A view over our changing poles

Nature and Environment

Mapping the ice

Operation IceBridge studies the processes that link the polar regions with the Earth's climate system. Rapidly changing polar ice means researchers need to use highly sophisticated airborne technology to measure annual changes in thickness and movement - onboard a retrofitted 1966 Lockheed P-3 aircraft.

Nature and Environment

Ready for takeoff

It's all part of a six-year project under NASA's Cryosphere Program, in which researchers are carrying out a series of eight-hour flights over Greenland (from March to May) and Antarctica (October to November) in order to accurately model a three-dimensional view of ice sheets, ice shelves and sea ice.

Nature and Environment

Ice meets cloud

In 2003, NASA launched a satellite called ICESat (Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite) for the purpose of monitoring changes in polar ice. However, it suddenly stopped collecting data in 2009. With ICESat-II not expected to be ready for launch until 2018, researchers needed to somehow bridge the nine-year data gap between the two satellites.

Nature and Environment

Keeping an eye on things

Enter operation IceBridge, which has been keeping a close eye on the polar ice - as well as its cute inhabitants - while ICESat-II is prepped for launch next year. Or is the hare rather watching over these strange bipeds?

Nature and Environment

Climate change in action

The data collected during these missions is critical for researchers in predicting the effects climate change is already having on the polar ice, including a rise in sea levels. According to NASA scientists, on March 7, 2017, sea ice in the Arctic reached the lowest maximum wintertime extent ever recorded.

Nature and Environment

Seeing past the surface

A glacier is visible through mist above Ellesmere Island. Operation IceBridge allows scientists gather valuable data by using special ice-penetrating radar, which only functions properly when used in lower altitudes.

Nature and Environment

Melting landscape

Scientists have long warned that the Arctic Circle will be one of the regions hit hardest by climate change - and effects are already becoming evident. The darker the color, the thinner the ice.

Nature and Environment

Rugged terrain

Once ICESat-II is up and running, it will have the ability to take continuous measurements over a much wider area - unlike the current aircraft-based method, which is limited only to annual surveys.

Nature and Environment

Trapped icebergs

Icebergs are locked in sea ice, as seen from the research aircraft along the Upper Baffin Bay coast above Greenland. Aircraft-based research allows its human pilots to focus on specific areas of scientific interest, rather than simply conducting a flyover on a fixed path.

Nature and Environment

Ice on the retreat

As in Greenland, the ice fields of Ellesmere Island in Canada are also gradually retreating due to warming temperatures. The future of ICESat-II is now in question, as US President Donald Trump has pledged to strip funding for NASA's entire earth science program.

With its operation IceBridge, NASA is currently conducting research flights over the Arctic to monitor ice loss. The photos are spectacular - and worrisome.

In spring 2017, NASA is conducting its second-to-last operation IceBridge mission in the Arctic Circle, with the ultimate goal of better understanding the processes that connect the polar regions with the Earth's climate system.

Nature and Environment | 17.02.2017

The annual marathon scientific undertaking is part of NASA's Cryosphere Program, which uses state-of-the-art technology to monitor Earth's largest ice sheets - including the impacts of climate change.

In 2018, NASA plans to launch ICESat-II (the second Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite), which will take over the research project as it continues to map rapid changes in sea ice due to warming temperatures at the poles

That is, if US President Donald Trump doesn't slash NASA's earth science program, as he has pledged to do. Click through the gallery above for more.


Related content

Related Subjects