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Heat Wav: Ice


Polar field engineer Aaron Wells and NASA mission scientist John Sonntag talk with Science Node writer Ellen Glover about collecting data on polar ice caps, what that means for global sea levels, and what it’s like living in Antarctica.

Ellen Glover Hello and welcome to Science Node podcast, an audio series that explores the ways big data and high performance computing are changing the world. Megabytes, gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes of data are being collected every day by researchers everywhere. In this podcast we break that down. We’re looking not only at the latest scientific discoveries, but the multi-billion dollar industry that’s backing them up. Literally. One of the hottest areas of research right now is climate change. Rising oceans, rising temperatures, rising piles of garbage...we’re covering it all in this four-part series. Welcome to the Heat Wav.

Ellen Glover I hope you bundled up for our first segment, though, because we’re going to Antarctica with Aaron Wells, a polar field engineer with Indiana University’s UITS Research Technologies. He spent weeks on our southern-most continent living at the American base, McMurdo, and a field camp in West Antarctica.

Aaron Wells If you can imagine a large flat plain that just extends past the horizon into infinity. That’s what my mornings...like when I would wake up and climb out of my tent and look out into the horizon, that’s all you could see, was just this large, white, flat plain. Then behind me I had some mountains, so that was nice. And I went during the summer when it was 24-hour sun, so the sun stayed above the horizon. It would just go around in a circle above your head. 

Ellen Glover Wells was in Antarctica to study the ice there. For the last nine years, IU and the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at the University of Kansas have worked with Operation IceBridge, NASA’s longest-running airborne mission, to collect data about the polar ice caps. John Sonntag, a mission scientist with IceBridge, helps the project scientists make the day to day decisions.

John Sonntag Where we’re going to fly, what we’re going to fly...

Ellen Glover The mission is basically acting as a bridge between ICESat Mission 1, which ended back in 2009 and ICESat Mission 2, which launched September 15. Both missions use laser beams to calculate the height of glaciers, sea ice and the changing ice sheets from Greenland to Antarctica.

John Sonntag So our purpose is to fill the gap in measurements between the two space...crafts.

Ellen Glover Researchers do this by collecting various datasets, primarily laser altimetry.

John Sonntag And what that is, is basically laser ranging measurements between the air craft and the ice surface combined with the measurements of the aircraft’s position and orientation. You can put that together to build up very precise and very detailed topographic maps of a swath of ice surface beneath the aircraft. The primary importance is that we go back a year later or two years or five years later and measure that same swath of ice. By doing that, over large grids over Greenland and Antarctica and elsewhere, we’re able to determine the change in ice volume that’s resulted from whatever climate process has happened or occurred in the years. At the same time, we’re taking measurements of not only the ice surface but really the entire column of ice, all the way down to bedrock.

Ellen Glover They do this with tools like photographic cameras... 

John Sonntag ...Infrared cameras...

Ellen Glover Hyper spectral sensors....

John Sonntag ...and also a very powerful, state of the art series of radars that penetrate the ice. The radars tell us a great deal about the depth of the bedrock beneath the ice, the thickness of the ice and also the internal structure of the ice. And what it does is that allows scientists to take the data that we’re collecting on how the ice is changing and put it into context, to understand why the changes are occurring, how they’re related to other parts of the earth – such as oceans and sea level – and to try to tell a coherent story based on the amalgamation of that data.

Ellen Glover Researchers collect all this data while flying in a plane, specifically a four-engine Orion P-3.

Aaron Wells It’s meant to go low and slow over a long distance, which is exactly what we need. We need to go fairly slow, in airplane terms. And then also we need to go a large distance.

John Sonntag We’re flying along, usually about 250 knots, that’s 300 miles per hour over the ice surface. We’re flying at low altitude, usually about 1500 feet above the earth’s surface, that’s 1/20 of what a commercial airline will fly getting from point A to point B. The reason we fly so low is we can see a lot of detail of the surface of the ice and its internal structure and the bedrock beneath.

Ellen Glover The radars on the aircraft have been specifically designed to collect lots of data at a very high rate and with a lot of detail. That’s a lot of data.

Aaron Wells We’re averaging around 8 terabytes a day.

Ellen Glover I mean a lot of data.

John Sonntag 8 terabytes is a heck of a lot of data.

Aaron Wells I can’t even tell you how many ultra, high-def movies that is.

