We’re so saddened by the loss of our teammate Dr. Gemma Teresa Narisma. She was a passionate climate researcher and the Philippine lead for the Cloud, Aerosol, and Monsoon Processes Philippines Experiment (CAMP2Ex).
As the director of the Manila Observatory and a professor at Ateneo de Manila University, she not only helped plan the research, but she aggressively brought students into the CAMP2Ex project, helping lead the next generation of meteorologists and climate researchers in forecasting weather for flights and data collection.
“We witnessed brightness, peace, curiosity, joy, courage and determination,” Simone Tanelli of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said, in Gemma’s remembrance. “And Gemma was right at the center of that, emanating them, and the whole Manila Observatory team shone with them.”
Gemma’s expertise was internationally recognized: She served as an author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report and received numerous awards honoring her work as a researcher. Gemma was one of the leading subject matter experts in the Philippines on climate resilience, severe weather and natural hazards. She was consulted at every level of the Philippine government.
Gemma was a dedicated and enthusiastic teammate and mentor; a role model for younger scientists and a friend to all who met her. Her smile lit up a hangar, and it was a joy to watch her celebrate as her students took their first science flights with CAMP2Ex.
“The world has lost a valuable scientist, and the Philippines has lost an environmental spokeswoman, but we have lost a beloved friend” said Jeffrey Reid, U. S. Naval Research Laboratory.
By Gabrielle Antonioli, Montana State University /BOISE, IDAHO/
Being a snow scientist is an interesting career. Growing up in a small town in Montana, I was immersed in snow. But I saw it as one set thing—a blanket, unmoving, a cold, white mass. Only far later in life did I learn what a changing and integral role snow plays in our day-to-day life. Snow drives the winter economies of most Western states, acts as water reservoirs for those same regions and far beyond and is a fundamental part of life—whether we see it fall on our city streets or not.
I wasn’t always interested in studying snow, though. I received my bachelor’s degree in organismal biology, aimed at a career in medicine. A fundamental switch flipped in my brain as I worked in mountain environments, found snow science and ski mountaineering mentors, and realized that snow could be as changing and complex as any living organism. Mitigating risk and hazard while skiing – alongside trying to understand the evolution of a snowpack in a given mountain range – evolved into an encompassing and engaging mental and physical process for me. It is from this divergence in thought and passion that I found my path to the Earth sciences while skiing, teaching avalanche education, and backcountry ski-guiding. I am now completing a master’s in Earth sciences, focusing on snow science, at Montana State University. Amidst finishing this degree remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I chose to move to Idaho and test my skills in a different environment. I am now working as a research technician for the NASA SnowEx project based in Boise, Idaho.
SnowEx is a multi-year NASA campaign to study snow using remote sensing. This involves things like radar, remote-controlled aircraft (UAVs), light detection and ranging (LiDAR), and more. This research is designed to inform plans for a future NASA satellite that would study snow from space. The primary instrument we’re using this year is Inteferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR). InSAR flies over the Boise site each week, as well as other sites located near more distant mountain ranges, and uses radar to estimate the depth of the snow. We compare the measurements over time as InSAR continues its weekly flights over this site. The change in snow depth is directly related to the change in how much water is stored in the snowpack, which scientists call snow water equivalent (SWE). This is particularly important in mountain ranges that supply water to urban areas.
Even the most precise remote sensing instruments need to be validated with actual snow data collected in the field. For this reason, the field teams of technicians set out to various study plots across the Western U.S. each week to dig snow pits, identify the structure of the snowpack, measure density and liquid water content, and track each new snowfall. We travel on snowshoe, ski, or snowmobile. The teams I am on visit sites using backcountry skis with removable sticky skins and a special binding that rotates to either free the heel of a ski boot or lock it in place, designed for both uphill and downhill travel.
For our first field campaign mid-January, our team drove a winding highway to reach a mountain trailhead far outside of Boise known as Banner Summit, the upper reaches of which source water for rivers and groundwater that Boise locals utilize. We loaded our packs with science gear and used skis to reach the Banner Summit research site. In addition to the density scales and SWE measuring devices we bring, each site has stationary equipment in place to measure a bevy of meteorological variables—like new snowfall, SWE, total depth of snow, and wind speed. The depth and SWE measured by these set stations is also compared to the InSAR estimates, in addition to our on-the-ground measurements.
