IceBridge Arctic 2013 Check Flights Complete

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

On Mar. 14 and 15, the IceBridge team carried out project check flights in preparation for the Arctic campaign. After an engineering check flight earlier in the week to make sure everything is properly secured inside the aircraft, scientists and a small number of instrument operators board the P-3 to begin flights over the Wallops Flight Facility airfield and beaches near Wallops Island, Va., to test the Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) and Digital Mapping System (DMS) and over the Atlantic Ocean to test the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder (MCoRDS), the snow and accumulation radars, and Ku-band radar altimeter.

These check flights have two main purposes. The first is to test the equipment to make sure it’s all in working order and the second is to collect data that is used to calibrate the instruments. Every time an instrument is installed in a research aircraft it’s important to make sure that nothing has changed since the last time it was flown.

Flight paths for both IceBridge check flights.

Flight paths for IceBridge check flights on Mar. 14 (blue) and Mar. 15 (red). Credit: NASA

Ground tests can catch many alignment and installation problems, but the real moment of truth comes in flight tests. On the afternoon of Mar. 14, the IceBridge team took off for flights near Wallops to test the ATM and DMS systems and check other electronics. By flying a level flight at varying altitudes, the teams can collect data that ensures their instruments are properly calibrated.

Different materials reflect light to varying degrees, which can make a difference with a laser-based instrument like ATM. Because IceBridge is measuring snow and ice, highly reflective materials, the ATM team will often test over sandy areas the beaches near Wallops. This is because sand reflects light in a similar way to ice. Another test is to check areas near each other with widely different albedos, for example, the white numbers and surrounding dark pavement on the runway. If light and dark targets next to each other show the same elevation then the instrument is calibrated properly.

The NASA P-3B at Wallops Flight Facility before the IceBridge check flight on Mar. 14, 2013. Credit: NASA / Kyle Krabill
The NASA P-3B at Wallops Flight Facility before the IceBridge check flight on Mar. 14, 2013. Credit: NASA / Kyle Krabill

Similarly, the team tests the DMS instruments to make sure the camera is aligned properly and that focus and frame rate are set appropriately. The rate at which the DMS camera captures photos depends on the aircraft’s speed and altitude, with lower altitude and higher speeds needing a faster rate to ensure proper coverage.

On Mar. 15, the team took off in the morning to do final checks of the P-3B’s radar instruments. Instead of flying along the beaches near Wallops, the P-3 headed out 200 nautical miles over open water in the Atlantic Ocean. The reason for doing this test over the ocean is twofold. First, U.S. law prevents IceBridge from operating its radars inside the country, and second, the ocean surface acts almost like a mirror for the radar, making it ideal for testing. By comparing transmit and return signal strengths at different altitudes, the team can make sure the radar is working properly.

The P-3B returns to Wallops after the first of two IceBridge check flights. Credit: NASA / Kyle Krabill
The P-3B returns to Wallops after the first of two IceBridge check flights. Credit: NASA / Kyle Krabill

Signal strength, however, is only part of the picture. MCoRDS is made up of several antennas in an array, with each antenna’s signal recorded separately. To make sure that each element is aligned correctly, the P-3B climbs to a high altitude and banks left and right while researchers measure how the return signals change during the maneuver. These maneuvers are also the reason why the radars are tested on a separate day from ATM and DMS. Once the plane banks more than 15 degrees, its wing blocks these instruments from seeing GPS satellites in orbit and both ATM and DMS need accurate GPS data to work properly.

With the check flights complete it is nearly time for IceBridge scientists, instrument team members and flight crew to make the trip to Thule, Greenland, to start the 2013 Arctic campaign. The P-3B is scheduled to make the transit flight from Wallops early on the morning of Mar. 18, and the first science flight is scheduled for Mar. 20.

Preparations for Arctic Campaign Under Way

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

An IceBridge field campaign is the culmination of months of planning and preparation. At January’s science team meeting, scientists focused the campaign’s goals and provided mission planners the details needed to finalize flight plans. With these final details ironed out the next step was to start preparing the tools of the trade, IceBridge’s aircraft and instruments. For the past several days, instrument teams and aircraft technicians at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va., have been getting the P-3B ready for the 2013 Arctic campaign, which is scheduled to have its first science flight on Mar. 20.