John Sonntag In some of our missions we’ll collect 40 days like that of data in a given field campaign. So it’s a great deal of data. And that’s raw data that. That’s raw data that comes through these radars, or electronic echoes, if you will. They send a pulse of electronic energy that reflects off the ice surface, the internal layers of the ice and the bedrock beneath. And those are very complicated, very information-rich signals.

Ellen Glover This where Indiana University comes in. This mountain of data needs to be stored quickly and efficiently. So researchers use the Forward Observer supercomputer, which is situated in the plane as it flies over these ice sheets. Developed by Indiana University for data collection, it gathers the terabytes of data in real time and makes multiple copies of the information. Wells is the one who is monitoring the data collection.

Aaron Wells So they’re able to collect data while we’re in the plane, while its flying over Greenland and Antarctica. Collect data, record it, process the data in real time and also store it securely on our systems. Which then, after each campaign season, we take it back to the states, take it back to Indiana, and load it on our supercomputing resources. 

John Sonntag When you’re flying along at 300 miles per hour, we want to collect as much detail as possible so the radars are built to do that, to collect data at a very, very high rate and a lot of detail. That takes a supercomputer to handle and adjust and record all the data. 

Ellen Glover And after nearly a decade, researchers have learned a lot about how climate change is affecting these ice sheets. As you can probably imagine, it’s not good news.

John Sonntag At the risk of over-simplifying, specifically we’re seeing a great deal of thinning of ice both in Greenland and Antarctica around the edges. So near where the ice meets the ocean. And a little bit of thickening often takes place at higher elevations of those ice sheets. Unfortunately, the thickening we’re seeing at higher elevations is quite small and is coming nowhere near balancing out the thinning we’re seeing at lower elevations That’s particularly in Greenland, it’s a little bit more debatable in Antarctica at the moment. But basically, certainly in the case of Greenland, what we have seen is a net-loss of ice from Greenland and probably Antarctica as well. And what that means is sea-level is rising as a result because that ice has to go somewhere so it goes into the ocean.

Ellen Glover Much of the world lives on the coasts, adjacent to these steadily rising oceans. According to the National Ocean Service, sea levels have continued to rise by about an eighth of an inch a year. This means potentially deadly and destructive storms pushing further inland and an increased risk of flooding in our coastal cities. 

John Sonntag We’re already seeing that, to some degree, even in the United States in places like New Jersey where people in coastal communities are getting to see their insurance rates go up. In a few cases, it’s been documented, that people are even beginning to leave communities like that because the financial viability of maintaining a property very close to sea level in certain places in the United States and elsewhere is becoming less attractive. So that’s NASA’s interest is to understand and quantify what’s going to happen and what is happening to sea levels and what’s likely to happen to it in the next hundred years or so.

Ellen Glover Unfortunately, in order to do the important work these scientists are doing, they need to also contribute to climate change. These planes will travel for 300 hours sometimes, that’s a lot of fuel. And these supercomputers that are storing the data need massive amounts of power to do their job effectively.

John Sonntag But you have to compare that to tens of thousands of commercial flights around the world every day. We do that, maybe 5, 600 hours per year but there are thousands and thousands and thousands of commercial flights every day that burn far, far, far more fuel. You know we’re barely a drop in the bucket compared to what the rest of the world is burning. That’s currently the best tool that we have to do it, that and space craft. And so, what is our choice? Our choices are to ignore the problem, basically, or to burn a little extra fuel and go study it. So that’s what we’ve done.

Ellen Glover It’s enough to keep you up at night, right? Tune in next episode to find out how one researcher found that the state of the world’s poles isn’t the only thing that makes us toss and turn...It’s also the heat. This episode of Heat Wav was brought to you by Science Node, an online magazine developed in collaboration with organizations in both the US and Europe to bring information exploring the real-world impact of advanced computing and networks to experts and non-experts alike. Our featured sponsor today was Indiana University. For more information about the project discussed today, visit IceBridge’s page on NASA.gov – direct link will be on the website. You can learn all about the missions and even track their live airborne flights. I’m your host, Ellen Glover. See you next time.

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Music credits: "Memory" by Creo; "Maree" by Kai Engel; "Bubble" by Nctrnm; "Tired thoughts" by Ketsa; "Affairs of State" by Shaolin Dub; "Sullen Faced" by Ketsa.

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