So, why is so much time and effort being devoted to finding a better way to monitor snow cover if we have things like snow telemetry stations (we call them SNOTELs) and stream gauges already in place to monitor snowfall and subsequent runoff? The answer is that there are disparities in weather patterns, rising rain lines (or the elevation at which rain is cold enough to turn to snow) in the mountains, and the ever-changing climate that is at our doorstep. For my master’s thesis, I measured variability in snowfall amounts on different types of terrain and during various storms Hyalite Canyon, Montana. I ski in this canyon often and know that the upper elevation SNOTEL under-reports snowfall amounts by about half—not due to instrumentation error, but due to the location of the station as well as the terrain surrounding it. Not only is this a common problem, but disparities like this make a huge difference for avalanche and hydrologic forecasters alike. I am hopeful that in the future, fusing different technologies like those in use for SnowEx, along with validation from on-the-ground data like my snow pits, will alleviate these issues and help locations that rely on snow melt for water more accurately monitor and plan for the future.
Cloud formation in the atmosphere depends on the presence of tiny particles called aerosols. ACTIVATE scientists are working to understand how variations in these particles from human and natural sources affect low lying clouds over the ocean and how those clouds in turn affect the removal of these particles from the atmosphere.
Despite racing against impending harsh weather conditions, a red and white World War II aircraft flew slowly and steadily over the icy waters surrounding Greenland in August and September. Three weeks delayed by pandemic restrictions, scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory inside this retrofitted DC-3 plane started dropping hundreds of probes as part of an annual expedition known as the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) Project.
Since 2016, the OMG project has conducted numerous flights over the waters near Greenland’s lengthy and jagged coastline. They drop roughly 250 probes each year (though they managed a record 346 during this extraordinary 2020 expedition) which then relay temperature and salinity data. The team uses this information to help determine how much the surrounding ocean is contributing to Greenland’s ice melt.
“The glaciers are reacting very strongly to the ocean and we ignore that at our peril,” said JPL scientist and principal investigator Josh Willis. “The oceans have the potential to melt the ice very quickly and drive the sea level rise even higher than we expected.”
If it all melted, Greenland’s ice could contribute as much as 25 feet of sea level rise—though Willis assures us that this is not expected within the next year, or even the next 100 years. The big question that his team is trying to help answer is rather the speed at which the ice is melting.
Unlike icebergs—which float in water—glaciers sit atop a land mass, seemingly exposed and vulnerable to the warming atmosphere. While the atmosphere is a significant factor, it is not solely responsible for glacial melt. As the glaciers in Greenland start to ooze off the island in massive rivers of ice, they carve fjords into the landscape until they finally connect with the sea. While surface waters are generally frigid, the warmer ocean waters from below can cause the glacier to melt more quickly and speed up the amount of ice that drains off the land into the ocean.
Though the coronavirus pandemic had sweeping impacts across the globe, it didn’t halt environmental processes like Greenland’s glacial ice melt. It also didn’t impede the resolve of the OMG scientists to continue their work.
Starting in March up until the day they landed in Greenland on August 24, Willis says he wasn’t sure they would be able to collect their data this year. But cooperation between the various stakeholders, including NASA, the State Department, and the governments of Canada and Greenland, was key. Willis also gives credit to a huge amount of hard work by OMG’s Project Manager, Ian McCubbin of JPL, for making it possible. “If it wasn’t for McCubbin,” said Willis, “we’d still be sitting on our couches.”
Coordinating the scientists and equipment necessary for any expedition requires a great deal of planning, and the additional pandemic-related precautions made everything just a little bit more complicated.
“It was like a whole new layer, after you go across the border and go through customs and boarder control, now you also go through coronavirus screening,” Willis said.
In addition to getting tested a whopping seven times, two of which took place before even stepping foot in Greenland, Willis and the other members of the OMG team were very cautious. There was an initial isolation period after landing on the island during which they could fortunately work on the plane and equipment preparation, wearing masks when traveling to and from the site and no contact with locals. Greenland has had very few cases of COVID, and doesn’t have enough hospitals to handle any outbreaks, so the team was especially conscious of limiting their interactions with people there.
One exception was communicating with the nurses conducting their COVID-19 tests. “It was quite an experience getting tested this many times,” said Willis, “but the most fun was actually with nurses in Greenland, who were very nice and asked about our mission, so we got to tell them about what OMG was doing—and I suspect they followed along the rest of our journey on social media.”
Though some legs of the scientists’ expedition were delayed or more challenging as a result, Willis says it was well worth the extra effort to ensure everyone’s safety.
The outcome turned out to be a banner year for the project, despite the late start. Instead of heading north at the beginning of the month, it was already well into August when Project Manager Ian McCubbin and the three scientists from JPL—Ian Fenty, Mike Wood, and Willis himself—were able to meet with their flight crew from Kenn Borek Air.
Once they were on the ground in Greenland, their main concern was for the conditions they might encounter once back in the air.
