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NASA begins final year of airborne polar ice mission

USA: This is the last year for Operation IceBridge, NASA’s most comprehensive airborne survey of ice change. Since the launch of its first Arctic campaign in spring 2009, IceBridge has enabled discoveries ranging from water aquifers hidden within snow in southeast Greenland, to the first map indicating where the base of the massive Greenland Ice Sheet is thawed, to detailed depictions of the evolving Arctic sea ice cover and the thickness of the overlying snow.

Now, for the first time since its inaugural flights a decade ago, while IceBridge is mapping Greenland’s ice from the air, one of NASA’s newest satellite missions, the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2), is simultaneously mapping that ice from space.

The underflights of the new satellite in the Arctic will accomplish one of the final objectives of this airborne mission, which was designed to avoid a gap in measurements between the ICESat satellite mission that operated between 2003 and 2009, and its successor, ICESat-2, which launched last year.

“We’re finally connecting the different sets of measurements of ice elevation in the northern hemisphere – we’re completing the bridge,” said Joe MacGregor, IceBridge’s project scientist and a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

On April 3, the IceBridge team carried out the first flight of its spring campaign with a survey of land ice over Devon Island, Canada. These research flights will continue until May 15 and add to IceBridge’s wealth of measurements of fast-changing areas of the Greenland Ice Sheet and sea ice across the western basin of the Arctic Ocean.

The IceBridge 2019 springtime flights use NASA Wallops Flight Facility’s P-3 Orion aircraft. The plane carries a comprehensive instrument suite: two laser altimeters that measure ice surface elevation, two radar systems to study snow layers and the bedrock underneath the ice sheet, a high-resolution camera that generates georeferenced images of polar ice, a hyperspectral imager that records the brightness of the surface across a wide spectral range, and an infrared camera to measure the surface temperature of ice.

This spring, to better align its objectives with ICESat-2, IceBridge will base all flights from Greenland and forego basing in Fairbanks, Alaska, a standard part of Arctic operations in years past.

During this 6-week campaign, IceBridge expects to complete about 24 flights in total, 11 of which are of the highest priority and are repeated every year to gauge annual changes in elevation of land and sea ice. This year, following the launch of ICESat-2, IceBridge will not only attempt a few new targets but many of the longest-running surveys have also been tweaked to underfly the satellite directly wherever possible.