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NASA's IceBridge Mission Braves the Arctic

Thule station, Greenland, Icebridge 2013
Thule, Greenland, from the IceBridge P3-B research plane (Image credit: @NASA_Airborne)

After a brief winter vacation, NASA's polar ice surveyors are back in business. 

The 2013 IceBridge Arctic campaign plans to fly its first science flight tomorrow (March 20) from Thule, Greenland. The mission is a continuation of several years of effort to record changes in glacial and sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic after the ICEsat satellite stopped collecting data in 2009. A replacement satellite, ICEsat-2, is scheduled for launch in 2016. IceBridge, as its name suggests, is filling in the gap.

"The main goal is to build a long time series that documents the changes in thickness and snow cover of the Artic sea ice and changes in the glaciers and ice sheets of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic," project scientist Michael Studinger said in an email interview.

The IceBridge team was greeted with a surprise when they landed in Greenland this week, Studinger told OurAmazingPlanet. "When we arrived in Thule, temperatures were over 40 degrees Fahrenheit [4.4 degrees Celsius], which is unusually warm. Temperatures in mid-March are typically around minus 20 to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit [minus 29 to minus 32 C], much colder. I saw meltwater on the sea ice yesterday before landing, which is very unusual that time of the year. We will see how this impacts our radar measurements," he said.

From NASA's P3-B research plane, scientists will measure the elevation and thickness of sea ice, as well as snow depth. A variety of radar, gravity and other instruments examines the ice from the surface to the bedrock or seafloor. Laser altimeters record changes in ice elevation.

The daily flights from Thule and Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, will help scientists track rapidly changing glaciers, such as the Jakobshavn Glacier in western Greenland, and Arctic sea ice, which reached a record minimum in September 2012, according to a NASA statement. As in previous years, IceBridge researchers plan to fly to Fairbanks, Alaska, and back, to measure sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Data on sea ice thickness, which provides initial ice conditions for seasonal Arctic sea ice forecasts, will be released at the end of the campaign in May, NASA said.

Email Becky Oskin or follow her @beckyoskin. Follow us @OAPlanet, Facebook or Google+. Original article on LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet.

Becky Oskin
Becky Oskin covers Earth science, climate change and space, as well as general science topics. Becky was a science reporter at Live Science and The Pasadena Star-News; she has freelanced for New Scientist and the American Institute of Physics. She earned a master's degree in geology from Caltech, a bachelor's degree from Washington State University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.