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October 9, 2009

Measuring Antarctic Ice

Research: NASA is set to launch mission to track changes in South Pole ice shelves, glaciers, and sheets

Elizabeth K. Wilson

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Operation Ice Bridge will monitor Antarctica’s ice shelves, including the Larsen ice shelf at the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula, shown collapsing between Jan. 31 and March 7, 2002. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
CRUMBLING Operation Ice Bridge will monitor Antarctica's ice shelves, including the Larsen ice shelf at the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula, shown collapsing between Jan. 31 and March 7, 2002.

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The National Aeronautics & Space Administration is set to deploy an instrument-laden aircraft from Punta Arenas, Chile, on Oct. 15 to monitor changes in the Antarctic's complex system of ice shelves, glaciers, and sheets.

The program, called Operation Ice Bridge, fills what would have been a critical observational gap in this region, as the agency's ICESat-1 satellite program ends this year, and the next-generation satellite, ICESat-2, won’t be launched until 2014 or 2015.

Scientists have known since the 1990s that ice mass loss in Greenland is increasing by 7% per year. However, "there is not a comparable number for Antarctica," noted Seelye Martin, Operation Ice Bridge chief scientist and geological sciences professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, at a press conference.

The inexorable ice melting and collapsing that is now occurring at Earth's polar regions could lead to global sea-level rises, which could have catastrophic consequences, particularly for coastal regions. Operation Ice Bridge will use NASA's DC-8 airplane, loaded with two sets of lasers and instruments for measuring snow and ice depth and gravity changes. It will also include atmospheric experiments.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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