Feature: Arctic Thaw

Measuring Change

IceBridge Team Settles in the North

by | 3.18.2011 at 3:16pm
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As we landed in Thule we were greeted by the flat-topped Dundas Fjeld (Uummannaq in Greenlandic), which is such an iconic part of the Thule landscape they even have a picture of it on the napkins in the Thule base dining hall. The hard cap of the mountain was formed by volcanism in the Neoproterozoic - about 700 million years ago. (photo by K. Tinto)


Operation IceBridge has returned to the Arctic for a second Greenland season collecting critical measurements of Arctic sea ice cover and thickness and Greenland’s coastal outlet glaciers. Traveling on a DC8 outfitted as a cargo plane with only 6 rows of seats, the team flew from Baltimore MD to Thule in northern Greenland.

Magnetometer (stinger) on the tail of the P3 (photo by K. Tinto)

The workhorse for the field season will be the P3, which has been in Wallops VA being outfitted with the lasers, snow accumulation radar, ice thickness radar, gravity and the new instrument this season a magnetometer – which we are fondly calling the stinger! This piece of equipment will be extremely useful in helping to interpret some of the geologic information provided by the gravity data.

Sea ice will be the focus of the early mission flights since the ice has a seasonal fluctuation, thus capturing data while the ice is at its greatest extent is key. Sea ice, frozen ocean water that forms as the atmospheric and water temperatures cool, starts as a patchy crust on the surface but expands from September through March to a solid icy covering. Separated into first year and multiyear ice this covering can actually measure from 2 meters to 3 meters thick respectively.

This white covering on the ocean surface is a key feature in keeping the Earth’s climate cool as it reflects the sun’s energy rather than absorbing it as the dark ocean water would. For January 2011 the agency that tracks sea ice cover, U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), reported the lowest measure of sea ice extent since satellite measurements of its cover began in 1979. They hypothesize that one reason for this might be increasing amounts of open ocean. IceBridge measurements can help with predicting the future of this trend.

Night hare peaking up just at the bottom of the image to 'catch' the action (photo K. Tinto)

The arrival into Thule was lovely – flying in over the sea, with the sun low, and catching the edges of icebergs so they glowed orange while the sea ice around them stayed white. The sea was still frozen in the bay, creating interesting patterns with plenty of icebergs and pressure ridges. A denser patch of icebergs announced a glacier nearby, and land soon came into view. We came in over snow-covered hills, and some of the landscape was marked by very distinctive flat tops. One of these was Dundas Fjeld (Uummannaq in Greenlandic) in the photo above.

On the base our living quarters are very comfortable, but it still pays to get a lift in a vehicle if we want to travel across the base – it’s pretty cold out there, especially when the wind blows. Around the base, it isn’t uncommon to see arctic foxes and hares. The foxes I have seen have been dark, and moved quickly, the hares on the other hand are white and fuzzy and pretty well camouflaged and seemingly unfazed by our presence, even following us around if we look interesting – watching us with big, black eyes. They have very long legs made for running, but I haven’t seen it happen.

Weather permitting we look forward to a full field season of measuring and assessing this northern reach of the cryosphere.

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