Operation IceBridge is but one of several missions to use NASA’s P-3B airborne laboratory. After each mission, this aircraft returns to its home base at Wallops where it undergoes repairs and routine scheduled maintenance needed to keep it flying at peak efficiency and where science instruments are swapped out. This rotation of airborne science missions keeps the Wallops aircraft team busy, preparing between three and five missions per year. “Sometimes it’s more and sometimes it’s less,” said P-3B flight engineer Brian Yates. “We’re working on some relatively large projects, so we have five this year.”

NASA's P-3B airborne laboratory in a hangar at Wallops Flight Facility as it is being prepared for the upcoming Arctic campaign.

NASA’s P-3B airborne laboratory in a hangar at Wallops Flight Facility as it is being prepared for the upcoming Arctic campaign. Credit: NASA / George Hale

After the aircraft’s maintenance is complete and the previous mission’s equipment has been removed, the IceBridge team starts installing the mission’s suite of science instruments. This process can be generally divided into a few portions: installing the instrument and the equipment needed to control it and collect data, testing the individual instruments and checking to make sure the aircraft and instrument suite work together as they should.

The first step is installing the components that gather the data, such as cameras, radar arrays and laser transceivers. The Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) laser and Digital Mapping System (DMS) cameras are installed in bays on the underside of the aircraft. Each of these instruments looks down through windows in the plane’s belly. The Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder (MCoRDS) antenna is attached to the underside of the aircraft. Previously this has included antennas under the wings, but IceBridge is flying with a trimmed down MCoRDS instrument with an array beneath the P-3B’s fuselage.Additional radar instruments like the accumulation and snow radars and Ku-band radar altimeter are also installed at this time.

The MCoRDS radar antenna on a cart prior to being attached to the underside of the P-3B.

The MCoRDS radar antenna on a cart prior to being attached to the underside of the P-3B. Credit: NASA / George Hale

While this hardware was being installed on the plane, other members of the instrument team put together all of the hardware needed to operate the instruments in metal racks that are then securely bolted to the floor of the plane. Making sure everything is securely fastened is crucial because of the often turbulent nature of low-altitude polar survey flights.

ATM equipment racks waiting to be installed in the P-3B.
ATM equipment racks waiting to be installed in the P-3B. Credit: NASA / George Hale

Once everything is in place and secured the next step is to make sure the instruments work properly. This means rounds of testing both on the ground and in the air. Ground testing involves checking instrument connections and alignment. “We’ll check on the camera to make sure it’s seeing through the window ok and not catching the edge,” said DMS field engineer Dennis Gearhart.

Everything being used in this IceBridge campaign has flown before, but it’s important to make sure the instruments are working properly.”We want to make sure things work as well as they did when they were put into storage,” said ATM program manager James Yungel. To do this, the ATM team will bounce the laser off a ground target 500 feet away.

The MCoRDS antenna secured to the underside of the P-3B.

The MCoRDS antenna secured to the underside of the P-3B. Credit: NASA / George Hale

The real test of all this work comes with the mission’s check flights on Mar. 13 and 14. The first flight, known as an engineering check flight is carried out with flight crew only and is to ensure that everything is properly installed and secured. Scientists and instrument operators participate in the second flight, where instruments are powered on and tested. “The check flights are a final arbiter,” said Yungel.

This year’s IceBridge Arctic campaign will run from Mar. 18 through May 3. The P-3B will operate out of airfields in Thule and Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, and Fairbanks, Alaska.

NASA Goddard Hosts IceBridge Science Team Meeting

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

Large scientific missions like IceBridge take continual planning to keep running. In addition to regular telephone and email collaboration, IceBridge researchers meet in person twice a year to discuss the mission’s science aims, results and plans for future campaigns. The first of 2013’s IceBridge science team meetings and the annual meeting of the Program for Arctic Regional Climate Assessment (PARCA) took place at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., Jan. 29–31.

The IceBridge science team is a group of polar scientists from a variety of institutions and serves multiple functions. The largest of these functions is guiding the mission toward meeting its science requirements.”The team provides general guidance and advice,” said IceBridge project scientist Michael Studinger. “They look at how far down the road we are to meeting our level one science requirements.”

