15 October 2009
NASA to study Antarctic ice changes
NASA plans to launch this week the first of 17 planned flights to study changes in Antarctic ice and collect data that may help scientists better predict the consequences of those changes, officials said.
The first flight over the Antarctic is planned to take off today from Punta Arenas, Chile, according to a NASA statement and scientists involved in the project. The flights are part of “Operation Ice Bridge,” a six-year plan described as the largest ever airborne survey of ice at Earth’s poles.
“We have operated in Antarctica a few times previously ... but these surveys barely scratched the surface,” said William Krabill of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
The flights will be conducted by a DC-8 outfitted as a special airborne laboratory with laser mapping instruments, ice-penetrating radar and gravity instruments.
The flights will be able to gather information that a satellite cannot.
“The problem with satellites is, we can’t see through the ice sheet with satellites,” said Robin Bell, a scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who also is involved in the project. She said the technology carried on the plane will provide researchers a chance to address questions regarding why the ice sheet is changing.
“We really want to know how much water is under the ice sheet,” she said. The technology will allow scientists to detect that water and see how much is present under the ice.
That information, according to the NASA statement, can help predict how changes in the ice sheet will contribute to a potential global rise in sea levels.
But officials said the flights also will serve as a partial replacement for one satellite: NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite, known as ICESat. The current ICESat has been in orbit since 2003 and is nearing the end of its lifetime. The next satellite, ICESat-II, is scheduled to launch in 2014 at the earliest.
For related information, go to www.isa.org/environment.