“Weather starts to get pretty rough in September, and very rough in October.” said Willis. Fortunately, they were able wrap up their surveys by mid-September, mostly dodging the snow, sleet and wind that might impede their ability to drop all of the probes. “It was a sprint to the finish line, but we were able to accomplish everything we wanted to do and more.”
In fact, the team encountered unusually good conditions in the north east parts of the island, where ice and fog usually prevent access. As a result, they measured some glaciers that had never been sampled before.
When the project first began in 2016, the scientists also flew a jet with a radar strapped on the bottom to measure big swaths of glaciers from above, but NASA’s ICESat-2, an Earth-observing satellite that measures the mass of ice sheets and glaciers down to the inch that launched in 2018, takes care of that part of the mission now.
More than 45 scientific papers have now been published based on OMG data, with several more in progress. Willis says that every new discovery reminds them that the oceans are more important than they ever thought possible.
This year they noted new observations of Greenland’s largest glacier Jakobshavn, which has been closely monitored since the start of the project in 2016. In the first couple of years, the water near Jakobshavn cooled by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees C)—a whole lot for a block of ice according to Willis. That cooling slowed the melting of the glacier, which then started growing instead. But early this year warm water returned to Jakobshavn and the recent observations suggest it is now thinning once again.
These continued discoveries from the project are very exciting for the scientists and organizations involved. Because of this, the OMG project has gotten approval to continue its research beyond the original end date, meaning that Willis and his crew will again be making their way back to Greenland next August, and this time hopefully without much delay.
Those flights are taking scientists over the western Atlantic Ocean to study how atmospheric aerosols and meteorological processes affect cloud properties. In addition, modelers will use data from these flights to better characterize how the clouds themselves, in turn, affect aerosol particle properties and the amount of time they spend in the atmosphere, as well as the meteorological environment. Coordinated flights between a King Air and an HU-25 Falcon allow researchers to fly above, below and through the clouds with a suite of instruments that can take measurements remotely, or from the air around the aircraft.
“The data have been really good so far,” Armin Sorooshian, ACTIVATE principal investigator and an atmospheric scientist at the University of Arizona, said of the summer flights. “We’ve seen some interesting features, like smoke from the wildfires on the West Coast.”
That smoke can seed clouds over the Atlantic Ocean.
Sorooshian is leading the campaign remotely from his home in Tucson, Arizona, where he and his wife are juggling work and the care of two children — a two-year-old boy and a baby girl who was born in July.
He admits it’s “a little tough.” But in a world where these flights could have been scrubbed from the calendar completely, Sorooshian isn’t interested in dwelling on the negatives.
“They’re good problems,” he said.
The ACTIVATE team began the first of two planned 2020 flight campaigns in February. They completed most of those flights, but had to pull the plug a little early in mid-March when concerns about the spread of COVID-19 began to sweep across the U.S. At that point, the fate of the second set of flights, originally scheduled for May and June, was — pardon the pun — very much up in the air.
As the COVID situation evolved, though, and as Langley leadership began to admit a limited number of research projects back on center with stringent safety protocols in place, it became clear there might be a glimmer of hope for ACTIVATE.
ACTIVATE is uniquely positioned among other current NASA airborne science missions because it’s based out of a NASA center, and the flight crew and many members of the science team are also based out of that center. John Hair, ACTIVATE project scientist with Langley’s Science Directorate, knew that from a purely logistical perspective, the mission could return to flight without the need for anyone to travel in from out of town.
“We had an opportunity because ACTIVATE has a relatively small crew that can operate the instruments in the aircraft, and do that, we felt, safely — albeit with some changes to the initial plans we set out,” he said.
Besides obvious stuff such as wearing masks and being mindful of social distancing, those changes include conducting the various daily flight planning meetings and pre-flight briefings completely via video conference. Researchers are also doing real-time monitoring of flight data from their homes. For researchers who are flying or need to be on center, the project has found ways to streamline some processes.
“For example, people are learning how to do their calibrations at the end of the flight after the instruments are already warmed up,” said Hair. “And then it only takes an hour to do.”
Compare that to the three or four hours it can take a researcher to warm up and calibrate an instrument before a flight.
The entire operation has taken a lot of careful planning and coordination between Langley’s Science Directorate, Research Services Directorate and Center Operations Directorate. Sheer determination has certainly played a role as well.
“We all signed up for supporting research as it comes in. ACTIVATE was in the middle of a major campaign and we wanted to get them back to flying as soon as we could,” said Taylor Thorson, ACTIVATE project pilot with Langley’s Research Services Directorate.
Sorooshian believes this experience could be instructive for the next round of flights, which are currently scheduled to kick off in February 2021 when COVID-19 could still be a significant concern.
It’s not just instructive from a safety perspective. Marine clouds are more scattered and difficult to forecast in the summer.