The science team meeting was joined by the annual meeting of PARCA, a NASA initiated program started in 1995 to understand changes to the Greenland Ice Sheet. This was to be accomplished through periodic airborne surveys, satellite remote sensing and surface-based research. Starting in 2009, PARCA’s annual meeting has been scheduled to coincide with IceBridge’s science team meeting. “Originally PARCA was a Greenland field campaign planning meeting,” said NASA scientist Charles Webb. “Having the meetings together logically makes sense.”

NASA scientist Bryan Blair gives a presentation on the future of the Land Vegetation and Ice Sensor (LVIS)
NASA scientist Bryan Blair gives a presentation on the future of the Land Vegetation and Ice Sensor (LVIS). Credit: NASA / Jefferson Beck

Presentation topics at both meetings ranged from the use of IceBridge data in seasonal sea ice forecasts to the use of radar to image layers in ice sheets to new algorithms for mapping bedrock beneath the ice.Other presentations included status updates for instruments like the Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) and Land, Vegetation and Ice Sensor (LVIS) and a look ahead at NASA’s next-generation polar monitoring satellite, ICESat-2.

The PARCA meeting started on Jan. 29 with sessions on newresearch and novel ways to work with IceBridge and other cryospheric data. Participantsclosed out a busy day with a remembrance of cryospheric scientist SeymourLaxon, whose unexpected death earlier in the month shocked the polar sciencecommunity, and a poster session and dinner at Goddard’s recreation center.

PARCA sessions finished up on the morning of Jan. 30, covering integrating IceBridge data, radar mapping of ice sheets and next steps in ice sheet physics. After lunch, the IceBridge science team meeting started, with breakout sessions by the sea ice and land ice science teams. In these sessions,science team members discussed research and plans for the upcoming IceBridge Arctic campaign and beyond, including collaborations with various other groups outside of NASA. Later in the day, ATM senior scientist John Sonntag presented planned flight lines for the 2013 Arctic campaign and invited comments on suggestions for ways the lines can better meet IceBridge’s science goals.

ATM senior scientist John Sonntag shows proposed flight plans for 2013 Arctic campaign.
ATM senior scientist John Sonntag shows proposed flight plans for 2013 Arctic campaign. Credit: NASA / Jefferson Beck

The last day of the IceBridge science team meeting saw more sessions on IceBridge science, data and future plans. Included in the sesessions were talks about new instruments like a version of LVIS soon to be tested on NASA’s Global Hawk, status updates on ICESat-2 and a final discussion of proposed flight lines for the IceBridge Arctic campaign, where flight plans were assigned priorities and finalized. This year, IceBridge science team member Robin Bell from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University came up with a new and hands-on way to improve this process. Bell set up three tables representing high, medium and low priorities, onto which printed copies of flight plans were sorted. “This gave us a more visual and intuitive feel for how the flight lines fit together,” said Sonntag. “It was a good way to get flight priorities straightened out.”

This sort of discussion, where scientists hash out details on research goals, priorities and methodologies is at the heart of not only IceBridge, but scientific work in general. “The research landscape is constantly evolving, so you have to rethink how you approach problems and organize the community once in a while,” said Studinger. “You need constant evaluation and discussion of ideas and results.”

Science team members sort through printed copies of proposed flight lines.
Science team members sort through printed copies of proposed flight lines. Credit: NASA / Jefferson Beck

Operation IceBridge Featured in EOS

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

The new quick look sea ice data product released by NASA’s Operation IceBridge was the subject of a cover story in the Jan. 22 issue of the American Geophysical Union publication EOS. The article discusses the sea ice data product created by IceBridge scientists during the 2012 Arctic campaign last April and how these datasets provide new ways for researchers to measure Arctic sea ice.

Maps of survey of Arctic sea ice

Map showing quick look sea ice data from Arctic 2012 campaign


EOS article:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2013EO040001/abstract

For more about IceBridge’s quick-look sea ice product and its use in seasonal forecasts, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/icebridge/news/spr12/arctic-seaice.html

https://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/seaice-forecasting.html

IceBridge Visits McMurdo Station

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

A team from NASA’s Operation IceBridge recently traveled to Antarctica to conduct a site survey of U.S. Antarctic Program facilities at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. From Dec. 6 to Dec. 13, IceBridge project manager Christy Hansen, NASA P-3B pilot Matt Elder and NASA flight engineer Brian Yates met with people from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Antarctic Program’s Antarctic Support Contract (ASC) team and 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard to study the feasibility of operating NASA’s P-3B research aircraft out of Antarctica. Large airborne science missions like IceBridge are a significant logistical undertaking, requiring runways, aircraft maintenance facilities, fuel, electrical power and facilities to house mission personnel.

