NASA has planned a series of flights to study changes to Antarctica's sea ice, glaciers and ice sheets. The flights are part of `Operation Ice Bridge', a six-year campaign that is the largest airborne survey ever made of ice at Earth's polar regions.
Researchers will work from NASA's DC-8, an airborne laboratory equipped with laser mapping instruments, ice-penetrating radar and gravity instruments. Data collected from the mission will help scientists better predict how changes to the massive Antarctic ice sheet will contribute to future sea level rise around the world.
The plane, crew and scientists will depart on 12 October from NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California, and fly to Punta Arenas, Chile, where they will be based through mid-November. Seelye Martin of the University of Washington in Seattle will lead the mission consisting of nearly 50 scientists and support personnel. The team is planning 17 flights over some of the fastest-changing areas in western Antarctica and its ice-covered coastal waters.
Data collected during the campaign also will help bridge the data gap between NASA's Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite, known as ICESat, which has been in orbit since 2003, and NASA's ICESat-II, scheduled to launch no earlier than 2014. ICESat is nearing the end of its operational lifetime, making the Ice Bridge flights critical for ensuring a continuous record of observations.
"A remarkable change is happening on earth, truly one of the biggest changes in environmental conditions since the end of the ice age," said Tom Wagner, cryosphere programme manager at NASA headquarters in Washington. "It's not an easy thing to observe, let alone predict what might happen next. Studies like Ice Bridge are key."
Because airborne observations lack the continent-wide coverage a satellite provides, mission planners have selected key targets to study that are most prone to change. Sea ice measurements will be collected from the Amundsen Sea, where local warming suggests the ice may be thinning. Ice sheet and glacier studies will be flown over the Antarctic Peninsula and West Antarctica, including Pine Island Glacier, an area scientists believe could undergo rapid changes.