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NASA’s Operation IceBridge completes one of its most successful Antarctic deployments to date

The northernmost Antarctic Peninsula, viewed from the northeast aboard the IceBridge research aircraft. Photo: NASA/John Sonntag

Operation IceBridge, NASA’s project to use aircraft to survey changes in polar ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, is about to finish its eighth consecutive Antarctic deployment, and it’s looking like the 2016 season will be its most successful to date.


During its six weeks of operations from its base in Punta Arenas, on the southernmost tip of Chile, the 2016 IceBridge deployment has completed an impressive total of 24 flights over Antarctica, with the research team flying a total of 308 hours.


"This campaign was possibly the best Antarctic campaign IceBridge has ever had,” said John Sonntag, IceBridge mission scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. "We flew as many flights as we did in our best prior campaigns down here, and we certainly got more science return out of each flight than we have before, due to steadily improving instrumentation and also to some exceptionally good weather in the Weddell Sea that favoured our sea ice flights."




Sea ice loss particularly swift this year

As Antarctica heads into its austral summer, a period of rapid sea ice melt in the Southern Ocean. But this year the sea ice loss has been particularly swift and the Antarctic sea ice extent is currently at the lowest level for this time of year ever recorded in the satellite record, which began in 1979.

"We flew over the Bellingshausen Sea many times during this campaign and saw that areas that are typically covered by sea ice were just open water this year,” said IceBridge researcher Nathan Kurtz. "It is a reminder that it is important that we continue the time series of IceBridge measurements in the area so that we can measure both changes in sea ice extent and in sea ice thickness to assess the future trajectory of the ice pack and its impact on the climate.”


What is IceBridge?

NASA’s Operation IceBridge is the largest airborne survey of Earth's polar ice ever flown. It is designed to help scientists bridge the gap in polar observations between NASA's Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), which has been in orbit since 2003 and stopped collecting science data in 2009, and the ICESat-2 satellite, which is currently planned for 2018.

Using a fleet of specially designed airborne laboratories, the IceBridge project will seek to build an unprecedented three-dimensional view of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, ice shelves and sea ice. IceBridge flights provide a yearly, multi-instrument look at the behaviour of the rapidly changing Greenland and Antarctic ice.

Data collected during IceBridge will ICESat, making IceBridge critical for ensuring a continuous series of observations.

IceBridge expanded its reach this year, covering a vast swath of Antarctica – from the Ruppert Coast in West Antarctica to Recovery Glacier in the eastern half of the continent, plus the Weddell and Bellingshausen seas. It also flew over the South Pole for the first time this year, an area rarely measured, as satellites don’t fly over it. 

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