Goodbye Astronomy, Hello Greenland Glaciers

JPL oceanographer Josh Willis (left), NASA G-III pilot Dick Clark (center) and crew member Rocky Smith prepare to depart for the March 24 flight from Keflavik, Iceland, over coastal glaciers in Greenland. Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) began flights this week to measure glacier thickness.
JPL oceanographer Josh Willis (left), NASA G-III pilot Dick Clark (center) and crew member Rocky Smith prepare to depart for the March 24 flight from Keflavik, Iceland, over coastal glaciers in Greenland. Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) began flights this week to measure glacier thickness.

by Patrick Lynch / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

The seven-person Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) team arrived in Keflavik earlier this week to make its first round of research flights over Greenland’s eastern coast. The team is flying NASA’s GLISTIN-A radar to measure the thickness of glaciers that flow to the ocean.

OMG will pave the way for improved estimates of sea level rise by investigating the extent to which the oceans are melting Greenland’s ice. OMG will observe changing water temperatures and glaciers that reach the ocean around all of Greenland from 2015 to 2020.

Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, specializing in sea level rise, is the principal investigator of the OMG campaign and a graduate of Second City Hollywood improv Conservatory Program in Los Angeles. Before the first flight got underway, Josh described the goal of OMG, how he arrived at his career, and how exercising his sense of humor improves his science.

“I was very curious from a young age. I asked my parents questions about how things worked all the time. Eventually, when they stopped being able to answer them, they gave me books instead of answers. I liked understanding how things worked and why they worked the way they did.

“I went to grad school for physics for two years and I failed out. Yes, you can write that. I loved taking classes and learning the physics of the last 100 years, but all the new frontiers are so esoteric that it wasn’t fun anymore. I was definitely losing interest. I tried to be an astronomer for a little while and that didn’t suit me. When I realized I wasn’t going to be a physicist I was a little lost.”

Willis was soon connected with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where he eventually earned his PhD.

“I became fascinated with Earth science. I very quickly realized I wanted to study things that were important, so I started working on climate change. My adviser gave me a project to study the Tasman Sea between Tasmania and Australia. I was looking at how much the sea was warming and what that meant for sea level. When I finished, my adviser asked me what I wanted to do next. And I said, ‘I want to do the same thing – except for the whole world.’

“That was really the thing that launched me on this career of studying sea level rise. In a way, global sea level rise is the most useful number for counting how much we’ve changed the climate, for counting our footprint on the planet. Two-thirds of the planet is ocean. So if the oceans are rising, that’s two-thirds of the planet that is changing its shape.

“In the future the biggest contributors to sea level rise are going to be the ice sheets. If we get 3 feet, or 5 feet or even 6 feet by 2100, it will be because Greenland and Antarctica are melting. So these are big pieces of the puzzle. And Greenland seemed like a good one to attack. There are a lot of measurements of Greenland itself, but we really don’t have a good handle on how big a role the ocean is playing in this melting.

“What we hope to do with OMG is ultimately shed light on how much Greenland is going to melt in the future.”


A Front Row Seat to Your Changing Planet


by Steve Cole / WASHINGTON /

Over the next six months this blog will take you on a globe-circling journey of exploration. You’ll travel alongside scientists who are pushing back the frontiers of what we know about how our planet works.

With a collection of innovative instruments and intricately choreographed experiments adapted to the vagaries of the natural world, they will set out by air, sea and sometimes even foot. Their mission: probing the melting edges of the Greenland ice sheet, the health of coral reefs in the South Pacific, the shifting Arctic ecosystems of Alaska and much more.

This type of scientific fieldwork has long enriched the planet-wide science that NASA pioneers with its fleet of satellites orbiting Earth. Our goal: to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. With data from space, air, land and sea we help scientists around the world tackle fundamental questions critical to human life: How is Earth changing? What causes these changes? How will Earth change in the future?

Right now NASA is in a particularly busy period of fieldwork. We have eight new major missions heading into the field over the next several months that will take scientists literally around the world on a wide range of science investigations. This blog will give you a front row seat as we report from the field with video, photos and first-hand accounts.

You can also follow along on Twitter (@NASAEarth, @NASAAirborne) and Facebook (NASA Earth, NASA Airborne Science Program); hashtag #EarthExpedition. And next month we launch a new “Earth Expeditions” series on NASA Television and YouTube.

Our first expedition is in the field right now. Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) is conducting an airborne survey of the ice edge around the entire coast of Greenland. OMG is probing the extent to which the ocean is melting the edges of the ice sheet from below.

The OMG team is in Keflavik, Iceland, now to start surveying Greenland’s eastern coast. If all goes as planned (and with fieldwork in remote locations, the best-laid plans can quickly change), we will start posting their first reports here tomorrow or Friday. So be sure to check back in with us.