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article imageNASA's Operation IceBridge survey to expand its Arctic reach

By Karen Graham     Mar 11, 2017 in Science
NASA's Operation IceBridge kicked off in 2009. Its primary mission is to monitor changes in the polar ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Now, for the first time, NASA will explore the Arctic's Eurasian Basin.
Operation IceBridge began when the mission of its ICESat satellite ended in 2009. The surveys, using a fixed-wing aircraft were meant to provide continuity from the end of the ICESat mission until the launch of the ICESat-2 satellite, originally scheduled for launch this year, but rescheduled for launch in 2018.
For the past eight years, NASA has provided some astounding and unprecedented three-dimensional views of the polar regions, not only providing scientists with valuable data on how polar ice is changing in a warming world but allowing the public to see first-hand some truly incredible landscapes.
The NASA 2017 Arctic Spring Campaign
Now, for the first time, NASA will be flying its P-3 Orion, based at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, in two research missions based out of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the northern Atlantic Ocean. The flights are part of NASA's 2017 Arctic Spring Campaign, which completed its first flight on March 9 and will last through May 12, 2017.
First leg of the 2017 Arctic Spring Campaign took the crew over Ellesmere Island.
First leg of the 2017 Arctic Spring Campaign took the crew over Ellesmere Island.
Nathan Kurtz/NASA
The flight on March 9 took the crew over the Arctic sea ice to the North Pole and back. This is the earliest in the year the mission has been flown and the sun is still waiting for spring to rise at the highest latitudes. The picture above is of Ellesmere Island and the surrounding sea ice with the sun peeking just over the horizon.
Nathan Kurtz, Operation IceBridge's project scientist and a sea ice scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland said this year's campaign will be the most extensive one yet, reports Science Daily. "We are expanding our reach to the Eurasian sector of the Arctic, so we're hopefully going to get more sea ice coverage than we ever have."
Usually, NASA uses three bases for its Arctic missions: Thule Air Base in northwest Greenland, Fairbanks in Alaska, and Kangerlussuaq in southwest Greenland. The addition of Svalbard will allow NASA scientists to collect data on sea ice and snow in a region where measurements have been scarce.
Glacier Canyons in NW Greenland.
Glacier Canyons in NW Greenland.
The researchers will also be taking measurements of a few glaciers in the Svalbard archipelago. The team thinks the characteristics of the sea ice may be different in the Eurasian basin as compared to its Amerasian counterpart. They are most interested in finding out if the snow cover on the Eurasian sea ice is thicker, but they won't know until they do a flyover.
The Eurasian Basin is one of the two major basins into which the North Polar Basin of the Arctic Ocean is split by the Lomonosov Ridge, the other big basin is the Amerasian Basin. The basin is unique because of its cover of perennial ice and almost complete encirclement by the landmasses of North America, Eurasia, and Greenland.
“Most of the available data on snowfall in the Eurasian Basin is outdated, from drifting stations that operated between 1954 and 1991,” said Ron Kwok, a member of IceBridge’s science team and a sea ice researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Artist s conception of ICESat-2.
Artist's conception of ICESat-2.
“When those surveys were done, we still had a lot of thick sea ice in the Arctic. Now it’s mostly thinner, first-year ice, so the snow we’re going to see on top is going to be different than what was there before.”
Supporting the measurements for ICESat-2 satellite
NASA’s upcoming Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) will be using laser beams to measure the elevation of sea ice floating on the ocean, and these measurements can be used to infer the thickness of the sea ice. But unless we know how thick the snow covering the ice is, the sea ice thickness data will be inaccurate.
Large volumes of data on Arctic sea and land ice has collected by NASA over the last nine years. There have also been some scientific discoveries, including the first map showing what parts of the bottom of the massive Greenland Ice Sheet are thawed, to improvements in snowfall accumulation models for all of Greenland.
To aid in supporting ICESat-2's measurements, NASA's P-3 Orion is outfitted with some high-tech instrumentation this year, including a scanning laser altimeter that measures surface elevation, three types of radar systems to study ice layers and the bedrock underneath the ice sheet, a high-resolution camera to create color maps of polar ice, and infrared cameras to measure surface temperatures of sea and land ice.
With the launch of CryoSat-2  ESA s so-called Ice Mission  data of unprecedented precision is now av...
With the launch of CryoSat-2, ESA's so-called Ice Mission, data of unprecedented precision is now available on the rate of sea and land ice melting.
In addition to the instrument package, IceBridge will also deploy three other experimental instruments that will be tested during the research flights. NASA is also collaborating with CRYOVEX, a campaign dedicated to validating data gathered by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) CryoSat-2 satellite.
So this year's mission should give us some interesting data on the Arctic region and the extent of the sea ice as the climate continues to warm, as well as some spectacular images.
More about NASA, operation icebridge, Arctic survey, eurasian sector, aerial survey