I knew they were my favorite as soon as I saw them. Sastrugi, the ice dunes of the polar desert, covered the landscape when I first flew low over Antarctica with Operation IceBridge. They were amazing—winds had shaped them into repeating patterns, appearing as diamonds or fish scales or branching tree roots. They were the only texture in the vast ice sheet that stretched as far as the eye could see.
The next day, however, crevasses took the top spot. Gigantic cracks that bent around mountains as the mass of ice crept toward the ocean—those were definitely my new favorite ice formations. As our IceBridge team took measurements down a path that ICESat-2 would trace from its orbit in space, I wondered how the height profile from these instruments could reflect these seemingly bottomless and terrifying cracks in the ice.
Then sea ice made an appearance. Icebergs were trapped at awkward angles in the frozen floes, and new ice spreading across open waters in translucent blues and whites—those had to be the most artistic formations, right? Maybe so—in my mind—until the next flight, which measured a newly created gigantic iceberg, and I glimpsed the jumble of bergy bits and sea ice in the rift between it and the glacier.
At least I would be safe from a new favorite ice formation on my last flight, I thought. A survey farther inland of a region we had flown before, it should be old hat. But no. As we flew toward the site, the skies cleared over the Antarctic Peninsula, revealing glacier after glacier after glacier, all textbook examples of how spectacular glaciers can be.
Every day flying over Antarctica with the Operation IceBridge campaign brought a new incredible stretch of ice that left me, a new visitor to the continent, awestruck. Many members of the team have been surveying the continent for years, using a suite of instruments to map the ice and bedrock and monitor change. I couldn’t pick a favorite view, and can’t imagine they could either, so instead I just asked some of the IceBridge crew for an example of one of the neatest things they’ve seen flying over Antarctica.
The crack that would become B-46 was first noticed in September 2018 – and the berg broke the next month.
NASA’s Operation IceBridge flew over a new iceberg that is three times the size of Manhattan on Wednesday – the first known time anyone has laid eyes on the giant berg, dubbed B-46, that broke off from Pine Island Glacier in late October.
The flight over one of the fastest-retreating glaciers in Antarctica was part of IceBridge’s campaign to collect measurements of Earth’s changing polar regions. Surveys of Pine Island are one of the highest priority missions for IceBridge, in part because of the glacier’s significant impact on sea level rise.
On Wednesday, IceBridge’s approach to the iceberg began far above the glacier’s outlet, in the upper reaches of ice that will eventually flow into the glacier’s trunk. There, as far as the eye can see, it was flat and it was white.
As the aircraft headed toward the glacier’s outlet in the Amundsen Sea, snow-covered crevasses became visible when sunlight struck at just the right angle. Every once in a while, a dark hole appeared in the crevasses where the snow had fallen through, providing a glimpse into the depths of the ice sheet. Then the holes got bigger.
The crevasses and dunes became a jumbled mess of ice, as Pine Island Glacier picks up speed as it flows to the sea. The crevasses got deeper and wider, swirling around each other. Striated snow layers in white and pale blue were visible down the crevasse walls, like an icy version of the slot canyons in the American West.
Then finally – the berg. Satellite imagery had revealed a massive calving event from Pine Island in late October, and the IceBridge crew was the first to lay eyes on the newly created iceberg.
The glacier ends in a sheer 60-meter cliff, dropping off into an ocean channel filled with a mix of bergy bits, snow, and newly forming sea ice. On the other side, a matching jagged cliff marked the beginning of B-46, as it stretched across the horizon.
“From this perspective at 1,500 feet, it’s actually really difficult to grasp the entire scale of what we just looked at,” said Brooke Medley, Operation IceBridge’s deputy project scientist who has studied Pine Island Glacier for 12 years. “It was absolutely stunning. It was spectacular and inspiring and humbling at the same time.”
Even though it had calved just over a week ago, the berg was already showing signs of wear and tear. Cracks wove through B-46, and upturned bergy bits floated in wide rifts. The iceberg will probably break down into smaller icebergs within a month or two, Medley said.
Iceberg calving is normal for glaciers – snow falls within the glacier’s catchment and slowly flows down into the main trunk, where the ice starts to flow faster. Eventually it encounters the ocean, is lifted afloat, and over time travels to the edge of the shelf. There, ice breaks off in the form of an iceberg. When the amount of snowfall and ice loss (from iceberg calving and melt) are the same, a glacier’s in balance. So it’s hard to link a particular iceberg like B-46 to the increasing ice loss from Pine Island Glacier.
