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These Stunning 3D Images Reveal How a Massive Greenland Glacier Has Changed

Firing laser pulses

Greenland’s massive Helheim Glacier changes

(Image credit: Jefferson Beck/NASA Goddard)

With laser altimetry, laser instruments on board the research aircraft fire several thousand pulses of light every second. The results reveal the height of the surface below.

Spinning swath

Greenland’s massive Helheim Glacier changes

(Image credit: Jefferson Beck/NASA Goddard)

The lasers spin in a circle that's 820 feet (250 meters) across, which provides a swath of data that an be transformed into a topographic map of the ice, NASA said.

Elevation changes

Greenland’s massive Helheim Glacier changes

(Image credit: Jefferson Beck/NASA Goddard)

Here, higher elevations on the glacier are shown in red and orange, while lower elevations are in green and blue.

1998 calving event

Greenland’s massive Helheim Glacier changes

(Image credit: Jefferson Beck/NASA Goddard)

The laser altimeters showed height measurements all the way down to the Helheim Glacier's calving front, where icebergs break off into the sea.

Icebergs break off

Greenland’s massive Helheim Glacier changes

(Image credit: Jefferson Beck/NASA Goddard)

Here's a 1998 swath compared with one from 2013. In this image, the color scale is changed to show the local differences in elevation, according to NASA.

Retreat

Greenland’s massive Helheim Glacier changes

(Image credit: Jefferson Beck/NASA Goddard)

The 2013 swath from the laser altimeters reveals that the calving front retreated significantly since 1998, by 2.5 miles (4 kilometers), according to the NASA video.

Gorgeous mosaic

Greenland’s massive Helheim Glacier changes

(Image credit: Jefferson Beck/NASA Goddard)

NASA's Operation IceBridge mission has also used a high-resolution camera system to take overlapping images of the ice of Helheim Glacier throughout its 8-hour flights. These images can then be pieced together into a mosaic.

Stereoscopic view

Greenland’s massive Helheim Glacier changes

(Image credit: Jefferson Beck/NASA Goddard)

Because the images overlap, they can provide scientists with a stereoscopic view of the ice and even elevation measurements. The NASA scientists overlaid the elevation information from the images on top of the measurements from the laser altimetry.

Steep calving front

Greenland’s massive Helheim Glacier changes

(Image credit: Jefferson Beck/NASA Goddard)

Helheim's calving front, which is 70 feet (21 meters) high, can be seen here.

Springtime flights

Greenland’s massive Helheim Glacier changes

(Image credit: Jefferson Beck/NASA Goddard)

Until the launch of a new NASA satellite called ICESat-2, the Operation IceBridge mission will return to Greenland every spring to continue monitoring the glacier, NASA said.