Monthly Archives: October 2016

NASA IceBridge: Fit to Fly

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The Mountains of Alexander Island as seen from the NASA DC-8 on October 15, 2016.  The curious feature near the floor of the valley at center may be a small patch of fog, or it may be an avalanche in progress. Credit: NASA/John Sonntag

The Mountains of Alexander Island as seen from the NASA DC-8 on October 15, 2016. The curious feature near the floor of the valley at center may be a small patch of fog, or it may be an avalanche in progress. Credit: NASA/John Sonntag

by Emily Schaller / PUNTA ARENAS, CHILE /

Imagine a 12-hour flight that takes off and lands in exactly the same place. Now imagine willingly boarding that flight six days per week. This is the routine that NASA’s Operation IceBridge team in Punta Arenas, Chile, follows for six weeks every fall in order to collect data on Antarctica’s changing ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice. Operation IceBridge’s mission is to collect data on changing polar land and sea ice and maintain continuity of measurements between ICESat missions. The original ICESat mission ended in 2009, and its successor, ICESat-2, is scheduled for launch in 2018.

Our DC-8 flying laboratory can’t land on the icy surface of Antarctica, so instead we base our operations as close as we can get—near the southern tip of Chile. The schedule is grueling but incredibly important for maintaining a yearly record of Antarctica’s changing ice.

What is it like inside the airplane every day for those 12-hour flights?

There are generally about 25 of us aboard, including pilots and crew and a team of scientists and engineers who operate a variety of instruments measuring the thickness and extent of ice sheets.

Operation IceBridge's DC-8 flight track from October 14, 2016, showing the position of the aircraft (green icon) over Antarctica about half way through the 11-hour science flight.  The DC-8 takes off and lands at Punta Arenas, Chile.

Operation IceBridge’s DC-8 flight track from October 14, 2016, showing the position of the aircraft (green icon) over Antarctica about half way through the 11-hour science flight. The DC-8 takes off and lands at Punta Arenas, Chile. Credit: NASA

Much of the roughly 12-hour flight is spent flying to and from Antarctica, with the meat of the science in the middle hours of the flight (between 3-9 hours after takeoff, if our mapping target of the day is near the Antarctic coast, or between 4-8 hours after takeoff if our mapping target is closer to the pole).  Most of the instruments do not collect data until we get to Antarctica, so this leaves hours of downtime at the beginning and end of each flight for many of the people aboard (except for the pilots and navigators, of course!).  We often fill this time with outreach and educational activities, as our airplane’s satellite data system allows us to live chat with classrooms back in the United States and all over the world.  Over the past 4 years, nearly 5,000 students in K-12 classrooms across the US and in Canada, Mexico and Chile have connected directly with our IceBridge teams in-flight.

In order to keep ourselves in shape and build team morale, an informal airborne Antarctic workout club has formed to help pass the time during our long flights. Originally inspired by a Navy tradition of dropping and doing 25 pushups on the hour, every hour, our DC-8 version of this tradition persists on many missions due to the encouragement of DC-8 Navigator Walter Klein, Operations Engineer Matt Berry and by IceBridge Project Manager John Woods.

Pushups_DC8_Antarctica

On October 15, 2016, while flying over Antarctica on the NASA DC-8, members of the Workout Club Above Antarctica get moving. Left: John Woods and Walter Klein. Right: Emily Schaller and Walter Klein. Credit: NASA/Emily Schaller

On recent IceBridge flights, in addition to (or in place of) pushups (depending on the person), the on-the-hour exercise also includes squats, stretching, yoga and ballet.

 IceBridge instrument scientist, Eric Fraim, aboard the DC-8 during an hourly exercise break, practices a Barre3-inspired pose above Antarctica. Credit: NASA/Emily Schaller


IceBridge instrument scientist, Eric Fraim, aboard the DC-8 during an hourly exercise break, practices a Barre3-inspired pose above Antarctica. Credit: NASA/Emily Schaller

While not everyone gets up every hour due to their various duties, there are usually a few people nearly every hour doing activities to keep the blood flowing and their minds and bodies engaged during the long daily flights over Antarctica.