“Flying this summer also allows the team to hone the flight planning strategies, which can build upon heading into the next two years of flight campaigns,” he said.
For now, he and Hair are just happy to see a study they both care deeply about back in action.
“This is exciting that we’re out doing some flights,” said Hair. “People are excited to get the critical science data that we’re collecting on these flights.”
The ACTIVATE science team includes researchers from NASA, the National Institute of Aerospace, universities, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the German Aerospace Center. The current flight campaign is the second of two in 2020, with two more to follow in 2021, and another two in 2022.
In the early 1900s, Ernest Shackleton attempted to travel across Antarctica, but as they neared the continent his ship became stuck in an pack of sea ice and was slowly crushed before it reached the landmass. Over 100 years later and on the opposite side of the globe in the Arctic, researchers in the massive, double-hulled icebreaker, Polarstern, are also stuck in a pack of sea ice – but this time on purpose. And this ship isn’t sinking any time soon.
Intentionally trapping itself in the sea ice, Polarstern drifts with the floe, which is a large pack of floating sea ice. Researchers set up “little cities” on the ice where they take measurements using delicate instruments. While it appears that the sea ice they walk on to reach these camps is stationary, everything is actually slowly drifting as wind and ocean currents push the gigantic slabs of ice.
MOSAiC is a multidisciplinary expedition, as researchers from a variety of fields – including marine biology, meteorology, and oceanography – collaboratively study Arctic changes.
“It’s more of a process study,” explained Steven Fons, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who studied sea ice from March to May of this year. “The idea, then, is once everybody collects this data, we can compile everything and learn about the sea ice in the ocean, and the atmosphere and the ecology.”
Sea ice is an integral part of the Arctic climate system because it sits directly between the ocean and the atmosphere, moderating the exchange of heat and moisture. An important climate indicator, sea ice research identifies changes in other Arctic climate systems, including the ocean, atmosphere, ecology, and biogeochemical cycles. Basically, studying sea ice can give greater insight into how the entire Arctic is reacting to climate change.
For a small group of MOSAiC researchers, every Monday was a 14-hour workday spent at “Dark Sites,” named so because they are isolated from the bright lights of Polarstern. After traveling over a mile on snow machine, the team used hollow drills to remove cylindric cores from the sea ice floe. In the labs aboard Polarstern, these samples revealed the fascinating characteristics of sea ice.
“As ice forms, it will eject the salt away as it’s freezing,” said Fons. “The longer it stays around, the more salt essentially drains out of it.” Basically, high salt levels tell researchers that this particular ice formed in the most recent winter. This can reveal how the Arctic adjusts to higher temperatures, as the region is warming at a rate more than twice the global average.
In the Arctic, wind chill can reach frigid temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Working in the cold without hand protection was impossible, so Fons wore thin gloves underneath his bulky mittens, which he removed when handling small objects. Even so, frequent warming breaks were necessary, which meant simple, one-minute tasks could take 10 times longer in Arctic conditions.
“Some of the really cold days, you can only last 30 seconds at a time taking off your big mittens,” he recounted. “You just have to put five zip ties on this cable, perfect. It should take one minute to do, but it would take 20 minutes because you have to keep warming your hands and [the zip ties] keep breaking in the cold.”
Native to Wisconsin, Fons is no stranger to subzero winters. Nonetheless, during this expedition he witnessed temperatures unlike anything he had ever experienced before. Icy winds bit into any exposed skin. His only relief: a thick, bushy beard and about ten layers of clothing.
In an ever-changing environment, researchers’ locations can be difficult to determine on the ice cover, which can literally shift beneath their feet. For MOSAiC, every measurement is paired with a GPS coordinate. However, the ice drifts, and so the latitude and longitude change every day. Instead, the immense icebreaker Polarstern is used as a point of reference, a sort of ground zero for field navigation.
“You’re given a position away from the ship, so a certain distance of x and y, and that will theoretically never change,” Fons explained. But even this system has its obstacles. “If the ice broke up and the ship moves a little bit, then you can lose your x-y positions, so it didn’t always work.”
Helicopters and planes accompany Polarstern, getting a birds-eye view of the stark white landscape. Flying high above the floe, planes take airborne measurements in a similar way to Operation IceBridge. Fons does research using data from NASA’s ICESat-2 – the satellite that surveys glaciers and sea ice around the globe – and he was lucky enough to validate some of the satellite’s measurements while researching with MOSAiC.
“On the ship, since we’re constantly drifting with the ice, we don’t exactly know where we’re going to be on any given day,” he said. “We got lucky that we happened to be drifting one day over a spot that ICESat-2 was going to fly over. We were able to jump on that opportunity and schedule a helicopter flight.”