109th AW LC-130 at Christchurch, New Zealand
One of the 109th AW LC-130s at Christchurch, New Zealand. Credit: NASA / Christy Hansen

This site survey is in preparation for an upcoming meeting with NSF to discuss possible future options for expanding IceBridge’s mission into previously unsurveyed parts of Antarctica. All U.S.-based science operations in Antarctica are required to go through NSF’s Office of Polar Programs (OPP) to receive official approval and support. Because OPP and the 109th AW handle logistic and airlift operations for McMurdo and other U.S. scientific stations in Antarctica, IceBridge has to coordinate operations with them. IceBridge has a history of working with the 109th AW during previous Arctic campaigns in Greenland.

First, the team traveled to Christchurch, New Zealand, a jumping off point for travel to Antarctica. There they met with USAP ASC and 109th AW personnel to determine the logistics needed to support NASA’s P-3B, checked out cold weather gear needed for Antarctica and prepared for the transit flight from Christchurch to McMurdo. “The [U.S. Antarctic Program] and 109th guys welcomed our attendance, questions and shared some of their general flight experiences with us,” said Hansen.

IceBridge project manager Christy Hansen wearing NSF-issued cold weather gear
IceBridge project manager Christy Hansen wearing NSF-issued cold weather gear. Credit: NASA / Christy Hansen

After arriving at McMurdo, the survey team got to work meeting with various people to discuss IceBridge’s needs and how the mission would fit into overall operations there. With many airborne operations going on at McMurdo, flights will need to be carefully scheduled and coordinated. This is to avoid interfering with existing takeoff, landing and fueling operations. In addition, some of IceBridge’s scientific instruments require power at all times. This would mean finding a way to route power to the P-3 or run a generator near the aircraft when it is parked.

View of McMurdo Station from Hut Point
View of McMurdo Station from Hut Point. Credit: NASA / Christy Hansen

The cold, unpredictable and rapidly-changing weather in Antarctica adds an extra layer of difficulty to flying and maintaining aircraft there. Elder and Yates met with 109th AW personnel to discuss the finer points of operating and maintaining aircraft in Antarctica’s challenging conditions. For instance, operating in Antarctica means that the P-3B may need a few modifications to make it compliant with existing airfield capabilities at McMurdo and meet the unique challenges of flying in the Antarctic. For example, lines of longitude converge at the pole, meaning the P-3B needs additional navigational systems.

The P-3B is only part of the overall picture though. With flight crew, scientists and instrument operators, IceBridge has a fairly large personnel footprint. This means arranging lodging for people and providing space and power for instrument teams to set up their equipment, including GPS ground stations, gravimeter and magnetometer instruments and various computers.

Building that could serve as a location for gravimeter and ATM GPS equipment.
Building that could serve as a location for gravimeter and ATM GPS equipment. Credit: NASA / Christy Hansen

Another objective of the visit was to observe 109th flight crew operations first hand. The IceBridge team achieved this by riding along on a flight to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. There, the team observed the condition of the South Pole ski way, in the unlikely event the P-3B had to land there. “The 109th and Antarctic Support Contract reps have been treating us well,” said Hansen. “We did not expect the South Pole opportunity.”

The IceBridge team and members of the 109th AW strike a pose at the South Pole
The IceBridge team and members of the 109th AW strike a pose at the South Pole. Credit: NASA / Christy Hansen

With the site survey completed, IceBridge mission planners will prepare for a Jan. 3 face-to-face meeting with NSF to discuss future plans. IceBridge is looking forward to continued work with the USAP teams to break new ground on operating NASA aircraft out of Antarctica. “NSF, ASC and the 109th provided the IceBridge survey team with excellent support and feedback during their visit,” Hansen said. “This could not be achieved without the team work and support of the National Science Foundation.”

