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.
As project manager for NASA’s Scientifically Calibrated In-flight Imagery (SCIFLI) group, Dr. Jennifer Inman is used to managing complicated logistics and solving problems ahead of her team’s deployments. Someone needs a new laptop? No problem. A research plane needs new window panels? OK!
The SCIFLI team – which specializes in in-flight imaging – collects data used to predict the aerodynamics of spacecraft launches, flights, parachute deployments, and atmospheric re-entries. In November 2020, they were due to put their skills to work in Australia, observing JAXA’s Hayabusa2 sample return capsule, with pieces of asteroid Ryugu on board. The international mission was called the SCIFLI Hayabusa2 Airborne Re-entry Observation Campaign, or SHARC.
Dr. Inman’s team would image the return capsule – one of the fastest human-made objects to ever fly through Earth’s atmosphere – while flying high above the landing site, Woomera in South Australia, nearly 300 miles north of Adelaide. It was her responsibility to get the SCIFLY team, and all their scientific instruments, to the site.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has a way of putting a wrench into even the most meticulous plans. As countries closed their borders and travel came to a screeching halt, Dr. Inman found herself in a tangled web of changing regulations both at home in the U.S. and abroad.
“It was like Whac-A-Mole, solving one problem at a time,” she said. “And the bad days were days where moles that I’d already whacked, popped their heads back up.”
The SHARC team selected an airliner-style plane, the NASA DC-8 based out of Armstrong Flight Research Center, to carry out their observations. But there was a major problem – the DC-8 was due to have an engine replaced before their trip. However, the maintenance facility was shut down because of the pandemic. The aircraft wasn’t going to be ready in time for the mission.
“We ended up scrambling. And where we settled was that we were going to use two of NASA’s Gulfstream III aircrafts,” Inman said. “But it meant we had to redo everything. All of our plans, all the engineering and analysis.”
The Gulfstream III is much smaller than the DC-8. The gimbals – specially engineered mounts used to secure scientific instruments in the aircraft – didn’t fit the smaller cabins and had to be completely redesigned and rebuilt. The mission computers were also too big. Dr. Inman had to order NASA-approved laptops – a relatively small purchase, but one that can take months to be approved.
Making matters worse, the scientific instruments used to observe the sample return capsule couldn’t ‘see’ through the Gulfstream III jets’ windows – no UV light could pass through them, and their multiple panes would have resulted in images with multiple reflections.
“We ended up borrowing some aircraft windows and window frames, like the actual hardware that got epoxied into the airframes,” said Inman. “We borrowed those from Armstrong, some of them, and had to fabricate additional windows and frames using Armstrong’s design.”
Pandemic restrictions were difficult for collaborators from Japan, too. During normal times, JAXA colleagues would have come to the U.S. to integrate their scientific instruments into the aircraft and perform system checks on their equipment. They ended up having to ship their equipment to Johnson Space Center, in Houston, where they entrusted a NASA team with those tasks. The next time JAXA scientists got to see their equipment again would be in Australia.
And all of this happened before even leaving the U.S. Getting the research planes and essential personnel to Australia in time for the mission were also huge hurdles.
In addition to visa requirements, the team needed special authorization to enter Australia and to travel across internal, police-controlled borders. The rapidly changing situation meant that travel regulations weren’t well-defined, particularly for the NASA aircraft that needed to make several international fuel stops along their route to Australia. Initially, the team didn’t know what types of COVID-19 tests would be accepted or where they could obtain them.
Jhony Zavaleta, mission support specialist from the Ames Earth Science Project Office (ESPO) was concerned that the team wouldn’t be able to provide their test results within a set time frame. “Some of our guys were getting tests, and sometimes it would be 48 hours or maybe a week until results came back,” he said. “There was a lot of uncertainty.”
For the personnel not traveling on the NASA planes, getting to Australia wasn’t any easier. The team faced the prospect of a 42-hour journey, via Qatar, where there were more requirements to provide negative tests and additional documentation. There were also very few flights scheduled – and many of those were being canceled.
As the clock ran down, the team was running out of options. Zavaleta had to charter an aircraft to carry the key personnel to Australia.
Dr. Jay Grinstead, SHARC’s principal investigator from NASA Ames, was impressed by the last-minute efforts: “People were really interested in seeing this mission succeed. So they made concessions and made funding available.”
Zavaleta and a colleague from ESPO made it to Australia ten days early to allow them to set up ahead of the full team’s arrival. “Nobody from our team had been to Australia before to plan,” he said. “We didn’t know what the situation on the ground was.”