Seasonal changes near the poles are unlike anywhere else on Earth. Summer and winter are really the only seasons these regions experience, characterized by a dramatic transition between complete darkness during winter days to total sunlight during the summer. Ten days after reaching Polarstern, Fons witnessed his first Arctic sunrise. As summer came, the Sun sailed over the horizon for longer and longer each day until it refused to set, resulting in the phenomenon of the “midnight sun.”
Ice dynamics, or the movement of ice slabs in the floe that changes the terrain, were a trademark of Fons’ three months on Polarstern. Sometimes, the researchers would wake up to massive leads, or ice fractures, blocking their usual routes. Other days, research tents would be buried in ice piles from leads that closed to form towering ridges. Sea ice dynamics had a wide appeal for study among MOSAiC teams. Below the floe, marine biologists and ecologists studied microorganisms. Within the ice itself, sea ice researchers examined crystallization patterns.
“With MOSAiC, what people are able to do is look at the ice at so many different scales and through many different lenses,” Fons summarized.
Leaving from Nassau on a Tuesday night in August 1975, Jacques Cousteau and his team set out on the Calypso for a three-week expedition designed to help NASA determine if the young Landsat satellite mission could measure the depth of shallow ocean waters.
For days, the Calypso played leapfrog with the Landsat 1 and 2 satellites in the waters between the Bahamas and Florida. Each night, it sailed 90 nautical miles to be in position for the morning overpass of the satellite.
Ultimately, research done on the trip determined that in clear waters, with a bright seafloor, depths up to 22 meters (72 feet) could be measured by Landsat.
This revelation gave birth to the field of satellite-derived bathymetry and enabled charts in clear water areas around the world to be revised, helping sailing vessels and deep-drafted supertankers avoid running aground on hazardous shoals or seamounts.
“It was a tremendous example of how modern tools of scientists can be put together to get a better understanding of this globe we live on,” the Deputy NASA Administrator, George Low, said of the joint Cousteau-NASA expedition in a 1976 interview.
But it couldn’t have happened without the world’s most famous aquanaut, his team of expert divers, and the Calypso.
Astronauts and Aquanauts Together
The ocean’s vastness made Cousteau an early supporter of satellite remote sensing.
Cousteau, by then a decades-long oceanographer, was keenly aware that ocean monitoring from above would be necessary to understand the ocean as part of the interconnected Earth system and to raise the awareness requisite for protecting the sea. There was a growing recognition in the 1970s that helping the planet required understanding the planet.
“Everything that happens is demonstrating the need for space technology applied to the ocean,” Cousteau said during a 1976 interview at NASA Headquarters.
George Low, the Deputy NASA Administrator, himself a recreational diver, connected Jacques Cousteau with former Apollo 9 and Skylab astronaut Russell Schweickart. Schweickart was heading up NASA’s User Services division and both he and Cousteau were looking for ways to advance Earth science.
At the time, it was theorized that the new Landsat satellites might be useful for measuring shallow ocean waters. New deep-drafted supertankers were carrying crude oil around the globe, and to avoid environmental catastrophes it had become important to know where waters in shipping lanes were less than 65 feet (20 meters).
To establish if Landsat could accurately measure ocean depth from space, simultaneous measurements from ships, divers and the satellite were needed.
Schweickart knew a coordinated bathymetry expedition was an essential step. He had honed his diving expertise while training for his Skylab mission in NASA’s water immersion facility and was enthusiastic about scuba work. Teaming with Cousteau was a natural fit.
An elaborate experiment was designed to determine definitively if multispectral data from the Landsat satellites could be used to calculate water depth. The clear waters of the Bahamas and coastal Florida were selected as the test site.
The experiment design involved two research vessels, the Calypso and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab’s Beadonyan, being in position, or “on station,” when the Landsat 1 and 2 satellites went overhead on eight different days (four consecutive days on each of two weeks).
The overall concept was simple: the research ships would use their fathometers to measure water depth at the exact same time that the satellite flew overhead and then those measurements would be compared (the simultaneous measurements eliminated any environmental or atmospheric differences that could have complicated comparisons). But realizing that plan took extraordinary coordination.
As the Landsat satellite flew overhead, Cousteau and his team of divers made a series of carefully timed measurements of water clarity, light transmission through the water column, and bottom reflectivity. This was done both near the Calypso and at two sites 60 meters from the Calypso using small motorized Zodiac rigid inflatable boats.
To make the light transmission measurements, two teams of divers had to use a submarine photometer to measure light at the water’s surface, one meter under the water and in 5-meter increments to the bottom (down to 20 meters).
