Understanding how ice sheets, glaciers and icebergs are produced and interact in Greenland, the Arctic and Antarctica is an essential part of figuring out how Earth's climate will change in the coming decades. Recent flights carried out during the IceBridge 2011 mission significantly contributed to this.
The IceBridge mission is a multi-year, international effort to understand how the world's ices are changing. It was put together in order to cover some gaps in the satellite records NASA keeps, which was put together by the Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat).
The spacecraft was retired due to a technical glitch in 2010, and the American space agency will launch the ICESat-2 mission in 2016. Until then, aircraft belonging to NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) will continue the work.
They fly sorties over the Arctic and Greenland during the Northern Hemisphere summer and the Antarctic when the warm season comes to the Southern Hemisphere. Sometimes, the missions change seasons, so that researchers can capture as much data as possible.
IceBridge Antarctica 2011 took place during October and November, and saw the science aircraft collect laser altimetry data. This information can reveal the depth, orientation, thickness and motion of ice sheets and glaciers, revealing the speed at which the ice is melting in Antarctica.
The team discovered significant ice loss at Pine Island Glacier, as we also reported. A massive chunk of ice is getting ready to separate from the ice field, which means that it will turn into a massive iceberg. The last instance of calving at this massive glacier occurred in 2007, NASA experts believe.
“At a time when glaciers and ice sheets are showing rapid changes, we need consistent data that shows how and why that change is happening,” explains investigator Michael Studinger, who is an IceBridge project scientist.
“With three years of IceBridge data in hand, we have successfully continued the ice sheet elevation record in key areas and broken new ground in understanding the nature of the bedrock under ice sheets and the shape of the seafloor under ice shelves,” the expert adds.
He reveals that this year's data indicate that the rapid deterioration which became apparent at Pine Island back in 2006 is continuing even now. Back in 2005, the glacier was losing 7 gigatons of ice per year, whereas it lost 46 gigatons in 2010. The entire Chesapeake Bay holds 70 gigatons of water.
“This has been an excellent campaign for the science side of the mission, and it's our job to put the plane in positions to make that possible,” reveals IceBridge Mission Manager Walter Klein, who is based at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Facility, in California.
The next IceBridge flights will occur above Greenland, starting in the spring of 2012.