Icebridge : Scientists Map Thinning Ice Sheets in Antarctica
Climate change has weakened the ice sheets of western Antarctica. Scientists from Lamont-Doherty are flying over the region on a NASA-led mission called Ice Bridge to understand what's happening on and below the ice. What they find may help predict future sea level rise.
At our higher elevation we will fly faster and can cover a lot of ground. The landscape of Antarctica can be hard to get ones head around – a glacier catchment is usually too big to fit into one field of view, so we see it bit by bit, and try to build up a physical picture in the same way we build up our understanding of the system – piece by piece. We have flown several missions into the Amundsen Sea region on the west Antarctic coast in the past, but this was the first time where we could really see the context of all of these different glaciers – flowing into the same embayment, forming ice shelves, calving ice bergs, and drifting northwards through the sea ice.
The flight offers views of some of the most noteworthy features in Antarctica. Pine Island Glacier, one of world’s fastest streaming glaciers, developed an 18 mile crack along its face in the fall of 2011 which spread further over the last few months. The crack will inevitably lead to breakage, dropping an iceberg which scientists have estimated will be close to 300 pound in size.
Bordering the glacier is one of two shield volcanoes we passed over during our flight. Pushing up through the Antarctic white mask, Mount Murphy diverts the ice streaming along the glacier. A steeply sloped massive 8 million year old peak, Mount Murphy pulls my thoughts back New York as it was named for an Antarctic bird expert from the American Museum of Natural History.
From Mount Murphy we continue to the second shield volcano, Mount Takahe. Ash from 7900 years ago found in an ice core from the neighboring Siple Dome has been attributed to an eruption from this volcano. This massive potentially active volcano is about 780 cubic kms in size. The volcano was named by a science team participating in the International Geophysical Year (1957-8) after the nickname of the plane providing their air support …an unusual name for a plane as its origin is that of a plump indigenous Māori bird from New Zealand which happens to be flightless! Regardless the rather round Mount Takahe soars high above the glacier as we move overtop.
From there we fly over the tongue of Thwaites Glacier as it calves icebergs into the Amundsen Sea. To read more about Thwaites check out my first blog of the season: http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/10/18/launching-the-season-with-a-key-mission-icebridge-antarctica-2012/
For more on the IceBridge project visit:
The current mission is being flown to measure the flux of ice currently coming into the Ronne Ice Shelf from the surrounding Antarctic landmass. To determine this we focus on the ‘grounding line’, the area where the ice changes from being frozen solid to the land below to floating as part of the ice shelf. To understand how much ice is moving over the grounding line, we have to understand how much ice is at the grounding line, and to do this we have to fly along the grounding line (or slightly inshore of it).
In many areas of Antarctica, even knowing where the grounding line is takes a lot of work. Much of that work is done using satellite data through a process called “interferometry”. This process compares the returning radar signal from different satellite passes to determine where the ice begins to move under the influence of the ocean tides. In this scale, ice that is responding to the rise and fall of the tides is floating ice, and from this we can mark the grounding line. While technique identifies the grounding line, it does not show how much ice is moving across it; to determine that we need to collect ice thickness measurements. For today’s flight we moved just inland of the grounding line for about half of the Ronne Ice Shelf collecting ice thickness and other supporting data that will begin to fill in this important information.
Reference: Hellmer, H. H. et al. Nature, 2012. DOI:10.1038/nature11064.
For more on the IceBridge project visit:
One of the trickier items in measuring sea ice is making the raw measurements of thicker and thinner ice. With only satellite measurements it is hard to get the true thickness of the ice, since the surface of the ice is often covered with snow that needs to be accounted for in our calculations. Using the snow radar on the IceBridge mission we can work out how much of what the satellite is measuring is actually snow.
The Bellinghausen Sea sits just to the west of the Antarctic peninsula and in the southern winter months is generally covered with sea ice. We have flown two Bellinghausen sea missions this season – one to map out to the furthest edges and another to looks at the gradient of sea ice change as you move away from the coast or shoreline. The second Bellinghausen mission was important because in running profiles in and out from the coast it allowed us to measure how ice thickness patterns vary with distance from the shore. We need to understand these patterns of ice thickness in the southern end of the planet, how they may be changing and what connection they have to the climate system.
There has been much less study done on southern sea ice than northern sea ice because we get very few opportunities to make the measurements we need. We have two high priority flights to the Weddell Sea (on the eastern side of the Antarctic peninsula), but so far it has not been possible to fly them because of the weather. Hopefully before the end of this season we will be able to fly both these flights and fill in more pieces in the sea ice story.
For more on the IceBridge project visit:
Last year IceBridge had its first flights into East Antarctica when it flew some missions into the Recovery Glacier area. Recovery is a section of Antarctic ice that lies east of the peninsular arm of West Antarctica, tucked behind the Transantarctic Mountains, a dividing line that separates west from east. We know from Satellite data that Recovery and its tributaries have a deep reach, stretching well inland to capture ice and move it out into the Filchner Ice Shelf draining a large section of the East Antarctic ice sheet. But there is a lot we don’t know about Recovery because the remoteness of the area has limited the number of surveys.
Several recent works have showed us that this area is important. Satellite measurements of the ice surface show small patches along the trunk of the glacier that are changing elevation more than their surroundings. These patches have been interpreted as lakes that lie under the ice sheet, coined the Recovery Subglacial Lakes. The lakes appear to drain and refill over time as the surface elevation over the lakes changes. To learn more about them and what they might tell us about the behavior of the glacier, we need to look under the ice.