Keeping IceBridge Flying

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

Success in science takes many things. Dedication and hard work are just a couple, but one thing that airborne science requires that other disciplines don’t need is aircraft. Without aircraft airborne science would just be science. And one thing is certain about aircraft. They require constant and vigilant maintenance to keep operating at their peak. NASA airborne missions like Operation IceBridge rely on skilled and dedicated mechanics and technicians to keep their planes flying in some of the harshest conditions around.

But finding people with the right balance of training and temperament to work on NASA’s fleet of aircraft is becoming more difficult. With a decreasing interest in working in the aviation field, an aging workforce and increasingly specialized training needed, NASA managers are finding it harder to hire the kind of people needed to keep things going.

The IceBridge DC-8 undergoing final preparations for the first Antarctic campaign flight of 2012.
The IceBridge DC-8 undergoing final preparations for the first Antarctic campaign flight of 2012. Credit: NASA / Jeremy Harbeck

Top-notch Training

Being an aviation mechanic requires something called an aircraft and power plant, or A&P license, which gives its holders permission to work on any aircraft the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration controls, from ultralights to jumbo jets. The FAA only grants this license after applicants have completed rigorous training and passed three written, three oral and three hands-on tests. “Before you even get to put your hands on an airplane, there’s a lot of stuff you have to do,” said NASA DC-8 crew chief James C. Smith III.

Most people in the field got their training in one of two places. “You can either go to a two-year college or get what you need through military experience,” said Smith, who spent years in the U.S. Army working on helicopters. Today an increasing proportion come from the military as civilian training programs have been losing popularity. “Several college specific A&P schools have closed because they don’t have enough people coming through,” Smith said.

NASA's Ikhana uninhabited aerial vehicle, one of the many aircraft that NASA's technicians keep in top condition.
NASA’s Ikhana uninhabited aerial vehicle, one of the many aircraft that NASA’s technicians keep in top condition. Credit: NASA / James C. Smith III

NASA engineering technician Rich Souza came to NASA after several years both in the U.S. Air Force and private industry. Souza specializes in aircraft engines, working in the engine shop at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center and keeps the DC-8 running at its peak. For him, the military was a great way to go and he recommends it to anyone who is interested in doing hands-on work with aircraft. “They give you the skillset, the aptitude and the attitude you need to do your job,” Souza said.

Brad Grantham, a NASA avionics technician, also speaks highly of military training, though he earned his position in a less conventional way. He started working with aircraft right after high school, taking a low-paying entry level job and working his way up the ladder. “Any time I found a position to advance and learn more about aircraft systems, I took it,” Grantham said. Avionics, Grantham’s specialty, covers everything electronic in the aircraft from navigation systems to the plane’s satellite communications system, all important when flying anywhere, let alone over Antarctica. “An aircraft can’t just pull over if there’s a problem,” Grantham said.

Avionics technician Brad Grantham (right) and Airborne Topographic Mapper team members Matt Linkswiler and Robert Harpold prepare instruments for the IceBridge campaign.
Avionics technician Brad Grantham (right) and Airborne Topographic Mapper team members Matt Linkswiler (left) and Robert Harpold prepare instruments for the IceBridge campaign. Credit: NASA / Tom Tschida

Never a Dull Moment

No matter how one learns about aviation, once at NASA, technicians enter a field where no two days are the same. Technicians are always reconfiguring aircraft for different missions and although they may have favorite aircraft, they work on more than just one. NASA’s fleet is diverse, ranging from the propeller-driven P-3B, to giant 747s, to the ER-2 high-altitude research aircraft and a variety of other planes.

This diversity of aircraft brings a refreshing variety to a busy job, but one of the big perks of working on NASA aircraft is that technicians go where the plane goes. Grantham and Souza have traveled many places around the world during their time with NASA and both have deployed to Punta Arenas, Chile, three times to support the DC-8 for Operation IceBridge.

In addition to their usual ground duties, working on aircraft mechanical and electrical systems, NASA technicians also pull a second duty as safety techs aboard the aircraft. This involves showing passengers how to use the aircraft’s safety equipment, keeping the aircraft clean and everything aboard secure and generally keeping everyone on board safe. Flying on scientific missions aboard planes they maintain is another thing that separates NASA’s technicians from aviation techs in other organizations. “It’s nice to see things from both sides,” said Grantham.