But the frequency, speed, and size of the calving is something to keep an eye on, Medley said. In 2016, IceBridge saw a crack beginning across the base of Pine Island; it took a year for an actual rift to form and the iceberg to float away.
The crack that would become B-46 was first noticed in September 2018 – and the berg broke the next month.
They’re not the biggest glaciers on the planet, but Pine Island and its neighbor, Thwaites, have an oversized impact on sea level rise. Enough ice flows from each of these West Antarctic glaciers to raise sea levels by more than 1 millimeter per decade, according to a study led by Medley. And by the end of this century, that number is projected to at least triple.
“It’s deeply concerning,” Medley said. The geography of these glaciers make them highly susceptible to ice loss: relatively warm waters cut under the ice shelf, weakening it from below. This shock to the system has the capability to initiate an unstoppable retreat of these glaciers. There’s a reason Pine Island and Thwaites are dubbed the “weak underbelly” of Antarctica.
NASA has been monitoring Pine Island Glacier from aircraft since 2002, and IceBridge started taking extensive measurements of the fast-moving ice in 2009.
“Both Pine Island and Thwaites are ready to go and to take their neighboring glaciers with them,” Medley said. “Ice is getting sucked out into the ocean – and it’s hard to stop it.”
by Kate Ramsayer / 20,000 FEET ABOVE THE SOUTH POLE /
This was my first flight over Antarctica, and the vast expanse of ice – just white on the ground and blue in the sky as far as the eye can see – took my breath away.
As Operation IceBridge flew directly over the South Pole, my eyes went to the updating flight map. We were already off the edge of the map, as our survey line along 88 degrees south latitude had dropped below the extent of the Mercator projection. And now, as the latitude indicator counted up to 90 degrees and the crew counted down the seconds, I watched as our flight path showed the plane completely reversing course midair and looping up north. Of course, (and fortunately for my stomach) our actual DC-8 aircraft kept in a straight line.
Navigating can be tricky at the end of the world. While the mapping software went out of whack crossing over the pole, the actual flight software didn’t miss a beat – IceBridge Mission Scientist John Sonntag programmed it that way, knowing the ice-monitoring flights would need to handle the situation.
And although Halloween was last week, Saturday’s flight called for another trick – fooling the plane into flying a smooth arc around the 88 south line of latitude.
“Basically, we hack the autopilot,” Sonntag said. “We make the aircraft think that it’s lining up on a runway in bad weather, and the pilots can’t see. But what we’re really doing is lining it up on a data collection line, and doing it very precisely.”
He developed this system to deal with a quirk of flying at such a high latitude. If a plane is flying at the equator and wanted to go east, it would just go straight. But to go due east along the 88 south latitude line, the plane has to actually turn to the right a bit. If we wanted to circle the pole at 89 degrees latitude, we’d have to turn right even more.
Typical navigation procedures involve flying the shortest path between two points (known as a “great circle” path), where the aircraft’s heading varies continually to keep it on the flight path. But this far south, that would create a scalloped flight path: not efficient for the plane nor optimal for the instruments onboard, and – again – not friendly to my stomach. So Sonntag designed an autopilot system that can fly a perfect, smooth arc around the pole, along a mathematical concept called a loxodrome.
“I’m half engineer and half scientist, and this flight brings out the engineer nerd in me – I love this stuff,” Sonntag said. “Then seeing this in use, flying a 350,000-pound airplane around the South Pole – I mean, it’s nerd heaven.”
It was nerd heaven for me as well, but for different reasons. This was my first flight over Antarctica, and the vast expanse of ice – just white on the ground and blue in the sky as far as the eye can see – took my breath away.
This particular survey route isn’t a favorite with the regular crew. There’s none of the dramatic mountains of the coastal glaciers, or icebergs calving into sea ice. But I loved seeing the repeating kaleidoscope patterns of the ice dunes called sastrugi (a favorite word AND a favorite ice formation, all in one!). From 1,500 feet up, it’s almost impossible to gauge how high they are, but it’s an incredible texture in this bleak, bright expanse of ice.
