Sunday, April 30, 2017

My day with IceBridge

I've spent the better part of the last two years analyzing data from NASA's Operation IceBridge, a multi-year mission to collect data over both the arctic and antarctic using several instruments mounted to some futuristic-looking custom planes. I was trying to determine how much snow falls across Greenland during the past few centuries using IceBride's Accumulation Radar. I then compared these rates with state of the art climate models across the ice sheet. You can read the abstract, look at the pretty pictures, and skim through the paper here (for free)!

After countless hours analyzing IceBridge data, I was excited when I learned they were spending a few weeks based in Kangerlussuaq flying around the Greenland Ice Sheet. I quickly emailed the project manager to ask if we could meet up for coffee to talk about the mission, but he invited me to join the mission to fly on the plane for a day. I was ecstatic.

After a brief 15 minute safety video (slightly more entertaining than the safety videos on United Airlines) and medical forms, I was allowed to tour the plane and see the instruments.
Stepping onto the P3-B IceBridge airplane

Racks of computers and hard drives collect and store the data inside the fuselage

It took a while to warm up the instruments, check that everything was working properly, de-ice the airplane, and get clearance for takeoff (the Kangerlussuaq airport is surprisingly busy since it flies to Copenhagen and many small Greenlandic villages). We were heading for the Penny Ice Cap on Baffin Island (Canada) to measure the thickness and elevation of the ice cap, take pictures from the bottom of the plane, and calculate the amount of snowfall across the glacier. We flew across the sea ice of Baffin Bay until we started to see gigantic granite cliffs rising from the sea.

Mountains rising out of the sea ice at the eastern edge of Baffin Island

A glacier flows down one of many valleys

Large cliffs dominate the fjords around the edge of Penny Ice Cap
I see why Baffin Island has some of the best (and least explored) rock climbing in the world

Crevasses form in a glacier as it flows across a steep section of rock

The Penny ice cap with mountains rising in the distance

After taking in all the spectacular scenery, I tried to learn a bit more about how each of the instruments work. IceBridge carries 4 laser altimeters (to measure the height of the ground surface directly below and slightly to the side of the airplane), 5 radars (to see the top 20, top 300, and total thickness of the ice sheet), a gravimeter, magnetometer, and various downward mounted cameras to photograph the ice sheet. Using a fancy kinematic GPS the airplane's position and tilt/roll/yaw are known precisely with astounding accuracy. Pilots steer the plane according to predetermined flight paths 1500 m above the ground using iPad-like-devices that look more like a videogame than an instrument you'd find in a cockpit.

I was very excited to be able to fly with IceBridge for a day and learn all about how they operate. I'm continually impressed by the amount of data they are able to collect during each field season, and the quality of each instrument. Hopefully I'll be able to fly with them again soon.

Scientists control various instruments towards the back of the plane

The pilots look out over the sea ice in Baffin bay

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