The divers had to hold the photometer in a fixed position looking up and cycle through four different measurements. They also used specially filtered underwater cameras to measure bottom reflectivity (assisted by gray cards for reference). Everything was carefully timed. Schweickart and President Gerald Ford’s son Jack helped with these underwater measurements.
To make the precision measurements, the skill of these divers – including Cousteau’s chief diver, Bernard Delemotte – was essential.
“I was in charge of the divers,” Delemotte explained in a recent interview. “We were very convinced that we could do serious work together [with NASA].”
Before the satellite overpass, the Calypso and Beayondan were in position, anchored side-by-side, and ready to make all specified measurements.
“Two small Zodiacs left from the Calypso just before the satellite passage,” Delemotte recalls.
The Zodiacs stationed themselves 200 feet (60 meters) from the Calypso, and at the moment that the satellite was overhead someone on the Calypso would call to the divers through the portable VHF radio: “Go now!”
The divers would then start the series of prescribed measurements.
Using these measurements, scientists developed mathematical models describing the relationship between the satellite data and water depth, accounting for how far the light could travel through water, and how reflective the ocean floor was.
“Particular thanks” was given to Cousteau’s team of divers in the experiment’s final report “for their dedication and expertise in the underwater phases of the experiment, without which, measurements of key experimental parameters could not have been made.”
The diving prowess of Cousteau, Delemotte, and the Calypso crew added inextricably to the realm of satellite-derived bathymetry. Because of data collected during the NASA-Cousteau expedition, charts in clear water areas around the world were updated, making sea navigation safer. It was the precision measurements made by Delemotte and Cousteau’s team of divers that made bathymetry calculations for those chart updates possible.
Flying a plane over Alaska’s vast landscape provides a birds-eye view of some incredible sights. Bears run across frigid streams, moose trample through mounds of snow, and golden eagles own the air above ice-capped mountains. Glaciers cut paths through these mountains, leaving lakes and rivers in their wake. These glaciers are especially interesting to scientists who want to learn more about climate change in a region that is changing more than any other.
According to Christopher Larsen, project manager of Operation IceBridge (OIB) Alaska, these glaciers are losing on the order of 75 billion tons of ice each year, which contribute to global sea level rise. Learning more about these mysterious, ancient ice formations could give scientists a better understanding about the impacts of global climate change in the Arctic.
Thousands of miles above the surface of these glaciers, satellites collect data on how these gargantuan slabs of ice are changing. Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) was launched in 2018, 11 years after its predecessor was decommissioned. In the decade in between, OIB bridged the gap, collecting data and exploring Alaskan glaciers with a whole new perspective.
Now, two years after ICESat-2 made its way into low-Earth orbit, OIB is finishing its final campaign. Having wrapped up its flight season last week, the team plans to do a final set of flights in August. And Larsen, a research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, will finish up his last of eleven summers managing OIB Alaska.
Instead of satellites, his team collects data using instruments aboard two small, single-engine aircraft. They shoot a laser from the bottom of each plane that hits the glacier’s surface and bounces back up. By calculating the amount of time it takes the laser pulses to return to the instruments, Larsen and his team can then estimate the surface elevation of the glacier at specific coordinates.
He said that most science projects at the university only last three years, but IceBridge Alaska has studied glaciers for over a decade.
“I’ve been involved in almost all of the flight campaigns myself,” Larsen said. “It’s really wonderful to have something that’s dedicated to monitoring and observing glaciers over a longer time period.”
Alaskan glaciers are temperate, meaning the ice is at or near melting point, and they melt and refreeze as they adjust to changes in the climate to maintain a balance between ice accumulation and melting. As the Arctic is warming at twice the global average, ice loss is accelerating, contributing to global sea level rise.
One problem with studying temperate glaciers is measuring depth. Radar doesn’t permeate water well, so determining ice thickness can be a challenge. To resolve this problem, the team must use a different frequency range, which isn’t always 100% effective. Despite this challenge, Larsen and his team have determined that some of the thickest ice in Alaska is on the order of 4,900 feet (1500 meters) and located in the Bagley Ice Valley. If all of that ice were to melt, the whole valley could turn into a lake or fjord.
But predictions of ice melt are hard to make because of the individual nature of glaciers. Like snowflakes, all are unique and respond differently to changes in the environment. “What we’ve found in general is that there’s a lot of variation from glacier to glacier, and it’s hard to pin that to any [common] characteristic of a glacier,” Larsen summarized.
And these glaciers have lost a lot of ice.
Not only are scientific barriers a challenge – physical limitations affect the flight campaign as well. For instance, the weather plays a huge role in the operation’s success. Larsen and his team check the weather constantly and plan their flights a day or two in advance based on wind and storm patterns. Weather is the true determinant of where and when they can fly. While satellites collect data at set intervals, planes that rely on clear and calm skies don’t always have this luxury.