Group photo of IceBridge team in front of the NASA DC-8.
Group photo of IceBridge team in front of the NASA DC-8. Credit: NASA

The Path Taken

The road to becoming one of the people responsible for keeping NASA’s planes flying begins early on. Both Souza and Grantham realized at a young age that they wanted to work with aircraft in a personal and hands-on way. Preparing for such a career means getting as much experience as you can with anything mechanical and electrical. “It gives a good baseline for further training,” said Souza.

Experience and knowledge count but hard work and adaptability are just as important. You need to stay positive and be enthusiastic. “I worked hard jobs to get better jobs,” Grantham said. “When you do hard work you get to learn more.” Also, being able to adapt to changing situations is vital. “You n ever quite know where you might go next or what you’ll be working on,” Souza said. “So you need to keep on your toes.”

With many of the aviation industry and NASA’s experienced technicians retiring and an impending shortage of qualified people, a career in aviation with NASA is something that many recommend for those who want to travel, do hands-on work and always have something new to learn and do. “It’s a pretty cool job,” Souza said. “How many people get to fly over Antarctica?”

A Balance Between Two Extremes

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By Nathan Kurtz, IceBridge scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Morgan State Univ. 

Something quite unexpected happened to me during this IceBridge campaign. In fact, something was missing: much of the sense of awe and wonder which I had on my previous three missions was gone. Once there was excitement to see new and inspiring sights, but now there was routine and a sense that I had seen this all before. Despite spectacular views of the polar landscape outside the window of the DC-8 aircraft, I was more often concerned with analyzing data from past IceBridge campaigns than taking time out to look outside.

Bothered by my inability to be moved by my chosen subject of study I forced myself to stare out the aircraft window in hopes that renewed interest would strike. As the silent scenes of the ice scrolled by below me a quote by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft kept running through my head like the background score of a movie: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” After a long bout of reflection I finally realized what the connection was: my sense of awe and wonder wasn’t actually missing, it had simply been hidden away. Only by finding this missing aspect again could I finally experience the renewed interest I was looking for and incorporate this into a deeper respect for the significance of my role as a scientist in the IceBridge mission.

Low-lying clouds over sea ice on the Bellingshausen Sea.
Low-lying clouds over sea ice on the Bellingshausen Sea. Credit: NASA / Maria-Jose Vinas

Wrapped in the relative safety of the airplane and content with my knowledge of the physical processes which formed the massive ice sheets around me I had only a vague feeling of missing something. This missing aspect was fear. My familiarity with everything around me caused me to be complacent and lose a healthy sense of fear for the world outside my window. I had become the consummate scientist who fashions the world into nothing more than a series of numbers, equations, and rules. Once the unknown was made known my sense of fear was gone as everything seemed to be explainable according to well-described laws. Such is the dilemma of the scientist: one may be criticized as being arrogant for making sweeping claims of knowledge of unbelievably complex phenomenon, yet possessing a high confidence is also necessary to know that it is indeed possible and correct to make such claims with sufficient data.

This is in stark contrast to my previous experiences flying with the IceBridge mission. In my first flight over the Antarctic sea ice two years ago I felt an indescribable rush of fear and excitement as a vast and remote new world opened up before my eyes. I had never seen anything like it before and felt terrified viewing the harshness of the region. I knew that I’d have little chance to survive if I left the safety of the airplane. I also felt that all of the scientific facts I had read about the polar regions had done little to capture the complexity of everything around me. That I had much to learn before I could properly do my job as a scientist and make broad claims about the state of the polar regions based on the data we were collecting.

Somewhere between these two extremes of fear lies a balance that needs to be attained. Some fear is healthy, it allows one to have humility and respect for forces of nature which are beyond the powers of people to control, but that it is also possible to understand these forces in order to live in harmony with them. Too much fear is unhealthy and can lead to a paralysis of thought and action and distortion of the truth to protect one from an uncomfortable reality. These two extremes of fear seem to define an ongoing conflict between science and society, particularly with regards to the polar regions. In recognizing this, it also gives the potential for scientists to form a bridge between these two conflicting groups.