NASA IceBridge Antarctica: We are fit to fly!

A Long Deployment, on Ice

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Glaciers in northwest Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Glaciers in northwest Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

by Carol Rasmussen / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

“Svalbard was really nice. Thule was really cold. Kangerlussuaq was really small. We’re still trying to figure out what Iceland is really.”

That’s principal investigator Josh Willis’ capsule description of the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) campaign so far. Approaching the end of a month-long deployment in the Arctic, the team members are pacing themselves to finish their mission without running out of energy, patience or clean socks. It’s been a marathon campaign, relocating to a new base every few days, each one in a different time zone.

But there are compensations. Even the been-everywhere, seen-everything crew of the NASA G-III has been impressed by the spectacular Arctic scenery.

The ocean near Thule. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The ocean near Thule. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Few people on Earth have seen as much of the Greenland coast as this team. It’s a dramatic coastline scored with hundreds of fjords. Many contain glaciers—the places where warm subsurface ocean waters may have a chance to melt Greenland’s ice from below. Behind the fjords is a jumble of rock, snow and ice, and in front is ice and water. The OMG crew has now dropped about 180 of its planned 250 probes in open water within fjords, along the coastline and out onto the continental shelf.

The front of a Greenland glacier flowing into the ocean. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The front of a Greenland glacier flowing into the ocean. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The team has been operating out of four bases: Thule, in northwest Greenland; Kangerlussuaq, in southwest Greenland; the island of Svalbard, Norway; and their current location in Keflavik, Iceland. The bases allow them to stay close to whatever part of the coast they’re measuring rather than wasting fuel flying for hours across the huge island from a single base. Each base is in a different time zone, and the farthest jump is five hours’ difference.

What about jetlag?

“With so many time changes, I don’t try to adapt,” said flight engineer Phil Vaughn. “I sleep when I’m sleepy.”

Thule Air Base after a storm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Thule Air Base after a storm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Blizzard season starts in mid-September in cold Thule. This being an air base, storms are ranked using the air controller’s alphabet: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie or Delta. One night, the OMG crew watched conditions deteriorate to Charlie—complete lockdown. “The winds blow snow from the local icecaps so thick that it decreases visibility and it’s dangerous to be outside,” Willis said. “You don’t go outside at all. We used the time to get a little bit of outside work done and answer emails.” The storm lasted about 20 hours.

Having that much time for anything but work was something of a luxury on a field campaign. The crew is required to take a “hard down” day after every six flight days, giving them a chance to catch up on sleep or chores. But in a new location, one day may not be enough to find fresh produce, do laundry or pick up supplies that have run out. Hotels offer most of these services, but the fee can be hefty. One crew member grumbled that he was charged $90 for a small load of laundry at an earlier stop.

When I asked what happens if someone gets sick, the crew just looked at me. Finally, flight engineer Terry Lee said, “You try to stay away from the other people.” That’s not physically possible in a small plane. But staying home isn’t an option either.

Aurora borealis at Keflavik, Iceland, on Sept. 29. Some of the team saw their first northern lights on this tour. Credit: NASA

Aurora borealis at Keflavik, Iceland, on Sept. 29. Some of the team saw their first northern lights on this tour. Credit: NASA

OMG’s mission success makes up for a lot of inconveniences, though. After weeks of practice and with the keen eyes of the pilots, Willis and the team have gotten very good at finding alternate drop locations in thick ice or cloud cover. Engineers Lee and Vaughn have become expert marksmen at hitting small patches of water. And though the scenery is undeniably jaw-dropping, Willis’ favorite sight from the entire trip is something quite different. “After we dropped one probe, we did a very steep bank and started to climb. I looked over my shoulder and saw a tiny splash. I think that was our probe hitting the water.”

