NASA P-3 airplane
March 13, 2014

Operation IceBridge Kicks Off New Season Of Arctic Data Collection

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Scientists working on NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission are en route to Greenland to kick off this year’s Arctic land and sea ice data collection efforts, officials from the US space agency announced on Wednesday.

On Monday, the researchers departed from the Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia on board the agency’s P-3 research aircraft. They will be collecting and reporting valuable information on rapidly changing regions of polar land and sea ice during flights to Thule Air Base and Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.

According to NASA, those flights will run through May 23, with a one-week deployment to Alaska as part of the IceBridge mission, which was launched after the original Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) program ended in 2009. It is scheduled to continue until the launch of ICESat-2, currently scheduled for 2017.

During the past five years, the mission has successfully surveyed large areas of both the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, as well as the sea ice in both polar regions. The information obtained by IceBridge has helped in the creation of bedrock maps in both Greenland and Antarctica, been used to calculate changes in the thickness and volume of Arctic sea ice, and improve the understanding of the rate at which Greenland glaciers are flowing into the sea.

The focus of the first part of the 2014 campaign will be the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean north of Greenland and in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas north of Alaska. As was the case over the past year years, IceBridge has provided data on ice thickness to help researchers improve the accuracy of seasonal Arctic sea ice models.

The second part of the mission will involve the measurement of ice surface thickness and elevation at several of the Greenland Ice Sheet’s outlet glaciers – channels of frozen water that flow from an ice sheet that are constrained by bedrock on either side. A laser altimeter known as the Airborne Topographic Mapper will take the surface elevation measurements, showing experts how the ice sheet is changing while also providing a benchmark for ICESat-2.

The Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder, a radar instrument operated by the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at the University of Kansas, will take a look under the surface in order to collect ice thickness and sub-ice terrain data, as well as internal layering in the ice sheet and snow depth. The P-3 research aircraft also includes a new instrument this year: a spectrometer that will measure ice reflectivity, otherwise known as albedo.

According to Nathan Kurtz, a sea ice scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, even slight changes in the albedo over the entire Arctic could significantly impact the amount of heat absorbed by the surface. The IceBridge flights taking place this year were designed to serve as a preliminary test for the radar instrument.

During the campaign’s duration, members of the IceBridge team will be working alongside other research teams working in the region. Scientists working at the surface will be analyzing sea ice and snow thickness in the Canadian Basin, near Barrow, Alaska and north of Greenland.

Those measurements will eventually be used to ensure that the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder findings are accurate – especially in places with rough ice surfaces, which can scatter radar waves and make it difficult for researchers to interpret the returning signal, according to US Army Corps of Engineers ice scientist Jackie Richter-Menge.

“The IceBridge team also will work with the CryoVEx (CryoSat-2 Validation Experiment) team, which operates a campaign to verify measurements made by the European Space Agency's ice-monitoring satellite, CryoSat-2, in orbit since 2010,” NASA said. “The IceBridge team plans to fly directly beneath the orbit of CryoSat-2 around the same time the satellite passes overhead to compare measurements.”