And this was a key flight for another reason: I’ve been writing for the ICESat-2 mission for more than five years, and in September I watched as it launched into orbit. ICESat-2 uses a laser instrument to measure the height and focuses on the polar regions. All of its orbits cross the globe at – you guessed it – 88 south latitude. So by flying this route a third of the way around the 88 south latitude circle, IceBridge is taking measurements that will help check a third of ICESat-2’s orbits.
That means the satellite instrument I saw years ago when it was just an empty box in a cleanroom flew over that stretch of ice we measured 16 times, taking 60,000 height measurements each second. From 300 miles up, it measured the height of my new favorite sastrugi.
NASA’s Operation IceBridge (OIB) fall campaign in the Antarctic has been a much different experience for me compared to past campaigns. This is in part because of my new role and responsibilities as deputy project scientist for OIB, but also because I am currently in the southern hemisphere for the first time and seeing Antarctic sea ice and land ice for the first time in person! If that wasn’t enough new stuff, I am now spending 12 hours a day flying over Antarctica, almost nearing the South Pole. (That is the topic of a future blog…so stay tuned!)
These flights are long (I mean really long) and the days are also long. We have to get to the airport two hours before the flight, and it takes about 25 minutes to get to the airport in Punta Arenas, Chile. Once there, John Sonntag, Eugenia DeMarco, and I go over the satellite imagery available to us as well as some weather forecast models of Antarctica so we can decide which missions are the most viable for maximum data collection during flight.
This is nerve-wracking in two ways: 1) We have limited satellite imagery so the model forecasts don’t always get the weather correct. This is because there are relatively few observations for the models to ingest in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean to include in their forecasts. Basically, the more observations available the better the chance that the models will get the weather forecasts correct. 2) If we make the wrong call and pick a mission where the weather turns out to be different from the forecasts and we are unable to collect good data, we are wasting the project’s valuable flight hour time and money. Let’s just say flying a big plane like the DC-8 is not cheap. So that’s a lot of pressure.
The reason why our flights are much longer in the Antarctic compared to the Arctic is that the time it takes to get to Antarctica from where we are based, Punta Arenas, is two to hours hours long, meaning that’s how long it takes before we can begin our mission and collect data. About half of our flight time is high-altitude transit. One would think there would be a lot of down time; however, for me this is not the case. I am very big on outreach and giving back by sharing with students of all ages what I do in my job, how I got interested in science, and the science that I do. One of the great things about OIB and NASA airborne science in general is that we have the ability to connect and chat with students in classrooms all over the world during our flights.
So this is how I choose to spend my down time on science flights. Teachers can connect their classrooms with us and ask all types of questions, from climate change to what OIB does, what we studied in school, and what we eat on the plane. I have been partaking in this for a few campaigns now, and the majority of the teachers come back campaign after campaign, connecting with us multiple times.
One of these teachers is Marci Ward, who teaches third grade in Fairbanks, Alaska, and is fascinated with airborne science and is dedicated and enthusiastic about exposing her students to all types of science. Last spring, when we were stationed in Fairbanks for our Beaufort sea ice flights, I had the opportunity to go to her classroom and talk to her students in person about OIB on one of our down days. Shortly thereafter, I was able to connect with her students again on the plane chat the following week. They were so excited to meet me in person and to chat with me on the plane, it really made me feel good about what I was doing and that I was making a difference (aka giving me the warm and fuzzies inside).
It is very humbling to know that you can have such an impact on students and hopefully inspire and motivate them to pursue a career in science, math, or whatever subject they are passionate about. And it is even better when we receive feedback from the students and teachers, such as Janell Miller, a middle school teacher located in a high-poverty area of central California. “Believe me, your outreach matters to students,” she said. “It brings in a whole world they would not have been able to access first hand. The IceBridge project—speaking with scientists and engineers—this has a lasting impact. I’ve had former students who participated in this chat years ago, when I taught elementary school, write that this was one of their best school memories in their senior papers.”
After 12 hours in the air today, we arrive back in Punta Arenas and make it back to our hotel anywhere from one to two hours after we land. The days can be exhausting, and we know that we will be doing this all again tomorrow. But I also know that along with collecting all of this extremely valuable data of Antarctic ice, I and other scientists and engineers aboard also make an impact on students all over the world. Personally, I find it even more important for me to be continually proactive in the student chats because I hope to encourage and inspire young female students to be interested and pursue careers in math and science, areas where we are currently underrepresented and crucially needed.