Teamwork Makes for a Dream Team

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Josh Willis and Steve Dinardo celebrate a successful probe drop. Credit: NASA

Josh Willis and Steve Dinardo celebrate a successful probe drop. Credit: NASA

by Carol Rasmussen / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

The first thing you notice about the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) crew is the shared memories. “Where did we get that great pizza—Thule?”

“No, at the little restaurant in Svalbard, remember?”

The next is a story that begins “When we were in . . . ” could continue anywhere: Kazakhstan, Alaska or the Middle East. This is a team that has been working together well for a long time, in more far-flung locations than most world travelers even dream of.

The OMG crew is a textbook example of a high-performance team: a group with diverse and complementary expertise, well-defined jobs, ambitious goals and a strong commitment to the mission and to each other. On their arrival in Iceland, the group consisted of two mechanics/ground crew, two pilots, three flight engineers, the project manager and the principal investigator. A few people have swapped in and out since then, but each team member has distinct responsibilities, and each is essential to keep the mission running. “It’s been a great team effort here,” summarized flight engineer Phil Vaughn. “We’ve got the coordination down to a real good point where everybody knows what each other is doing.”

Johnny Davis (left) and Dave Fuller take inventory on arrival in Iceland. Credit: NASA

Johnny Scott (left) and Dave Fuller take inventory on arrival in Iceland. Credit: NASA

Johnny Scott and Dave Fuller are the ground crew, responsible for preflight and postflight checks and routine maintenance. Scott has worked on the NASA G-III for eight or nine years. The preflight check, which takes an hour or more for the two crew members, includes a walkaround where they simply apply their trained eyes to the aircraft inside and out. “After you’ve looked at the airplane so long, you’ll catch things fast,” Scott said. “You’ll say, ‘Hey, that’s not right.’ You’ll investigate. Most of the time you don’t find anything [significant], but you might find a leak or a crack, or something out of place.”

Arctic cold hasn’t added a lot of additional maintenance chores, Fuller said, because the planes are in heated hangars at their bases. The main difference Is air pressure. Just as you change your car’s tire pressure in winter in a cold climate, the plane systems also need to change. It’s not just tires: it’s things like the brake accumulator pressure—the reserve air needed for emergency brakes. “If the conditions are set correctly on the ground, then the plane will be fine while flying,” he explained.

Pilot Bill Ehrenstrom. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Pilot Bill Ehrenstrom. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Flying is the business of the pilots, and so are all the concerns that go with it—weather, flight plans, fuel management and a multitude of details. Bill Ehrenstrom is the pilot in charge. He and Scott Reagan have flown so many hours over Greenland already that they were concerned they would hit the 30-day limit of 100 hours, so they were joined in Iceland by Chris Condon. “We’ve been lucky to see things that a lot of people don’t ever get to see,” Ehrenstrom said about flying all those hours. “But the weather has been a challenge. We haven’t been able to drop probes in some place because of the weather, and it hasn’t always been the greatest at the sites.”

All three pilots had former careers in the military, and Reagan is planning to undertake a third career soon that some people would find even more intimidating than his first two: teaching high school history or physics.

Flight engineer Terry Lee and pilot Scott Reagan have been working together since the mid-1990s. Credit: NASA

Flight engineer Terry Lee and pilot Scott Reagan have been working together since the mid-1990s. Credit: NASA

“Never in my life did I think I’d get to drop things out of the airplane when we were out flying,” said flight engineer Vaughn. A flight engineer is responsible knowing all the plane’s electrical and computer systems and monitoring them during the flights, as well as supporting the pilots.  On top of that, it’s safe to say that Vaughn and Terry Lee are the world’s experts on dropping probes out of a G-III—this is the first experiment ever to do such a thing, and the aircraft had to be specifically modified to allow it. “It’s kind of a rush,” Lee said.

Flight engineer Phil Vaughn. Credit: NASA

Flight engineer Phil Vaughn. Credit: NASA

“Project manager” sounds like a desk job, but not on a NASA field project. Steve Dinardo doesn’t just track expenses; he tracks probe data at the airborne computer as well as shipboard operations in support of OMG and myriad other details. “To get this to all hang together and work sometimes is a miracle,” he said. Dinardo started at NASA working on space missions. “Aircraft projects are a lot more fun than spacecraft and a lot more challenging. I get to see the whole project from Step 1 to Step 100. That’s something you don’t get with spacecraft.”

