Witnessing the last P-3 Arctic sea ice flight for 2012

By George Hale, IceBridge Science Outreach Coordinator, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The transfer of IceBridge’s base of operations from Thule to Kangerlussuaq normally marks the end of sea ice surveys done by the P-3 for the campaign. At this time, scientists on the P-3 change their focus toward ice sheets and glaciers, while researchers aboard the Falcon jet using Land, Vegetation and Ice Sensor (LVIS) will continue studying sea ice. But with starting the campaign with a transit to Alaska and beginning operations in Kangerlussuaq by crunching data on the ground while the P-3 is in Wallops being repaired, this year has been anything but ordinary. I’ve been asked to give my views as a newcomer to IceBridge and first-time visitor to the Arctic and I’m happy to share.

First, I have to state that while I have a basic background and interest in science, I’m not a scientist by training. My role as a communicator is not to make scientific discoveries, but to spread the word about them. Part of my job as IceBridge’s science outreach coordinator is to help bridge the gap between what scientists find and what the public understands.

Being outside of the science of sea ice gives me a different perspective on things. I’ve been keeping up with news from the Arctic campaign, but it wasn’t until actually riding along on a sea ice flight that I felt I knew what was happening. Being with scientists as they gather data and sharing the flight experience with them will hopefully help me improve IceBridge’s educational and public outreach efforts.

New to the Program

I arrived in Kangerlussuaq on April 9, the same day as the P-3 returned from Wallops. While flying from Thule the week before, the P-3 started having issues with one of its engines, something unavoidable with the workload and conditions the P-3 is subjected to. In the interest of safety, the pilots shut the engine down and flew directly into Kangerlussuaq. After a one-day delay because of weather, the P-3 made its way back to the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia for an engine replacement.

The P-3’s return flight to Greenland coincided with my scheduled arrival there, so I was extended an invitation to ride along. Unfortunately, this didn’t work with the arrangements for my commercial return flight, so I wasn’t able to go. I arrived in Kangerlussuaq on an Air Greenland flight Monday morning with enough time to unpack, check my email and buy some groceries before joining others at the airport to see the P-3 arrive.

Bright and early Tuesday morning, I joined 23 other people in braving the 12 degree Fahrenheit weather to board the P-3 for one last sea ice flight along the east coast of Greenland that would put us on an intersecting path with the NASA ER-2 carrying MABEL. At this point in the campaign, IceBridge normally flies glacier surveys, but weather conditions made that unfeasible.

A map of the 2012 Arctic campaign’s sea ice flight. Credit: Michael Studinger/NASA

Sea Ice in Review

This flight was another in a long line of successful sea ice surveys and joint operations with other aircraft. IceBridge has flown 15 sea ice flights, including several along CryoSat orbits and two joint flights with aircraft from the European Space Agency as part of CryoVEx, their CryoSat validation campaign.

Aside from the highly successful joint ESA/NASA flights, this year’s Arctic campaign stands out as completing several more sea ice flights than previous years, covering a distance greater than the circumference of the Earth around the equator. In total, IceBridge has collected huge amounts of sea ice data from instruments like ATM, DMS and the new KT-19 temperature sensor used for sea ice lead detection.

And this data is just sitting around waiting to be processed. This year IceBridge scientists are working to build a quick sea ice product from information that’s only days old. If this proves successful, it has the potential to improve sea ice forecasts and statements for the general public. IceBridge scientist Nathan Kurtz talks about his work with sea ice and the quick sea ice product in his earlier blog post.

A diagram showing sea ice thickness

A diagram showing sea ice thickness and the role snow cover plays

Having successes like these early on sets the bar for the rest of the campaign, and after hearing about IceBridge’s success for several weeks, I now get the chance to witness it first-hand.

My First Sea Ice Flight

I’ve been hearing about IceBridge’s campaign successes since operations began in March. Knowing I would join the team in April and get to see these successes first-hand was very exciting. Being there as things happen promises to be a great experience, and I can only hope to avoid getting in the way. On the morning of my first survey flight, I strap into my seat. I’m not entirely sure what to expect, but I’m ready to see IceBridge at work.

I am in some ways grateful that my first flight was over sea ice. Although it may have been a letdown for those who have flown many sea ice flights this year already, I was glad to have a relatively gentle introduction. Compared to glacier surveys, sea ice flights are smooth and easy, with no crosswinds coming out of fjords and far less turbulence.

As I walked around the cabin I saw members of the IceBridge team working diligently, recording data and making necessary adjustments to their instruments. I also looked out the P-3’s side windows to watch sea ice as we passed 1,500 feet overhead. The flight wasn’t all straight and level though. The pilots put the P-3 through a series of pitching and rolling maneuvers at higher altitude for instrument calibration. The up and down parabolic arcs and resulting feeling of lessened gravity seem to be a favorite, bringing smiles to the faces of both novices such as myself and IceBridge veterans.

A Cold Ride Home

Several hours later we returned to the airport, with the bulk of the team ready to get off the plane and warm up. During the return leg a mechanical issue caused the plane’s climate control to start blowing cold air instead of warm. By the end of the flight, it was around 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the back of the cabin and some bottles of water sitting on the deck were starting to form ice on the bottom.

After landing we take a short break (to warm up) and then head off to the daily science meeting, where we discuss the day’s events and look at weather forecasts to make plans for tomorrow’s flight. The plan is to survey some of the eastern glaciers, which means a more turbulent flight for my second day on the P-3. I’m looking forward to riding along on as many flights as I can in the following days, and to working with the American, Danish and Greenlandic teachers arriving soon to participate in IceBridge.