The space agency said on Oct. 15 it will start a series of 17 flights to study changes to Antarctica's sea ice, glaciers and ice sheets. The flights are part of what NASA calls Operation Ice Bridge, a six-year project that is the largest airborne survey ever made of ice at Earth's polar regions.
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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, NASA stated.
NASA said data collected from the flights will fill in data gaps between the agency’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, NASA stated.
The payload on the DC-8 includes the Airborne Topographic Mapper, a laser altimeter that can produce elevation maps of the ice surface. Other instruments flying include the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder which measures ice sheet thickness and the varied terrain below the ice. The Laser Vegetation Imaging Sensor maps large areas of sea ice and glacier zones. A gravimeter will give scientists their first opportunity to measure the shape of the ocean cavity beneath floating ice shelves in critical spots of Antarctica. A snow radar will measure the thickness of snow on top of sea ice and glaciers, NASA stated.
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.
According to NASA, the Antarctic continent may be remote, but it plays a significant role in Earth's climate system. The expanse is home to glaciers and ice sheets that hold frozen about 90 percent of Earth's freshwater -- a large potential contribution to sea level rise should all the ice melt.