The team relaxes in the plane during a lengthy transit flight. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The team relaxes in the plane during a lengthy transit flight. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The last team member is principal investigator Willis. OMG is his brain child, and he’s responsible for overall execution, as well as helping with science-related decisions in the field such as choosing good alternate sites for probe drops if the original choice is too iced in. Willis has integrated well with the rest of the crew, and he’s thrilled with their work. “I couldn’t have asked for a better team to support this mission,” he said. “It’s been a spectacular ride.”

Bullseye! The Hunt for Open Arctic Water

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by Carol Rasmussen / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

The Oceans Melting Greenland science team carefully planned each location for the team to drop its ocean probes. Some sites are in narrow fjords; others are hundreds of miles out on the continental shelf. Each site was chosen to add value to the data the team is collecting.

The two biggest enemies of this planning are ice and weather.

Sea ice is at its lowest at this time of year, but there’s plenty of it around Greenland, especially in the north. The probes can’t punch through it to reach the water below. If a drop site is ice covered, the team looks for a location that is “close by and second best,” said principal investigator Josh Willis.  They might need to go to the next fjord over or a bit farther out on the shelf. Since no data whatsoever have been collected from much of the northern coastline, these alternatives have value too.

A perfect drop site, viewed through the tube where the ocean probes are dropped. Credit: NASA/Charlie Marshik

A perfect drop site, viewed through the tube where the ocean probes are dropped. Credit: NASA/Charlie Marshik

Ice in northern Greenland led to some frustrating days for probe drops. This fjord almost completely choked by ice was one of the unsuccessful probe drop sites, shown as orange pins on the map (below). Green pins indicate successful drops. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ice in northern Greenland led to some frustrating days for probe drops. This fjord almost completely choked by ice was one of the unsuccessful probe drop sites, shown as orange pins on the map (below). Green pins indicate successful drops. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

_OMG_Josh Willis_Svarbard-Norway_ Orange NoGo-Green Go IMG_7690

Project manager Steve Dinardo has been working on airborne projects for 38 years. “Weather is always the problem. When you don’t want clouds, you get clouds. When you want clouds, you don’t get them,” he said.

OMG doesn’t want clouds. If the team can’t see the ocean, they can’t risk hitting a ship or whale by blindly dropping a probe. “We’re always looking for places where we can get a lot of work done in a short period of time,” Willis said. “If we fly in a region where the clouds are low and we can’t see the water through them, those can be really frustrating days.”

Turbulence can be a problem as well. To prepare and drop the probes, team members have to move around the cabin, not sit with the seatbelts securely fastened like commercial airline passengers.

It's not possible to drop probes in cloud cover like this. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s not possible to drop probes in cloud cover like this. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On the windy flight of Oct. 1, Dinardo was sitting at the computer to read the probe data.  “We were getting pretty hammered in the back,” he said. “Between me vibrating up and down and the keyboard vibrating up and down, I hit a number-lock key on the keyboard. The computer froze and I had to reboot it.” Despite that mishap, it was a successful day, with 14 probes dropped and returning signals.

Over the weeks of the mission, the team has gained skill at hitting small targets, Willis said. “We got really lucky one day when we were operating out of Svalbard, Norway. On a day when we were particularly frustrated by ice, we found a gigantic iceberg pushing through a huge area of sea ice, leaving a small wake behind it. The team amazingly bullseye’d the wake, dropping an ocean probe right through the water on the backside of the iceberg. It was a shining moment when the team showed we could hit a very small target from an aircraft traveling 200 knots.”