Normally, key details like where to buy supplies and the team’s transportation would be sorted six months in advance. But now, the team didn’t know what restrictions would be in place by the time they arrived, who would be supporting them, or even what hangars their planes would be in. The instruments also needed to be calibrated, and Zavaleta had to make sure the hangar operators were aware of the team’s needs and willing to work off-hours. It was an incredibly tight turnaround.
Despite the numerous setbacks, the mission was a huge success, largely due to the collaboration between Dr. Inman’s team, the aircraft organizations at both Langley Research Center and Johnson Space Center, ESPO, NASA Headquarters, JAXA, the Australian Space Agency, and other Australian officials. Dr.Grinstead said, “We really could not have pulled this off without our international partners.”
Far up in northern Alaska, Logan Berner’s legs are burning with pain from trekking over tussocks in grassy valley bottoms and rugged, cloud-choked mountain passes. He’s spending a couple of weeks of 2021’s summer traversing the mountainous Brook Range, carrying just the essentials to sustain him in the expanse of the Alaskan Arctic. There, where North America ends, tundra and mountains make up one of the continent’s most pristine landscapes.
The Brooks Range is not the sort of environment where people just go for a hike. It’s too remote, too wild, and too cold. There are no human trails other than what’s left behind by moose, bears and other wild animals roaming the region. It’s the kind of terrain that will get you in trouble, the kind that would put you face to face with a hungry grizzly bear or give you hypothermia.
Rain gear is non-negotiable. 2021 marked one of the wettest summers on record in the range, and some days in the trek feel like an endless walk through a car wash. Stopping for more than a few minutes (even to eat) will make your body too cold from the whipping wind and pouring rain near freezing temperatures.
Berner, a research ecologist from Northern Arizona University, went out there to join a group of biologists led by Roman Dial, a professor of biology and mathematics at Alaska Pacific University who had been traversing the range on foot for nearly a month. Covering nearly 800 miles in about three months, the team used their smartphones to take pictures and jot down extensive notes about the vegetation they passed, noting when and how the type and density of trees, shrubs and other plants changed along their way.
By combining those notes with techniques that analyze greenness from space, the team wants to gain a better understanding on the extent and nature of the impacts of climate change right at the boundary between Arctic tundra and boreal forest. The idea is to use that data, recorded the old-fashioned way with boots on the ground, and link them with NASA’s long-term satellite observations.
The Arctic is warming nearly twice as fast as other regions on Earth, and the impacts extend beyond glaciers melting, sea ice shrinking and other types of vanishing polar ice. They reach most deeply into places such as the Brooks Range, where Arctic tundra—a harsh, treeless ecosystem where mostly small plants grow—has become increasingly greener.
Over the last four decades, satellites have detected that greening, as well as some browning, where extreme weather, insect pests, and other disturbances reverse the greening trend. But even though satellite records suggest Arctic tundra ecosystems are changing in response to atmospheric warming, important details remain unclear about why specific regions have greened or browned in recent decades.
“Arctic greening is really a bellwether of global climatic change,” Berner said. “We know that this greening signal in part reflects warmer summers, increasing the amount of plant growth that’s occurring on the landscapes, so that the satellites are seeing this increase in leaf area.”
Already, the effects of these vegetation changes point towards other impacts as the Arctic tundra becomes more productive and shrubbier.
For example, Berner explained, thriving shrubs could out compete smaller plants that serve as important subsistence resources, like blueberries, which help sustain northern human communities. Dial also has observed that these vegetation changes can re-shape the landscape and affect how caribou and other migratory animals navigate the Brooks Range, also affecting the availability of subsistence resources for isolated villages depending on wildlife.
On the flip side, new spruce tree forests can also help insulate the thawing permafrost and possibly reduce the release of deep pools of carbon stored within it, adding more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.
“In that sense, [greening] might slow the rate of climate change by keeping that organic-rich permafrost carbon soils frozen and locked away,” Berner said.
Because of the unknowns revolving around Arctic greening and browning, field data serves as a crucial complement to satellite observations. Gradients of vegetation stripe the Brooks Range, making it an ideal location to sample from, as the mountains form a natural barrier that separates the boreal forest of Alaska’s interior from the Arctic tundra of Alaska’s North Slope.
NASA’s satellites can track large-scale vegetation changes from space. But 700 miles up in space, they mostly get a top-down view of the terrain. By venturing into the wilderness to collect the extensive ecological field data that is impossible to capture from space, Berner and Dial’s team are helping the satellites “see” more and better.