Hi all, you may remember me, Linette Boisvert, from previous blogs such as “Team Sea Ice or Team Land Ice?” and “Sick Sacks for Science,” where I gave a visiting scientist’s perspective on test flights for NASA’s Operation IceBridge Arctic Spring campaign. Well now I am back, but this time as the deputy project scientist for IceBridge. Yes, a lot has changed since my last blog.
Beginning the second week of October, I will be flying down to Punta Arenas, Chile, (basically the other end of the Earth!) on NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory to help lead IceBridge’s Antarctic Fall campaign. As I have never been to Chile, seen Antarctic sea ice in person (this is kind of a big deal), or flown on the DC-8 or met the crew, I took a short trip to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center located in the California desert town of Palmdale, where the DC-8 is based.
Once on center, I entered the massive hangar that houses multiple planes. This hangar was originally used to make B-52 bombers before it was acquired by NASA, and it is so massive that scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean were even filmed inside. (They had to bring in a very large pool.) But there it was, dwarfed by the large hangar: the DC-8. It will be my mobile “office” for the month of October, when we’ll do 12-hour flights from Punta Arenas, flying over the Antarctic sea ice and land ice and back again, taking measurements with lasers and radars. We do this every fall to monitor changes in the ice thickness.
Now, this plane is a whole different beast than the NASA P-3 that I am accustomed to. It can seat up to 44 people with instruments aboard, compared to the 20 people that the P-3 can carry. The DC-8 has first class seats that recline and also has THREE bathrooms, and they’re like commercial airline bathrooms and not like composting toilets—what luxury! But when I first stepped onto the plane, it was basically empty. Seats were scattered around, there were containers about. I thought: “Are we really going to be able to fly this in a few weeks?” You see, I had arrived at the beginning of what we can “install,” and clearly there was a lot of work to be done. So naturally I was ready to lend a hand in any way that I could.
My first task was to help Mission Scientist John Sonntag, “The man, the myth, the legend” (as he is often called), with a ground Global Positioning System (GPS) survey. This basically means we would spend hours outside in the desert heat and sun, looking a little silly, pushing a cart around with a GPS antennae attached. We would be doing this at multiple specific locations around the parking lot and the runway. Now you might be wondering why we are torturing ourselves. For science and the mission of course! We need highly accurate GPS locations of easy-to-spot points from digital imagery so that we can geolocate our digital imagery and calibrate our camera during the test flights. Our instruments need to be calibrated so we can know the exact locations of our data when we fly and take measurements.
So now that is cleared up you might be wondering, okay, why do you have this antennae jerry rigged to this cart? I learned that GPS antennas are finicky, and the antennae need to be pointed unobstructed to the sky to receive signals from the multiple satellites orbiting overhead. Thus, it cannot be blocked by anything from above, such as your head, lampposts, or trees because if any contact with the satellites is lost during the survey, it would have to be done all over again. The other option would be to carry this around with the antennae above your head the whole time, so having the choice, I think I will take the cart.
Well, it turns out we had to eventually abandon the cart, because some of our survey points were located in the desert brush, and our little cart was not made for off-roading. We tried. As we were trudging through the desert carrying the antennae above our heads, John told me all about rattlesnakes and what I should be on the lookout for. Great, with my luck we would come upon one. But alas, we didn’t run into any of our reptilian friends and were able to complete our surveys, albeit a bit parched, sunburnt, and sweaty.
Now while we were surveying in the desert, the Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) team, the “Dream Team,” as I call them, were hard at work in the hangar installing their GPS ground station ATM T-6 and T-7 lasers
onto the belly of the DC-8, as well as their racks, which hold all of their computers and servers on the interior. They worked diligently for four long days, and at the end of the fourth day, they were finally ready to install ATM T-7. This baby weighs about 200 lbs and to me looked to be too big to fit into the door in the belly of the plane, so I knew I had to witness this!
The laser was wheeled out to the plane, where it was then put onto a forklift, lifted up, and gingerly slid into the belly of the plane. It was a tight fit, and I was nervous to say the least, but it all worked out in the end. Phew! Next week the radar instrument teams will begin their install.