Flight engineer Terry Lee prepares to drop a probe. Credit: NASA

Flight engineer Terry Lee prepares to drop a probe. Credit: NASA

Today, however, weather is keeping the team on the ground. For several days, Dinardo and senior pilot Bill Ehrenstrom have been watching a forecast storm approach from the south. Today, it finally arrived. The crew was grounded by clouds and gusty winds over Greenland. Tomorrow doesn’t look any better, with the forecast calling for gusts up to 55 miles per hour.

“I think we have at least one more day before we have any chance of flying,” Ehrenstrom said, though he won’t make the final call till tomorrow morning.

 

 

Taking the Ocean’s Temperature Around Greenland

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by Carol Rasmussen / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

SCENIC

Over the last three weeks, the Oceans Melting Greenland team has spent many hours flying over spectacular Arctic scenery. Fjords, glaciers, icebergs, the northern lights — they’ve seen enough sights to fill a guidebook. But the most compelling view, the view they came all the way north to see, is on a computer screen inside the plane.

OMG is in the field this fall to do one thing 250 times: drop ocean probes from an airplane around the entire coast of Greenland and read its measurements of ocean temperature and salinity. Relayed to the airborne computer, the data from the probes shows where warm, highly salty, subsurface Atlantic water is able to reach the bottoms of glaciers along the coast.

The computer on NASA's G-III aircraft shows an ocean probe's measurements as it sinks through the water near the Greenland coast. The water is warmest and saltiest near the surface.

The computer on NASA’s G-III aircraft shows an ocean probe’s measurements as it sinks through the water near the Greenland coast. The water is warmest and saltiest near the surface.

This water is warm only in comparison with the polar runoff that forms the surface layer, but its extra 6-8 degrees Fahrenheit (3-4 degrees C) makes it plenty warm enough to melt glacial ice. The polar water can be as cold as 4 degrees below freezing Fahrenheit (-2 degrees C). At those temperatures it doesn’t melt ice at all.

On 13 research flights since Sept. 13, the team has dropped 163 of the probes around all of Greenland except the southeast coast. They’ll pepper that coastline with the remaining probes from their new location in Keflavik, Iceland.

Flight engineers Phil Vaughn and Terry Lee (NASA Johnson Spaceflight Center) drop a probe on target. Credit: NASA

Flight engineers Phil Vaughn and Terry Lee (NASA Johnson Spaceflight Center) drop a probe on target. Credit: NASA

In the last year or two, various research teams have done seafloor surveys of a few Greenland glaciers and found deep gashes on the edge of the continental shelf where subsurface warm water can creep up on the shelf and melt the glaciers more quickly than the colder shallower water. But these few locations to the whole coastline would be risky business. Willis says that when they began the survey in mid-September, “I didn’t know what to expect. We knew that Atlantic water was getting into a few of these fjords, but the shelf has not been measured extensively before, and satellite data won’t tell you if warm, salty Atlantic water is there because it’s so far below the surface. You have to go drop a temperature sensor in the water.”

The probes relay their measurements in real time to the airborne computer, so the OMG team got views of subsurface conditions starting with the very first drop. As the measurements kept rolling in, the view from the computer screen became more and more disturbing.

OMG project manager Steve Dinardo (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) at the airborne computer that collects the probe data. Credit: NASA

OMG project manager Steve Dinardo (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) at the airborne computer that collects the probe data. Credit: NASA

“Very soon, it became clear that there was a good deal of warm water on the shelf — not just in the fjords but spread out. As we mapped farther and farther north, we could see more warm water on the shelf. Now we’ve sampled [most of] the continental shelf, and everywhere that it’s deep enough, there seems to be Atlantic water present,” Willis said.

It’s unlikely that the southeast section will contain surprises, he added, because scientists already know that glaciers in this sector are melting very quickly and ocean warming is evident on the surface.

Willis emphasizes this is only a first impression from watching the data on screen. However, he pointed out, “Every time we make a discovery about ice melt in Greenland, we find the picture is worse than we thought it was before. I don’t think this will be any exception.”

AN ARCTIC PORFOLIO

Crew members of NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland mission have seen extraordinary sights during their latest deployment, both from the plane and at their four bases. Here are a few highlights.