ESA and USGS intensify Arctic research

In the past week, there have been announcements from several science agencies regarding projects and missions in the Arctic.

© ESA / AOES Medialab
CryoSat - 2© ESA / AOES Medialab

On Thursday, April 8, the European Space Agency launched the CryoSat-2 satellite from Kazakhstan. CryoSat-2 cost €140 million to manufacture and was a replica of the first CryoSat, which crashed unspectacularly into the Arctic Ocean in 2005 during its launch. The name of the satellite comes from the Greek word “cryo,” meaning cold. The cryosphere encompasses all of the frozen water on earth, from glaciers to snow cover to ice caps. CryoSat-2 is Europe’s first satellite specifically dedicated to studying change in the polar ice caps. Specifically, it will look at changing ice sheets, such as those in Greenland and Antartica, and also sea ice. The main instrument onboard the satellite is Synthetic Aperture Interferometric Radar Altimeter (SIRAL), a type of radar able to measure the thickness of sea ice.  Already, the satellite has delivered its first set of data showing ice thickness of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, making the mission more successful than CryoSat-1.

On a more terrestrial level, in the US, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has asked the United States Geological Survey to prepare a report on the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Last month, President Obama announced that these seas (but not Barrow Bay) should be considered for oil and gas drilling beginning in 2012. To provide the research necessary before leases can be granted, the USGS will not collect any new data. Rather, the agency will go through its own scientific data and that of other agencies. The report is due October 1 and will be used to better understand the effect of oil and gas drilling on the sensitive Arctic environment. Salazar was quoted by the Oil and Gas Journal as saying,

“The Arctic is a place where conditions are hard and the changes, especially from climate change, are affecting the people who live there. The gathering of information by USGS between now and Oct. 1 will be very helpful as we develop the next 5-year OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) schedule. [It] will help us make sure we have the best science-based decisions available as we move forward.”

Current information about the Department of the Interior’s strategy in the OCS is available online, here.

Meanwhile, the Minerals Management Service is studying polar bears, fish, and other Arctic wildlife. The next leasing season for oil and gas drilling is from 2012-2017, so the MMS must undertake research to see what impact drilling will have on the flora and fauna. One area of particular concern is the ability to clean up oil spills, especially given the environmental catastrophe caused by the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Alan Thornhill, MMS science advisor, said,

“MMS has an active program on oil spill response technology. We’re also developing operational tools to detect and map oil in any ice type.”

You can view a summary of USGS and MMS research in the Arctic here (PDF).

News links

“CryoSat-2 satellite launches on mission to monitor climate change in the Arctic,” The Guardian

“ESA’s ice mission delivers first data,” ESA Portal

“Obama administration to study Arctic,” Alaska Dispatch

“USGS asked to study Arctic oil, gas exploration impacts,” Oil and Gas Journal

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