Since 2009, NASA’s Operation IceBridge has researched changes in sea ice at the North and South Poles. This year’s Arctic expedition, which is based in Thule, Greenland kicked off last month by taking images of the northwest region of the island. As IceBridge gathers data using instruments flown in an airplane, it is different than many other remote studies of polar sea ice, which are based on satellite imagery. IceBridge is in fact serving as a stopgap between NASA’s two satellite missions studying the poles: the Ice Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), which imaged the poles from 2003-2009, and ICESat-2, which will launch in early 2016. ICESat used a laser altimeter to gather multi-year elevation data in order to assess the ice sheet mass balance. It also was able to collect data on stratospheric clouds, topography, and vegetation, both around the poles and worldwide.
Since IceBridge operates out of a plane and not a satellite, scientists can determine precisely where they want to fly the plane. On the schedule for this spring are expeditions to the Barnes and Devon ice caps in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and repeat flights over several glaciers in Greenland, including Petermann, off of which one of the largest ice islands ever calved last summer. These flights will collect multiyear data allowing scientists to see the change in Greenland’s ice cap.
At the end of March, NASA’s Operation IceBridge took some fantastic photos of northwest Greenland using a DSLR camera pointed out of the plane’s belly. Scientists aren’t just taking pictures, though. The Airborne Topographic Mapper is one instrument onboard which employs LIDAR technology to measure changes in the ice’s surface elevation. LIDAR uses alternating laser beams to create a digital elevation map of the terrain below.
You can read more about the expedition on the official NASA IceBridge blog.