But there is more we need to understand about this remote area, including simply needing to know the size and shape of the channel that delivers this ice out to the ice shelf and towards the Weddell Sea. Last year’s mission gave us some data points to outline the channel, but this year will help us provide a more complete imaging of what lies below this East Antarctic ice conveyor belt.
We will fly cross sections along the lines of the retired ICESat satellite tracks, allowing us to compare the laser measurements we make of ice surface elevation to those made during the satellite mission. We will end the day flying along the Recovery channel to get another look at one of the interpreted lakes. Combining last years’ data, ICESat data and this year’s data will give us a better picture of the area that has been carved beneath the Recovery glacier, the amount of ice that can be moved through the glacier and its tributaries, and how the lakes under the ice might fit into the larger story.
October 2012 IceBridge Antarctica resumes … Mission goal…monitoring the polar regions…Mission target… determine changes in ice cover and thickness, refine models for future sea level rise…Mission instruments…airborne geophysics. Good luck team.
The crews have spent the last few weeks in Palmdale, where the DC8 is based, for instrument installation and test flights prior to our move down to Punta Arenas, our home base for IceBridge Antarctica.
Instrument Run Down: We are flying with the same instrument suite as last year allowing us to see above, below and through the ice. Laser altimetry, for surface ice measurements, measured by the NASA Airborne Topographic Mapper, visible band photography, to allow for draped imagery, from NASA’s DMS (Digital Mapping System), three radar systems from Cresis to measure the ice thickness, composition and bed imagery (MCoRDS, Snow and KU band) and gravity to refine what is under the ice with Lamont using Sander Geophysics’ AIRGrav gravimeter.
ATM and the gravimeter both require GPS base stations on the ground throughout the deployment. Combined with the GPS receivers on the plane these allow very precise positioning of the aircraft, and the sensors on board, which is critical to all the measurements we make. Setting up the GPS stations is one of the first jobs in Punta Arenas.
Our First Mission for 2012 is Thwaites Glacier – Going Straight to the Heart of the Changes. On our way out of Punta Arenas, out past the airport, I noticed this feature in the landscape:
It appears to be the paleo-shoreline from the last interglacial (~80,000 yr BP), when sea level was higher than present. The very flat terrain results in any sea level change causing a large shoreline retreat. Evidence like this of changing shorelines, is one method scientists use to determine past sea level under a different climate. As we study different areas around the world, we must account for the local changes in how the land has risen or fallen. Changes in sea level can be a combination of an adjusted world/ocean wide (eustatic) sea level and the more local response from the rebounding (isostatic ) of the land that was previously depressed under a glacier as local ice is unloaded during deglaciation. Here the history of the shoreline was governed by a combination of changes in eustatic sea level and the isostatic response to deglaciation of the local ice load (De Muro et al. 2012). Putting together information from around the world we eventually build up a picture of the global changes that have occurred in sea level. Changes in sea level are directly connected to our work monitoring polar ice.
When we fly over the ice, we are monitoring how the ice sheets are changing at present, and learning how to understand the complicated interactions between the atmosphere, the ocean and the ice. Studying this helps us to understand which ice bodies are most likely to contribute to sea level, how quickly they changed in the past, and how quickly they might change in the future. It’s good to get this reminder as we head out on our first flight – especially as it is to survey the area where the glacier switches from being frozen to the land below [the bed] to where it goes afloat, called the ‘grounding line’.
Our first flight of the season will be along the Thwaites Glacier. Thwaites and Pine Island Glacier are two ‘glaciers of interest’, both large outlet glaciers that serve as conduits out of the ice mass of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), moving ice off the land into the surrounding ocean, and long considered its Achilles heel. Thwaites glacier has a very wide region of fast ice flow over its grounding line, and a relatively small change in that width has the potential to greatly increase the flux of ice into the ocean. Through the radar and gravity measurements collected on previous IceBridge missions we have been able to get a sense of the bed shape tipping downward as you move inland from the ice edge, and where pockets of water lie under the icesheet. Our goal today is to collect enough data to develop a more complete image of what lies under the ice in this area.
2009 Operation IceBridge surveyed a grid in front of Thwaites grounding line and identified a ridge in the rock of the sea floor. In the last few months a large section of Thwaites glacial tongue broke off just seaward of that ridge. This mission will fly back and forth along nine lines parallel to the grounding line of Thwaites glacier. In combination with flights from previous years, this will give us a map of the grounding zone at 2.5 km spacing.
We are hoping to learn more about goes on underneath this icy reach of the Earth each time we take flight.
Pine Island Glacier has been under intense focus as one of the fastest moving, and rapidly thinning glaciers in Antarctica. The planned survey was a grid back and forth across the main trunk of Pine Island Glacier. The pilots refer to this kind of survey as “mowing the lawn”. This type of data collection is essential for putting together a more complete ‘picture’ of the glacier surface, depth, and its underlying surface, and its ‘grounding line’. The ‘grounding line’, shown here as the white line running through the image of the survey plan, is the front edge of where the glacier is frozen all the way to the bottom surface beneath it. The glacier extends beyond the grounding line but as a ‘floating tongue’ of ice.
Glacial tongues can be many meters thick, but because they rest on water they are susceptible to warming from the water below. It is not unexpected for sections of the tongues of glaciers to break off – in fact for this glacier scientists expect to see it occur about twice a decade (the last notable occurrence was in 2007). It is, however, impressive to see it actually developing, and to realize the scale of the crack as it begins – at least 50 meters deep, and up to 250 meters wide! Yes this is much better than watching paint dry!
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has been a partner in this NASA led project collecting airborne gravity. The Ice Bridge Mission is designed to fill the gap between two satellite missions, IceSat I and IceSat II, collecting data on ice thickness in both polar regions. IceSat II is intended to be in orbit in another 4 to 5 years.