Sunlight reflecting off refrozen leads in sea ice in the Bellingshausen Sea.
Sunlight reflecting off refrozen leads in sea ice in the Bellingshausen Sea. Credit: NASA / Jefferson Beck

In my experience, most people see the polar regions in a generally negative light, one that is based on fear. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the arts which are a good barometer (and influential aspect) of the prevailing view of society. Classic writers such as Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe wrote stories about the polar regions and portrayed them as places filled with supernatural terrors. This attitude can be seen in contemporary literature as well. For example, popular author George R.R. Martin uses a cold region beyond a great wall of ice as a place where unseen evils lie in wait to tear down a society excessively focused on politics and power games. The artist Edwin Landseer, mostly known for his pleasing pictures of animals, chose to use the polar regions as the backdrop for his controversial painting ‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’ which gruesomely depicts the end of an ill-fated polar expedition. A plethora of horror movies such as The Thing and 30 Days of Night use the polar regions as a setting for tales of terror. These are but a few examples of the negative fear-based depiction of the polar regions in our culture. But is the prevailing view of the polar regions only this and nothing more, a bleak place for us to project our fears?

Aside from only one happy movie (Happy Feet), I can think of positive portrayals of the polar regions mainly in science texts and documentaries. Science is providing (to paraphrase Carl Sagan) a candle in the dark to make a feared unknown into something known. One of these feared aspects is the big question of what changes are happening in the polar regions and to what extent are these changes influencing the global climate. From my own studies of sea ice I have seen large decreases in both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice, while the Antarctic sea ice cover has shown a small increase in extent over the last three decades and no statistically significant trends in thickness. Models show that the Antarctic sea ice extent may counter-intuitively increase over the next few decades under a warming climate, but if the warming continues it will begin to decrease again. A decrease in the global coverage of sea ice is expected to cause changes to the global deep ocean circulation as well as increase the amount of absorbed solar radiation which will lead to increased global temperatures. These are simple facts obtained from scientific observations and model physics. Facts such as these are not scary, and if utilized properly they should serve as vital sources of information. Not to paralyze our thoughts in fear, or to give a false illusion of control. But if used with a sense of humility they can be used to promote and guide positive and constructive action.

This is where the IceBridge mission can play a role, and something I realize this trip has inspired me to work towards. Confronting the unknown through exploration and gathering of scientific facts. Presenting the facts as accurately possible is the only way to make the unknown known and unite the world of science with the human element. That is, to allow scientific knowledge to be used as a tool to improve the lives of people. Having spent several weeks with the unique and interesting people that make up the IceBridge mission I am sure that we can do things to the best of our ability. To shine some truth and light on the unknown and work towards getting rid of a climate of fear.

Group photo of IceBridge team in front of the NASA DC-8.
Group photo of IceBridge team in front of the NASA DC-8. Credit: NASA

Seeing Data Collection Firsthand

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By Donghui Yi, Remote Sensing Scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Punta Arenas, Chile is a city with friendly people, rich history, beautiful beach, and spectacular lenticular clouds. Participating in IceBridge’s 2012 Antarctic campaign based at the Punta Arenas airport was an amazing experience for me. I study Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) laser waveforms and different tracking algorithms and their influence on elevation measurements. Participating in IceBridge flights let me see ATM instrument setup and operation firsthand.

The flights I was on covered the Antarctic Peninsula, Bellingshausen and Amundsen seas, West Antarctic ice sheet, Weddell Sea, Ronne and Filchner ice shelves and a portion of the East Antarctic ice sheet. The highest latitude we reached was over 86 degrees south. From NASA’s DC-8 aircraft, the beauty of Antarctica’s sea ice, coast, mountains and ice sheets is breathtaking. From a typical survey height of 500 meters above surface, you see an Antarctic you cannot see from surface or from a satellite image. It makes the over 11-hour flight an exciting and enjoyable journey each time.

Antarctic mountains seen from the DC-8
Antarctic mountains seen from the DC-8. Credit: NASA / Donghui Yi

It was also amazing to see the spatial and temporal variability of the clouds over Antarctica, which can go from the surface to several kilometers high and can be continuous or have numerous layers. Even between the surface and a typical survey altitude of 500 meters, there can be so many layers in between, low and high. The IceBridge team and airport meteorologists did an unbelievable job predicting where clear sky regions would be, a critical part for the missions’ success. Without this critical information, the management team would not be able to make the right decisions to determine survey passes.

