Operation IceBridge surveys new areas in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas north of Alaska

By Michael Studinger, IceBridge Project Scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/UMBC

Fairbanks, AK – The two most important sea ice flights every year are two crossings of the entire Arctic Basin, north of Greenland and Canada all the way to Alaska. This year we decided to make the flights to and from Fairbanks earlier than usual because of the weather. The forecast at Thule was predicting a major storm system for the next few days. Storm season in Thule lasts Sept. 15–May 15, and every year blizzards with wind speeds of over 100 miles per hour and white out conditions hit the base, locking us down for a few days.

There are several challenges involved with these two flights. First, the survey lines are 1600 miles long and it is very rare to have such a large area free of clouds and fog, particularly over the Arctic Ocean. Imagine flying from New York to Colorado at 1500 feet above the surface and having neither clouds nor fog the whole way. Getting good data from our optical sensors, such as laser altimeters and digital cameras, we need clear conditions between the aircraft and the ice surface.

IceBridgeflight from Thule, Greenland to Fairbanks, AK that surveyed sea ice along atransect over the entire Arctic Basin. Basemap is MODIS satellite image showingcloud cover and sea ice over the Arctic Ocean.

A second challenge comes from predicting the weather in such a remote area. We have infrared satellite images and computer models available, but these models cannot be validated because there are no weather stations in the Arctic Ocean. Also, neither the forecast models nor satellite images show the weather features that are most important to us: low clouds and ice fog that disrupt the laser and camera measurements.

The third challenge is that we have to relocate the aircraft, crew and scientists to Fairbanks on very short notice, since the frequent changes in weather allow us to make this decision only a few hours before takeoff.

The NASA P-3 aircraft is being prepared on a chilly morning for a sea ice mission over the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas from Fairbanks, Alaska. Photo: Michael Studinger/NASA.

TheNASA P-3 aircraft is being prepared on a chilly morning for a sea ice missionover the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas from Fairbanks, Alaska. Photo: MichaelStudinger/NASA.

In order to characterize the state of the Arctic ice pack we need to survey large regions and determine the thickness of the multiyear ice that remains from the previous summer and the growth of new first year ice during the winter. We have had several successful flights over the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas from Fairbanks that surveyed primarily the newly formed first year ice in this area. This is a new area for IceBridge and an important data set to monitor changes in the Arctic environment.

We are planning to stay here in Fairbanks for a few more days before we return to Thule Air Base in Greenland to continue our campaign and survey the sea ice north of Greenland.

The margin of a large lead of open water (dark) and thingrease ice (gray, right) in the Chukchi Sea between Alaska and Russia. Theimage was create using several frames from the Digital Mapping System (DMS)onboard the NASA P-3. Image: NASA/DMS/Eric Fraim.