice particles, measuring the total amount of water (both in liquid and ice form),  measuring the size of full and partial snow particles, and sampling shattered particles. These data-collecting tools can sample over 30 million particles in a single eight-hour flight alone.

 

Close-up images of snow particles captured by one of the probes on the P3.
A few of several particle images that the probes captured. Dependent upon the temperature and humidity at which they’re formed, some are “Bullet Rosettes” which are star-patterned, near the top of cold clouds; There are also hexagon-shaped particles, a pencil-shaped particle with hexagons at each side, a conglomeration of “plates” that are connected and more. Photos courtesy of Christian Nairy taken on the PHIPS Instrument.

“The whole point is to measure as much as we can when it comes to particles, concentration, sizes and particle habits,” says Moore. “We want to further our understanding of these storms and why they dump snow over the Northeast.”

Probes hanging off the wing of the plane.
The left wing of the P-3 aircraft. The probes capture data in different ways, some particles entering directly into their openings, some read by lasers, and more. Photo Credit: Christian Nairy
Probes hanging off the wing of the P3.
The right wing of the P-3 aircraft with its probes. Credit: Christian Nairy

Once the plane takes off, the team settles in for eight hours of flying and collecting data. Flying through the clouds isn’t always smooth sailing, though. Sometimes there’s turbulence and sometimes the storm quickly changes from snowflakes one minute to liquid water droplets the next. The transitions are quick, but the technology that captures these changes furthers the researchers’ understanding of how snowstorms work. While much of the flight involves looking at data in real-time, there are downtimes where conversation and collaboration can happen. The team chats with other researchers onboard, cracks jokes, takes notes of what they’re seeing and communicates with the IMPACTS HQ ground team at NASA Wallops.

IMPACTS Principal investigator Lynn McMurdie is on the ground at NASA Wallops as the flights take place. While the planes cruise at 300 mph at various altitudes within the storm, she’s constantly communicating with the teams, directing them to sample certain parts of the storm – like snow bands and when to make in-flight adjustments.

Snow bands are narrow structures in the atmosphere that are created by the storm itself. These banded structures tend to cause heavy snowfall. Not all storms produce these bands, however, and sometimes the bands don’t dump lots of snow, which furthers the importance of understanding just why, how, and when they do or don’t form. 

“We decide where to fly based on forecasts of our storm of interest,” McMurdie shares. “We tend to draw a line or box of where we want to do our sampling, usually going across any banded structures from one side to the other. Going across the snow bands gives us variability in and outside of the band.” 

Sampling snow bands with variability offers researchers’ an improved understanding of how the distribution of snow varies from storm to storm. It’s dependent upon two factors: storm strength and location. There are times when snow bands will drop many inches of snow within a short period of time, but other times when there’s only a light dusting of snow.  Sampling from within and outside of the band, and at different altitudes, helps the team see the whole picture of precipitation and snow production.

Christian Nairy and Jennifer Moore seated at their in-flight computers in the P3 aircraft.
Jennifer Moore (left) and Christian Nairy (right) are seen here operating the monitors and looking at data that their nine cloud probes produce. Photo Courtesy of Christian Nairy.

“The more data we can get, the better we can predict and understand. It’s so important to try and fly in every storm we possibly can,” Moore says. “[The snow storms] can be really impactful, even if it’s an inch or two. You think you understand them, but then you actually get into the science of it. You learn so much more when you’re actually experiencing it.”

As the eight-hour flight prepares to land, Nairy and Moore’s work isn’t done. As soon as the P-3 touches down, the probes are shut off and covered, the data is downloaded to computers, and a post-flight briefing occurs. The two graduate students update and maintain the probes to ensure they’re ready for their next storm-chasing flight. And then it’s time to call it a day.