Feature: Arctic Thaw

Measuring Change

Connecting the past, the present and the future to understand climate

by | 4.11.2012 at 10:25pm
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Ice Bridge Flight

Ice Bridge monitors one of Greenland's East Glaciers for signs of change in the ice sheet (photo M. Turrin)

Over 100,000 years of Arctic climate data has been linked in the last two days of Ice Bridge missions. When you see the names DYE2, EGIG, GRIP, Ice Bridge and MABEL you view the elite list of Arctic science projects that deliver(ed) groundbreaking climate information through the last 50 years, and if all goes as planned, will do so into the future.  Each project has a unique history and provides a puzzle piece in the full climate picture, but the trick is placing them together so that they form a richer image. Our flight route the past two days has overflown and linked us with each of these puzzle parts in order to capture overlapping data which will help us piece together the full image – an understanding of the past and the present to prepare for climate in the future.

So how do they all tie together?

EGIG (Expedition Glaciology International of Greenland) was a French traverse along a West Greenland ice flow line operated close to 50 years ago (1958/59 and 1967/68). Collecting snow and ice data the scientists were able to determine annual snow accumulation rates in a series of locations along the traverse.  By overflying these same locations EGIG’s snow accumulation rates can be used as a baseline for comparing our current data.

The remote Dye2 buildings, now deserted in the north west section of the Greenland Ice Sheet (Photo M. Turrin)

DYE2 dates back to the mid 50s, a relic of the cold war. Home to one of the Distance Early Warning (DEW) line radar stations it housed military teams monitoring the skies with radar for Russian bombers in the 1950s.  The site transitioned to a science station and in the 1970s a series of short 50-100 meter ice cores were drilled. Each core holds ice bubbles, small time capsules frozen in place, holding a record of the Earth’s past atmosphere, or as we know it, climate.  Data from the DYE2 cores allows us to map past climate to Arctic glacier extent.

GRIP (Greenland Ice Core Project) takes us back in time over 100,000 years.  The GRIP ice core was drilled in Central Greenland two decades ago. Located at 12,000 feet in elevation by the Summit Camp the core measures over 3000 meters long. Stretched down to Greenland’s bedrock, this core provides us with the longest record of Greenland’s climate history.

Operation Ice Bridge is a current mission collecting a wide range of information on the changes occurring in ice in the polar-regions.  The spring project is focused on measuring the rate of change in Arctic ice – both land and sea ice. This information will rely on measurements over a period of years, and draws on past studies and data collections.  Several of the Ice Bridge partners have been collecting Arctic ice data for a number of years.  Between the IceSat satellite that collected ice surface elevation from 2003-2009, and an annual ATM (Airborne Topographic Mapper) survey that operated over three decades, large reaches of the ice sheet have been measured establishing a history of precise ice surface elevations for a baseline comparison.

The afternoon sun illuminates Greenland's East glaciers over the wing of NASA's Ice Bridge P3. (photo M. Turrin)

Mabel (Multiple Altimeter Beam Experiment Lidar) is the future.  Flying at 62,000 ft. elevation on an ER-2 aircraft Mabel is designed to take us back into space. Mabel is the mock design of the next ice measuring satellite, IceSat-2, scheduled to launch in 2016. Ice Bridge has linked with Mabel to fly transits in Greenland for some cross calibration of the measurements collected.

It is apparent that the past, the present and the future are all coming together by design, determined to piece together the climate picture of tomorrow.

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