The greatest challenge, according to Larsen, is collecting measurements of the same glaciers at consistent intervals. “And that’s driven mainly because you’re operating a light aircraft in large mountains with big weather systems,” he explained.
Nevertheless, the IceBridge Alaska campaign has been able to successfully collect data by running a relatively small campaign with a flexible team. Their pilots sometimes have to change survey paths mid-flight due to the weather, and research teams work proactively to prioritize safety and efficiency. Adding a new plane this summer has boosted productivity exponentially.
Besides their successful data collection on Alaskan glaciers, the IceBridge team has combined scientific processes with personal observations, some of which have been peculiar, to say the least.
Case in point: While flying over Yakutat Glacier, on the Gulf of Alaska’s coast, Larsen was surprised to see that the glacier was almost entirely concealed by a dark mass. When the plane flew closer, he realized that the ice was actually covered by many fuzzy moss balls, fondly nicknamed “glacier mice” by researchers. These tumbleweeds of Alaskan glaciers are still a mystery to scientists who track their movements. Larsen has seen Yakutat Glacier break apart into large icebergs and retreat significantly over the past few years. Most of the moss balls have ended up in Harlequin Lake.
Trudging through snow up to their thighs, researchers Nicholas Hasson and Phil Hanke pull 200 pounds of equipment through boreal terrain near Fairbanks, Alaska. Once they reach their destination – a frozen, collapsing lake — they drill through two feet of ice to access frigid water containing copious amounts of methane.
Hasson lies flat on his stomach and reaches both of his arms into the subzero water. The stench of 40,000-year-old rotting vegetation floats up from the permafrost. He attempts to open the valve on a piece of equipment underneath the water’s surface using his fingers, but his thick protective gloves (water would instantly freeze onto his arms, otherwise) make simple tasks challenging. Finally, he manages to collect his sample, close the valve, and put a stopper in the vial, which is now full of methane gas.
The researchers then trek back to their lab to analyze these samples as part of ongoing field research to fill in a key knowledge gap in climate science: What happens to thawing permafrost in winter?
Hasson, a student researcher with NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, or ABoVE, has been studying Alaskan lakes for three years. His team at the University of Alaska Fairbanks researches how thawing permafrost in Arctic regions contributes to climate change.
Permafrost is ground in mainly polar regions that stays frozen throughout the year, for multiple years. Almost 25% of the Northern Hemisphere contains permafrost. Partially decayed plant matter is trapped within the permafrost, creating a sort of “dirty, dusty, carbon-rich” layer of icy soil, as Hasson described.
Permafrost, he continued in analogy, is like a giant carbon freezer that has been storing organic material for tens of thousands of years. Over the past several decades, as climate change warmed the region, it’s as if someone has left the door open and all the contents of the freezer are thawing. As permafrost thaws, trapped plant matter is broken down by microbes; as a result, carbon dioxide and methane—a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than the former—are released into the atmosphere.
Thawing permafrost can also collapse, creating depressions that fill with rain and melting snow to form thermokarst lakes, accelerating permafrost thaw and the subsequent release of greenhouse gases.
As the methane bubbles to the surface of lakes in the winter, it freezes in the ice, forming pockets of varying sizes and shapes. These pockets create unique patterns on top of the frozen lakes. In the summer, visitors can watch little bubbles burst at the water’s surface like a hot spring, releasing methane into the atmosphere. This scene illustrates how much the environment here has changed in a region warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Only a few decades ago, Arctic winters were colder, many of these lakes didn’t exist and the permafrost was rock solid.
How permafrost behaves in winter has largely been a mystery, but basic physics tells us there’s a lot to learn about its behavior during those darker months. For instance, heat travels slowly through water, so the water in Alaskan lakes holds heat and thaws permafrost partway into the cold season. It’s like lying on the beach in the sun and then walking into an air-conditioned building: your skin still feels warm for a while. Scientists can’t get the whole picture on methane emissions unless they take consistent measurements year-round.
Because planes can only take airborne methane measurements in the summer when there isn’t much snow coverage and because field researchers don’t usually take mid-winter measurements, there is an eight-month gap in the data set – eight months that could completely change how scientists model methane emissions, which have nearly tripled in the past 200 years. These models are crucial in understanding methane’s role in climate change. And that’s why Hasson and his colleagues are in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness: to study methane emissions year-round and provide data for developing climate models.
Hasson and Finke’s university lab will age the gas samples they collect in the field using carbon isotopes to better understand how ancient carbon is being transported into the atmosphere. Even now, in the summertime when airborne measurements are possible, the field team still collects samples at thermokarst lakes and takes them to the lab for analysis.