The team is combining their detailed notes from the ground with satellite observations of the region by the Landsat program. Ultimately, linking both datasets can help scientists learn more details about where, why, and how large patches of the Arctic’s flora are changing.
“Being on the ground and walking through these landscapes gives you a much better sense for what these landscapes are,” Berner said. “It gives you an understanding of these ecosystems that you just can’t get by sitting at a computer and crunching data.”
The team was able to trek and take data largely thanks to Dial, who has travelled over 5,000 miles throughout the Brooks Range during the last four decades. As part of that exploration, Dial developed ingenious ways to travel light for extended periods of times, making it more manageable to collect data from the field.
“When doing fieldwork in remote Arctic, Antarctic and alpine environments, survival comes first, so you can sometimes feel lucky to perform any research along the way at all,” Dial said. “But our methods of travel have evolved to the point where we can travel light and comfortably—dealing with rivers and bears and rain and wind. By integrating that light and comfortable mode of travel with smartphones and simple tools like tape measures and tree increment borers, as well as other apps on our phones that can measure heights, we can actually collect valuable and useful data across vast swaths of wilderness.”
What really makes recording data on the field possible is what Dial named “pixel walking,” a unique way in which a group of trekking scientists document observations about the vegetation as they see it on the ground, logging changes in plant types, attributes, and location continuously. Their protocols to record that information cover 30-square-meter plots of land, or a pixel of a view from a Landsat satellite.
Most previous field research has involved establishing field plots and meticulously characterizing the plant community in each one. That does provide valuable information, but the approach is expensive, limited in extent and time-consuming. Because field plots tend to be small and few, it can be difficult and prohibitively expensive to cover large areas accurately, and to match them with observations from space.
With a smartphone app developed by Dial’s team, the trekkers note the tallest plant community and its physical structure as might be seen from an orbiting satellite. They also record what isn’t so easy to see from space: the understory and ground cover. As they walk, they record on their smartphones’ app the identity and density of each of three layers of vegetation. The app also records the geographic location with the phone’s GPS.
“It’d be very expensive to collect this kind of data with a helicopter,” Dial said. “This is a really important aspect of ground truthing and calibrating what the satellites see with what’s on the ground. From satellites we only know that the reflectance values are changing over time, but we don’t know what it is that’s changing on the ground. So this is a way to find out what is really happening with plant communities and the Earth’s surface and relate it to the last 20 years of satellite data.”
Berner, supported by NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE for short) and Dial’s team, supported by NASA’s Alaska Space Grant, the National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, and the Explorers Club/Discovery, are already working to link their field observations with satellite data. What they’ll learn can also help inform future research in other parts of the Arctic.
“What is the greening that we see? Is the greening an increase in willows, for example? Is it an increase in birch? Or is it an increase in alders? Or is it an increase in trees?” Dial said. “Having a small team like mine actually on the ground to provide the ABoVE program with ground-based data—that’s really what ABoVE is doing well. It’s just a really wonderful marriage between field data collection and remote sensing.“
Launch day dawned gray and cool, with low-hanging cloud cover and a light drizzle. While the launch crew ran through their final procedures and checks before launch, I went to the public viewing site at Lompoc Airport, where several tents’ worth of activities and a “not-quite-life-sized” cutout of Landsat 9 greeted visitors.
In the activity tents, families were solving floor and table puzzles with Landsat imagery, while members of the outreach team helped kids make colorful mosaic art, use “pixel” stickers to reconstruct an image, and understand how satellites measure sea ice.
Ten minutes before launch, the tents started to empty out as people moved toward the open airport runway that pointed toward the launch site, about 10 miles away. I moved into the VIP viewing area reserved for NASA personnel and invitees. Some settled in for a view from bleachers or sheltered under a tent; some trekked far down the empty runway. I decided to head down the runway and try to get a glimpse of the Atlas V rocket as it cleared the launch pad.
Because of the low-hanging clouds, our view of the launch was three seconds of bright flaming light on the horizon before the rocket was swallowed up in the gray sky. Even from ten miles away, however, I could see the exhaust clouds billowing up from the launch pad and hear the earth-shaking, deep bass roar of the powerful engines powering the rocket toward orbit.
The gathered crowd strained their eyes eagerly toward the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of the rocket as it hurtled toward space. Some people embraced as they felt the sound wash over them; some pointed or shaded their eyes; some cheered and clapped, while others stood quietly to listen to the rocket’s roar arcing high into the sky and overhead.
The payload and booster reached orbit about 16 minutes after launch, and Landsat 9 separated from its booster about an hour later, joining Landsat 8 and the rest of NASA’s Earth-observing fleet.
