Eighty percent of Greenland is covered by an ice sheet and since 2003 the country has been experiencing a net loss of 200 billion tons of ice a year.
Our crew had the good fortune to join the expedition to the southeastern glaciers of Greenland, which was hailed as one of the most picturesque of all the planned courses. The weather was calculated to be fair over that area, despite having been highly unsteady in previous missions because of the rugged geology. A scientist I talked to after the weather briefing described the inside of the plane after traversing this route last year as looking as if a tornado had ripped through the fuselage.
Since 2009, NASA has been conducting low-flying airborne missions to measure changes to the Arctic sea ice and track the rapidly melting glaciers.
The team flies a P-3 aircraft, originally designed by the US navy as an anti-submarine aircraft, which has been modified by NASA's scientists and glaciologists, and carries instruments including four different radar systems to map and collect data.
"It's the perfect airplane for this mission for many reasons," explains John Sonntag, a NASA senior scientist. "It was meant to travel long distances, over big oceans, at low altitude, and bounce around in the turbulence just like we do up here in Greenland."
NASA's interest in ice sheets, explains Sonntag, comes down to protecting coastal communities given that a significant population in not just the US but worldwide inhabits coastal areas.
Sonntag says that even a modest rise in sea level over one or two hundred years would have a dramatic impact on humankind, and that tracking the rapid changes in Greenland is paramount to understanding climate change.
"Greenland being one of the world's primary ice masses acts as buffer on climate. They [the ice masses] absorb energy that would otherwise go into the large climate and warm things up more. As they start getting smaller, the potential impact to climate in Africa or in Papua New Guinea or in the United States begins to get potentially amplified," says Sonntag.
In this episode of Techknow, we join contributor Shini Somara, a mechanical engineer, who gets a rare, extended insight into at NASA's Operation IceBridge research station in Greenland. She embeds with the NASA team at their remote field base and joins a flight to learn more about their missions.
Source: Al Jazeera