The ATM T-7 installation into the belly of the DC-8. Credits: Linette Boisvert
Before I left on my last day, I took a few quiet moments in the DC-8. Compared to when I arrived, the plane looked almost put together. I was in shock with how quickly and seamlessly the crew and the ATM team worked together. The seats were nearly all set up, and the ATM and navigation racks were installed. I felt a sigh of relief knowing that I would be working with a group of scientists and engineers who worked hard, and that no matter what unexpected issues or problems arose on this upcoming campaign, we would all be able to work together to fix the problem and continue to collect valuable science data of the Antarctic ice. Lets just say I couldn’t be more proud and honored to be a part of this IceBridge team.
I also want to note that I am also very content to not be partaking in the DC-8 test flights next week over the desert, where they can be very turbulent, because I am not looking forward to having to test out any more “sick sacks.”
by Linette Boisvert / NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VIRGINIA /
Linette Boisvert is a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and researcher with Operation IceBridge. The mission of Operation IceBridge, NASA’s longest-running airborne mission to monitor polar ice, is to collect data on changing polar land and sea ice and maintain continuity of measurements between ICESat missions. This blog describes test flight activities before the mission’s spring Arctic ice survey, which began on March 22 and will be ongoing through most of April.
I woke up not as optimistic as the morning before. With the previous flight’s turbulence and motion sickness, I was not looking forward to some of the maneuvers that we were going to do. But I reluctantly went back to Wallops and got back on NASA’s P-3 Orion research aircraft. The plane was a lot less crowded for the radar test flights. A few of my friends poked fun at my vomiting on the previous flight, and I jabbed back, saying, “Take a cookie, they taste just as good going down as they do coming back up.” Yes, I still had cookies to dole out. After this, I immediately went to the cockpit to apologize to the pilots and flight engineer for puking where they work.
This flight was to test the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) radar. The CReSIS radar on OIB is used to determine the thickness of the snow pack on top of the sea ice and the different accumulated layers of snow on the Greenland Ice Sheet. The flight would be six hours in duration and would fly south to Norfolk, Virginia, then turn due east and head 200 miles out to sea to do the maneuvers that were required by the radar teams. These maneuvers consisted of slow rolls, quick, 60-degree rolls at 1 degree per second, and elevation-change maneuvers (ups and downs). Those aboard assured me that this flight would be much smoother due to the higher altitude (~20,000 feet) and the fact that we would be flying over the ocean.
They did not disappoint! This flight was smooth and unlike any flight I have ever experienced. I spent a lot of time in the cockpit for the best views and also because it was much warmer there than the rest of the plane. I must admit, I was a little nervous that I might have motion sickness again, but thankfully I did not. I began talking with the P-3 flight engineer Brian Yates and he let me sit in his seat for about 30 minutes. This is the best seat in the house—in the middle of the cockpit—and might I add that it reclines! This is a luxury not afforded to ANY of the other seats on the P-3.
The first time they did a rolling maneuver you could feel the g-force on you, and as the blood was being pushed from your head, it felt as if you could not move your feet from the ground. It was a very interesting feeling and I felt a little like an astronaut. For the faster, 60-degree rolls, they had me stay in the cockpit. I was a little nervous for what I was in for.
These rolling maneuvers were kind of like being on a carnival ride, and the back-and-forth lulling motions kind of made me feel like I was being rocked to sleep. During this time, I looked back from the cockpit into the rest of the plane and noticed on John Sonntag’s computer our flight line, or as John puts it, “the pilots are drunk” type of flight path, and laughed.
Afterward were the up and down maneuvers at different elevations. Again, I was seated in the cockpit, and this felt more like being on a rollercoaster. What I thought was the most interesting aspect of this maneuvering was flying into the cumulus—puffy, cotton candy clouds—and getting to experience it head-on from the cockpit. The updrafts and downdrafts present in the clouds, produced by the mixing of air causing condensation and creation of water droplets to sustain themselves, made for a little turbulence, although nothing like what was witnessed on the prior flight. During landing I was able to sit on my ledge in the cockpit, which is always a thrill. Luckily, the landing was smooth and we were back at Wallops Flight Facility.
Throughout all of this the CReSiS radar teams were working frantically, all huddled around the workstation of remote sensing expert John Paden from the University of Kansas. It appeared as if they were having problems, but if they were, they must have resolved any issues because radar data were successfully collected and calibrated during the flight.
As Melinda and I drove back to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, located in the concrete jungle of the D.C.-Maryland suburbs, much different from the coastal, rural area surrounding Wallops, we reminisced how much fun the test flights were and how it is always so fascinating to see exactly how the instrument teams work and how the data are collected—data that we use to study the rapidly changing conditions of the Arctic sea ice.