One special guest at the airport was Virginia Norwood, affectionately known as the “Mother of Landsat.” Norwood and her team designed and built the Multispectral Scanner System aboard Landsat 1, half a century ago.
Landsat 9 is safely in orbit and ready to start collecting data and taking its place in the nearly 50-year legacy of Landsat Earth observations. But that legacy is not only Landsat’s critical data continuity and technical achievements – it is also the legacy of the engineers, scientists, technicians, and resource managers who keep the program thriving, decade after decade.
It’s a smoky Saturday evening in the small town of Lompoc, California, and most of the streets are quiet — except for the warmly lit tables and flickering tiki torches in the outdoor dining area at Hangar 7. It’s Landsat Trivia Night, and the small restaurant is bustling with about three dozen scientists, engineers, project managers, and techies of all sorts from NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the United Launch Alliance. They’ve gathered under the lights to enjoy pizza and drinks and to show off their knowledge of the 49-year-old Landsat program and its nine satellites.
I take my position along a stucco wall with a huge mural of local plants and animals and listen as the teams rev up for their first question.
“What was the name of Landsat 1 at the time of its launch?” The voice comes from Ginger Butcher, Landsat’s outreach coordinator. Guests lean in to discuss.
Not being a participant, I quietly check Google for the correct answer. It’s ERTS, the Earth Resources Technology Satellite. Launched in 1972, Landsat 1 / ERTS was the first satellite launched to space with the goal of studying and monitoring Earth’s land masses, and it pioneered the science and technology that undergirds much of our Earth-observing research today.
The teams hand Ginger their guesses on pieces of paper. Unsurprisingly, most get the question right. Many of these people have spent years working in the Landsat program, whether as program managers guiding the satellites from concept to launch, engineers overseeing construction and testing, or scientists interpreting Landsat data.
The next question is harder: Cartographer Betty Fleming discovered a tiny island about the size of a football field using Landsat 1 satellite imagery. Off the coast of what country is Landsat Island?
Landsat Island, I learn, is off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada – and the person who verified its existence almost died while doing so. You can read the full story here, but suffice to say, it involved a scientist who got swatted at by a polar bear while being lowered onto the island by helicopter. (Spoiler alert: he survived.)
I’m impressed when several teams get that question right too. The third one, though, I don’t need Google to answer.
“Set in 1973, a year after Landsat 1’s launch, what origin story movie did Landsat play a role to locate an uncharted island in the Pacific?”
The 2017 film “Kong: Skull Island” features Marc Evan Jackson, who plays a NASA scientist named “Landsat Steve.” Jackson also partnered with NASA in 2020 to narrate the “Continuing the Legacy” video series. Nearly every team gets this question right.
In a break between rounds, I chat with a team that named itself ERTS-1. At the table is Steve Covington, principal systems engineer for USGS’ National Land Imaging Program.
“I’m feeling great about launch on Monday,” he said. “It’s going to be cloudy, but I think it’ll be very successful. I’m excited about Landsat 9 getting up there and joining Landsat 8 — and giving Landsat 7 a well-deserved rest.”
Landsats 8 and 9 will work together to cover all of Earth’s land masses every eight days — cutting in half the current 16-day coverage time. Covering the Earth more frequently means scientists can detect changes that happen over a few days instead of a few weeks, giving them more insights into what’s happening on our planet’s land surface.
The group’s enthusiasm for the mission and the launch spills over into the festive atmosphere of the game. And at the end of the night, the grand prize goes to the New Originals — a group of Landsat communicators, educators, and scientists that includes Landsat 9’s project scientist, Jeff Masek.
Events like trivia night highlight the celebration and camaraderie surrounding a satellite launch, which, for many, often represents a pivotal moment, a demonstration of many years of hard work. When Landsat 9 launches Monday, it will continue a legacy that stretches back nearly 50 years, and includes decades of human stories as well as scientific ones — an achievement that is anything but trivial.
by Jenny Marder //VANDENBERG SPACE FORCE BASE, CALIFORNIA//
It’s less than four days before the planned launch of Landsat 9, and the perfect time to learn about this amazing satellite and the nearly 50-year-old Landsat program. Did you know:
Landsat gives us the longest continuous space-based record of planet Earth.
Since the first satellite launched in July 1972, the mission’s eight satellites provide five decades of information about our planet’s land and atmosphere. And they show us how our planet is changing. This will continue with the Landsat 9 launch, providing more data and higher imaging capacity than past Landsats.
