Every year, NASA’s Operation Icebridge plumbs the wonders and woes of the ice at both poles, and 2017 is no different. Icebridge’s Antarctic field mission kicked off about a month ago, and satellites and planes are hard at work monitoring glaciers, ice sheets, and sea ice.
The purpose of the project, which kicked off in 2009, is to take airborne measurements of land and sea ice that document any changes and hellp improve climate change projections. The researchers use specially outfitted planes with radar, laser altimeters, and other tools that allow them to monitor the ice and the bedrock it sits on in intimate detail. While the satellites can monitor the poles year-round, scientists are only able to fly during the short summer season. Scientists flew over Greenland from August-September this year, and returned to Antarctica right before Halloween.
The observations come at a time of cryospheric crisis. This year’s Icebridge mission over the Antarctic involves two planes flying over some of the world’s most vulnerable glaciers in West Antarctica as well as the Larsen C ice shelf, which calved a massive iceberg earlier this year.
Glaciers in West Antarctica are potentially entering a state of unstoppable retreat due to rising temperatures. Cutting edge (but still controversial) research suggests they could collapse in our lifetimes, sending sea levels spiral up to 10 feet higher. On the Antarctic Peninsula, the Larsen C iceberg calved a Delaware-sized chunk of ice this summer (though its sea level rise contribution is much smaller, so phew).
The rapid changes add a layer of urgency to the work of NASA scientists. But these researchers have still found time to take pictures that bear witness to the beauty we stand to lose.
The pictures are helpful references for scientists to mull over, in addition to all the other data coming from high-tech instruments on the flight. But to average person, they border on art. They’re portraits of a jagged and unforgiving landscape the vast majority of us will never see unless it turns to water and ends up on our shores.
Here are a few of our favorite photos from the most recent campaign.