It is also so inspiring to see how dedicated these people are to their jobs and to the OIB mission itself. They spend multiple months away from home in the Arctic and Antarctic, collecting data for scientists and the public to use. During this time they become a family, a cohesive unit, working together to complete successful flights. In some ways, they are like P-3 cowboys riding into the great unknown, wrangling this vastly important data for those of us sitting behind a desk on the ground to use and study. They are the true heroes, and for this we are truly grateful.
Do you remember that dreaded math problem in high school, the one where two trains left different stations traveling at different speeds toward each other and you had to calculate when and where they would meet? Now try solving a variation of this problem where the two trains are substituted with three very different aircraft—two leaving from the Canadian Arctic, one from northwestern Greenland—plus a satellite flying overhead. This was the logistical puzzle that Operation IceBridge, NASA’s airborne survey of changing polar ice, had to crack on Friday, March 24, during its ninth Arctic campaign.
The original plan had involved four planes: IceBridge’s P-3, the G-III from NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) campaign and two aircraft from the European Space Agency (ESA)—a Twin Otter and a Basler dubbed Polar 5, both carrying laser scanners and radars, among other instruments. The goal was for all of the planes to fly the same path over sea ice, right beneath one of ESA’s CryoSat-2 satellite tracks, while simultaneously collecting measurements so that scientists could later compare the data gathered by the different instruments on the three planes and the spacecraft’s radar altimeter.
“The primary reason for the whole exercise was to cross-calibrate the CryoSat-2 radar with all of our radars and lasers,” said John Sonntag, IceBridge mission scientist. “This will allow us all to better understand the performance of our instruments and how well we perform our surveys”.
Early in the morning of Thursday, March 24, IceBridge’s P-3 and OMG’s G-III took off from Thule Air Base in northwest Greenland and headed to the Lincoln Sea, north of Canada. They were planning to rendezvous there with the two ESA planes, which were based in Alert Station, a Canadian base in Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian Arctic. Since the Twin Otter and Polar 5 were located closer to the target site, the Europeans would depart Alert four hours after the NASA planes had left Thule. But before they could take off, an unexpected fog bank rolled over Alert, shutting the airport down.
Still, IceBridge and OMG proceeded with their flight, sampling the thick multi-year ice near the Ellesmere coast and the gradient to thinner ice closer to the North Pole with their instruments: OMG’s radar mapper and IceBridge’s suite of instruments, encompassing a scanning laser altimeter that measures ice surface elevation, three types of radar systems to study ice layers and the bedrock underneath the ice sheet, a high-resolution camera to create color maps of polar ice, and infrared cameras to measure surface temperatures of sea and land ice.
The following day, the IceBridge team decided to give it another go but OMG had already exhausted its allotted flight hours and had to stay on the ground. To increase their confidence that their European collaborators would be able to fly that day, the P-3 took off one and a half hours later than it normally would have. This time, it was a success: the three aircraft flew over the CryoSat-2 track line (one a few dozen miles east of the one IceBridge and OMG had flown the day before) within 42 minutes of each other. The satellite overflew the same line just two minutes after IceBridge had completed it.
“Ideally, all three aircraft and the satellite would be over the same point at exactly the same time, but that’s almost impossible to do with three airplanes operating at different speeds and altitudes,” Sonntag said. “Still, we had some flexibility because the sea ice moves slowly—as long as we all flew over it within two hours, we could be sure we were all measuring the same ice.”
It will take scientists from the different teams about six months to process all the measurements before they’re able to compare them, but NASA and ESA are already calling the collaboration a success.
“This collaboration took a lot of careful coordination,” Sonntag said. “It demonstrates the commitment of ESA and NASA to work cooperatively to better understand the cryosphere.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
A cloudy day in the middle of Operation IceBridge’s summer campaign in Barrow, Alaska, meant no flights that day, so instead several members of the campaign showed local kids how to build and fly NASA-quality paper airplanes.
“This is what an engineer does, see what works and what doesn’t,” pilot Rick Yasky told one elementary-age summer camper.
The campaign, which measured melting sea ice in the Arctic, was the first IceBridge mission out of Barrow, so while in town the 11 scientists, pilots and flight crew explored the local science, culture and community.