Hasson said a combination of many different types of measurements and methods is vital to their success. The ABoVE team uses absorption spectrometry to measure methane emissions by shooting lasers through large chambers placed in the water. They also use an insulated sled nicknamed “the coffin” to protect their delicate equipment from the cold while traveling in the field. The team even carries around a giant magnet that can image the ground layers below them, mapping thawing regions of the permafrost. All these methods are the pieces to understanding the puzzle of Arctic permafrost.
Field researchers make observations and collect data so that others can put the pieces in computer models and see the greater picture. “I don’t actually make the predictions,” Hasson said. “I’m just gathering the evidence so that people can put the puzzle together and try to figure out what’s going to happen.”
But “just” gathering the evidence underestimates the task at hand. Even in the cold, Hasson must walk hours to each remote Alaskan lake, pulling his equipment along, following densely forested trails that are too narrow for snow machines.
To save time in a season when daylight is limited and the cold unbearable, Hasson and Hanke, an ABoVE research technician, had the idea to use Hanke’s sled dogs for field travel. The dogs are used to running through winding trails and rough terrain while pulling heavy cargo. And this way, the two researchers get a much-needed break from hauling equipment.
“What’s unique is that [dog mushing’s] original intent was to supply healthcare to remote places in Alaska,” Hasson said. “And now, a century later, we’re staying true to that philosophy and collecting long-term data to know the health of our ecosystems.”
By Katie Stern, IMPACTS’ Deputy Project Manager / HUNTER ARMY AIRFIELD, SAVANNAH, GEORGIA/
“Get in there and check it out!”
I was encouraged by “Corky” Cortes from the NASA ER-2 Life Support Team to see how the pilots prepare for their flight. This was my first NASA field campaign with the ER-2, a high altitude aircraft requiring a Life Support Team to help maintain the health and safety of the pilots. This aircraft is highly specialized and has been modified by NASA for conducting airborne science research.
As the Deputy Project Manager for the NASA IMPACTS project (Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms), I spent January and February at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, managing the deployment site for the ER-2 and the mission scientists. Our project is specifically focused on studying snowbands across the Eastern seaboard. The ER-2 plays a critical role in capturing remote sensing data to better predict the severity of storms.
As a new member to the team, I was unfamiliar with what the Life Support crew and pilot needed to do before each flight. Determined to find out, I peered into the tiny office and saw Joey Barr from Life Support setting up the dressing area for pilot Cory Bartholomew. The full pressure suit was completely unzipped, its green lining visible. It was laid out on the floor to make the dressing process easier. Shiny black boots with metal stirrups used for the ejection seat were placed neatly on both sides of the vinyl chair. Behind Cory were two bright yellow gloves and a space helmet carefully placed on a donut shaped pillow. Everything was ready to go. All we needed was the pilot.
The actual suiting-up process looked a bit cumbersome. I could see why it would be easy to overheat if you tried dressing yourself. One foot, after another, Cory stepped into the matte yellow and green suit and then poked his head through a metal collar, which was used to secure his space helmet.
The two men worked silently, adjusting the suit, putting on the torso harness, tightening straps, and going over the checklist in their heads. They’ve both been through this routine hundreds of times, but for me it was fascinating to see the thought and care going into each movement.
After a few adjustments to the velcro reading glasses that went inside the helmet, Cory snapped the visor shut, and Joey put on his headset to begin the suit pressure checks. A small yellow box filled with liquid oxygen was then connected to the front of the suit with a hose. These pressurized suits along with the liquid oxygen (LOX) allow pilots to fly at an altitude of 65,000 feet, so high the pilots can see the curvature of the Earth.
A few moments later the suit began to inflate and Cory motioned for me to tap on his knee to feel the outward force from the pressure check. A few more checks were conducted and within 15 minutes Cory was ready to be escorted to the van that would take him out to the aircraft.
“If the pilot has an 8 hour mission, how does he eat or drink once he’s in his suit?” I asked Joey, knowing that it was probably a common question.
“See this small hole at the bottom of the helmet? We have a whole selection of food that we can give the pilots and they drink it through a straw that goes into that hole. They can have applesauce, beef stew, key lime pie, peaches, chocolate pudding, you name it!” Joey was excited to share the menu with me and I couldn’t help thinking that the key lime pie sounded pretty good. And after actually trying it, I can confirm it does taste exactly like key lime pie, just put through a blender.
After answering a few other questions of mine, Joey escorted Cory out to the jet. Witnessing the amount of preparation to get ready for the flight only made me want to learn more about the ER-2 and its history. It also gave me a huge appreciation for all of the expertise that goes into ensuring the success of the IMPACTS mission and other NASA missions.