The flight crew and instrument engineers are wonderful people to work with and their skills and dedication to the project command our utmost respect. The firsthand experience of sea ice and ice sheet data collection is invaluable to my research. This trip itself was a bridge between a scientist and engineers.

Meet Our Wildlife Liaison

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

The newest addition to the IceBridge team is our stuffed penguin mascot. He was recently selected as IceBridge’s wildlife liaison, and after training at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, he traveled with IceBridge scientists on the DC-8 to Punta Arenas, Chile. Our stuffed penguin mascot has been very popular with students we have done online chats with during our flights, so we’ve put together an introduction.

The IceBridge mascot aboard the NASA DC-8

The IceBridge mascot aboard the NASA DC-8. Credit: NASA/Michael Studinger

What is your role with Operation IceBridge?

I’m the IceBridge wildlife liaison and mascot. Animals that live in Earth’s polar regions, especially penguins, find it annoying when planes fly over too low. Because of this, IceBridge works hard to avoid areas where penguins live. We work with the National Science Foundation and a group in the United Kingdom called Environmental Research Assessment to carefully plan our flights, and I’m able to give a penguin’s point of view on things. I’m also in charge of keeping people happy during the 10 to 12-hour-long flights over the Antarctic so they do their best work.

How long have you been with NASA and IceBridge?

I started working for NASA only a few weeks before the start of our Antarctic campaign. After being hired I started my training at Goddard, and rode to work with IceBridge’s project manager Christy Hansen. After a few weeks of hard studying I was ready to start flying, which is something penguins almost never get to do.

Where are you from originally?

My family originally comes from South America, not far from Punta Arenas, Chile, where IceBridge flies out of. I live in Ellicot City, Maryland, now, but I hope I can get a chance to see some of my cousins while I’m in Chile. There are some penguins living just a short drive from Punta Arenas.

What led you to join Operation IceBridge?

Three reasons really. First, I want to know more about what’s happening to ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. Changes to the climate in the Antarctic affect how my fellow penguins live: where they eat, where they raise their children and where they migrate every year. By working with IceBridge I can learn more about how things are changing. Second, I think it’s important to avoid disturbing wildlife when doing scientific research and this is something I feel I can help out with. And lastly, because even though penguins are birds, we can’t fly. I couldn’t pass up a chance to fly on NASA aircraft.

The IceBridge penguin mascot using the DC-8's satellite phone headset.

The IceBridge penguin mascot using the DC-8’s satellite phone headset. Credit: NASA / George Hale

What’s it like flying over the Antarctic?

It’s something I’ve dreamed about since the day I hatched. Being able to see so much of the ice from above is really cool. I’ve seen big glaciers, giant sheets of ice that stretch off as far as you can see and tall mountains. Seeing these things from the air when I’m used to seeing everything from on the ground and under water is amazing.

Have you seen any other penguins on the mission?

Some of the people with IceBridge went to see penguins the other day, but I was busy with work, but my new friends took lots of pictures for me. I think I’ll get to go with them soon though. I won’t see any from the plane though as long as I do my job right.

Video Post: Chilean Teacher Shares IceBridge Experience

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

On Nov. 1, 2012, two science teachers from Punta Arenas, Chile, accompanied IceBridge researchers on a survey flight over Antarctica. Below are videos from one of these teachers, Mario Esquivel of the Colegio Francés (French School) in Punta Arenas.

The first video, Operación Icebridge en Antartica 2012 (Viaje Profesores Chilenos con la NASA), shows photographs Esquivel took during the Nov. 1, 2102 survey of the Ronne Ice Shelf.
The second video, Xchat between NASA Icebridge from DC-8 over Antarctica and Colegio Francés Punta Arenas Chile, shows photographs from a Chilean classroom and quotes from online chat question and answer sessions between students and IceBridge personnel on the NASA DC-8.
 


 Video about Mario Esquivel’s IceBridge experience. Credit:
Mario Esquivel


 Video showing students communicating with IceBridge personnel on the NASA DC-8 via online chat. 
Credit: Mario Esquivel
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