One of the flight crew was walking along the beach when he came across fishermen pulling in a line of salmon—he helped, and walked back to the hotel with enough fish to eat for the rest of the campaign. Another chatted with local women who were removing reindeer tendons, which would dry out until the fall when the women would braid them together to use in sewing.
And in the middle of the campaign, they helped at a summer camp by making birdhouses, holding a paper airplane contest and showing the campers the NASA Falcon jet out of Langley Research Center in Virginia.
“When anyone comes up, we like to have them visit with the kids,” said Chris Battle, Barrow recreation director and deputy mayor. “We’re isolated so it’s good to let them have exposure to these things.”
John Woods, IceBridge project manager, also gave a library talk on how NASA measures sea ice and Arctic health, speaking to whaling captains, scientists, locals and three kids in astronaut suits. Woods and others also talked with local researchers working on the tundra with carbon monitoring stations, weather instruments and more.
This is the first time that IceBridge has been based in Barrow—the farthest north town in the United States. And the mission hopes to use it as a base to fly out again, Woods said.
“It’s an ideal location, between the Beaufort and Chukchi seas,” he said, referring to two of IceBridge’s research destinations. “We couldn’t have gotten better support from the City of Barrow and the local community. They’ve been terrific, and we’d love to see our relationship with them grow.”
In July the Chukchi Sea, 300 miles north of Barrow, Alaska, is as varied as any land terrain.
Sheets of floating ice called floes are cracked into pieces like pottery shards and are dotted with ponds of melted snow. The deepest blue ponds, whose dark colors signify melting that’s occurring in thicker ice, connect to neighbors with winding black rivers that empty into the open sea. Giant chunks of ice form rough ridges where ocean currents and winds have slammed the ice floes into each other.
It’s summertime in the Arctic, and the ice is in flux.
“I’ve flown in the spring lots of times, and then the Arctic ice cover is just a flat expanse, it just goes out forever,” said Nathan Kurtz, Operation IceBridge project scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Now, in the summer, it’s just so variable. You see places where the floes are a lot more broken up, you see a mixture of places where the snow has melted and you see bare ice, and various depths of melt ponds … you see these patches all over of ice in different stages of melt.”
Operation IceBridge made two flights out of Barrow on Tuesday, July 19, as part of the campaign’s first effort to take airborne measurements of melting summer sea ice. Flying 1,500 feet above the ice floes were three instruments: a laser altimeter that measures the heights of the water, snow and ice; an infrared imager that provides temperature readings to help differentiate between water and ice; and a downward-facing mapping camera.
“We’ve never mapped melt ponds so extensively like this,” Kurtz said. And there were many melt ponds to map, as stretches of open water dotted with ice alternated with stretches of ice dotted with ponds and open water.
On the first flight, fog in Barrow and cloudy skies for the first couple hundred miles cleared up just as the agency’s Falcon jet, out of NASA’s Langley Research Center, reached the line the scientists wanted to measure. The goal? Take readings along the path that the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 would fly over shortly after 3 pm, local time. That would provide ways to compare the satellite and airborne data and see if scientists could use the summer satellite data.
Then, early Tuesday evening, the team took off on another flight to the northeast. This flight was designed to see the patterns and topography of sea ice in the Beaufort Sea along a path dubbed the Linkswiler line, after Matt Linkswiler, operator of the laser altimeter.
Kurtz and his colleagues are investigating whether a combination of measurements can help estimate sea ice thickness. It’s a tricky piece of information to get, but one that could provide clues to how fast the summer ice will melt, or whether it could stick around for another year.
They’re studying how well the laser altimeter can measure the depths of the melt ponds—another possible indication of the year’s overall melt season. It’s one of several ways the IceBridge campaign is preparing for the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2, or ICESat-2, scheduled to launch by 2018. How IceBridge can measure summer ice melt could help ICESat-2 scientists develop programs to analyze the satellite’s summer data.
For Kurtz, the sheer variety of the summer ice is surprising and was especially noticeable on the Tuesday afternoon flight. Different shades of white gave hints to whether it was just ice or snow on top of the ice, while in some areas the ice was brown, possibly due to embedded algae, Kurtz noted.
After Tuesday’s two flights, Icebridge had completed five of its six planned flights for the Barrow summer campaign. With its clear skies, Tuesday afternoon’s expedition was the best yet.
“That was an excellent flight,” Kurtz said over the plane’s intercom system. “I don’t think we lost anything to clouds.”