Landsat 9 will carry two science instruments …
The Operational Land Imager 2, or OLI-2, sees at a spatial resolution of 49 feet for its panchromatic band, which is sensitive to a wide range of wavelengths of light, and 98 feet for the other multispectral bands. Its image swath is 115 miles wide, with enough resolution to distinguish land cover features like urban centers, farms and forests.
The Thermal Infrared Sensor 2, also known as TIRS-2, measures land surface temperature in two thermal infrared bands using principles of quantum physics to measure emissions of infrared energy.
… and it will orbit the Earth at an altitude of 438 miles.
That’s roughly the distance between Dallas and Memphis.
Landsat has shown us how dynamic the planet is in response to human activities.
“When you grow up in an area, you don’t really notice the changes that occur over years and decades,” Dr. Jeff Masek, NASA Goddard’s Landsat 9 Project Scientist, told Dr. Alok Patel in December 2020 for PBS’s NOVA Now podcast. “But when you run the movie in fast motion, suddenly we see all these changes: urbanization and changes in forest management, areas where agricultural irrigation suddenly goes into desert environments.”
Watch this video for a Landsat roadtrip through time.
You’ll learn about the first game-changing launches in the 1970s, the advent of natural color composite images in the 1980s, the increased global coverage in the 1990s, the move to free and open data archives in the 2000s, the modern era of Landsat observations in the 2010s, and now, the launch of Landsat 9 in 2021.
And follow us here and on Twitter @NASAExpeditions this week as we count down to Landsat 9’s launch!
By Rei Ueyama, NASA Ames Research Center /SALINA, KANSAS/
It’s 3 a.m. in Salina, Kansas. The moon is out. Crickets are chirping on this balmy summer night. The light above the door to the hangar softly illuminates the sign that reads “DCOTSS.” Most teammates are just waking up. I unlock the door and walk in to be the first to start this long but exciting day full of new discoveries. It’s yet another start of a typical day of a forecaster for the NASA Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere (DCOTSS) field campaign.
About 50 of us have gathered here (and 20 more to arrive later) in the middle of the continental United States in search of strong convective storms that penetrate high into the atmosphere. These so-called overshooting storms carry water and pollutants from the boundary layer and troposphere (where we live) into the atmospheric layer above us called the stratosphere. Small turrets at the top of these strong storms overshoot into the stratosphere, and hence its name “overshoots”.
The stratosphere is a much different environment than the troposphere. For one, it is extremely dry. It also has many molecules of ozone that make up the ozone layer which protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays. Various materials pumped up from the troposphere into the stratosphere by these overshooting storms may alter the chemistry and composition of the stratosphere, which could ultimately affect Earth’s climate quite significantly. So we’re here to find out exactly how and to what extent these strong convective storms influence our climate.
Our vehicle for exploration is NASA’s ER-2 high-altitude research aircraft. The ER-2 is a single-occupant, lightweight airplane with a long (31.5 meter) wingspan that flies gracefully at altitudes up to 70,000 feet in the stratosphere, which is about twice the altitude of commercial airplanes. Air is so thin at those high altitudes that the pilot must wear a pressurized spacesuit in case of a loss of cabin pressure. Inside the nose, body and pods under each wing is like a jigsaw puzzle of many scientific instruments. Each instrument measures specifics gases in the atmosphere which are later analyzed to hopefully tell us a story about how convective storms affect the stratosphere.
My role in DCOTSS is to lead a group of forecasters and flight planners to provide our best assessment of where the outflow plumes from overshooting storms may be located on the day of a science flight and then design a flight plan to sample those plumes. This is no easy feat as these plumes of overshooting material are often tenuous and sparse such that our effort often feels like a search for a diamond in a haystack.
As we rub our just-awoken eyes and scrutinize the early morning images of overshooting plume forecasts from satellite and radar-based models, the instrument scientists begin to arrive at the hangar to prepare their instruments for a 6 to 7 hour flight. The flight plan is tweaked, the pilot is briefed, and we are ready to go.
Watching the pilot navigate the ER-2 just as we had planned is very humbling and satisfying. But at the same time, our nerves are running high as the measurements from the instruments start to trickle in from the aircraft to the mission operation center on the ground. How good was our plume forecast? Do we see any indication in the measurements that the ER-2 had actually flown through a convective plume? On many occasions, it’s too early to tell. The diamond usually only shines through after the flight has been completed and after a thorough analysis of the collective measurements. Yet we are glued to our computer screens, holding our breath as we look for any signs of a convective plume in the real-time measurements.
Our job is mostly done for today, but there is no reprieve. We now look into the future to plan our next science flight. Time to hunt for another overshooting storm!
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.
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.