SCIENCE:

Government shutdown would put Arctic study on ice

A federal government shutdown would cut short a key NASA field campaign to monitor Arctic ice.

For the past three weeks, NASA researchers and crew have been surveying Arctic land and sea ice using specially equipped aircraft. The work is part of a larger project, "Operation IceBridge," designed to fill a gap between NASA's now-defunct ICESat satellite and its replacement, which isn't scheduled to launch until 2016.

But now it appears that stopgap effort would itself grind to a halt if Congress and President Obama cannot agree on a new budget before the measure now funding federal operations expires on April 8.

"ALL NASA IceBridge personnel now in Greenland would return home if there is a government shutdown," agency spokesman Steve Cole said in an email yesterday.

That means sending NASA's P-3B research plane back to the Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's eastern shore. The space agency's King Air plane would return to its home at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

IceBridge scientists said they're concerned that even a brief shutdown would end this year's Arctic field campaign, which is scheduled to proceed through mid-May.

"The question is whether it would be restarted," said Ken Jezek, a geophysicist at Ohio State University and the Science Definition Team co-leader for the NASA research effort.

Going back isn't guaranteed

Reassembling IceBridge scientists, planes and crew in Greenland would be "a pretty big production," he said. "It takes several flights just for delivering people and cargo."

It's doubtful that NASA -- which, like the rest of the federal government, has operated under a series of temporary funding measures since October -- would be able to find the cash to pay for those flights.

That would ax the second half of this year's IceBridge field campaign in the Arctic, which is designed to monitor Greenland's massive ice sheet, small ice caps in the Canadian archipelago and glaciers in Alaska.

The measurements in Greenland are key, Jezek said, because they will help scientists tie together measurements taken by NASA's defunct ICESat, which stopped gathering data in 2009, with data now collected by a European probe called Cryosat -- and eventually by NASA's ICESat-2.

The NASA research planes flown during the IceBridge campaign will also collect measurements that satellites can't, including observations of the seafloor topography below ice-covered waters around Greenland and of the thickness of the Greenland ice sheet.

Researchers also hope to fly over areas surveyed during separate expeditions in the 1950s and 1980s that measured the elevation of Greenland's ice sheet -- helping them better understand how much ice has been lost in recent decades.

"This will probably be the first time that all three of the historical survey lines have been resurveyed in the same epoch," Jezek said.

But just three weeks into this year's Arctic campaign, IceBridge has already collected key some key data that will improve scientists' understanding of how climate change is transforming polar ice.

Missions help lessen uncertainty of ice measurements

Flying NASA's P-3B research plane, researchers traveled across the Arctic basin from Thule, Greenland, to Fairbanks, Alaska -- and back again -- to measure the condition of sea ice.

"One of the high-priority flights that we've had this year in Operation IceBridge is to fly all the way across the [Arctic] basin to look at thicker ice and thinner ice, and how that's developing over time," said Jackie Richter-Menge, a sea ice expert at the Army Corps of Engineers' Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H., and co-leader of the Operation IceBridge science team.

Over the past several years, the proportion of older, thicker Arctic sea ice has fallen, leaving polar waters dominated by thinner ice that forms in the fall and melts in the summer. That thinner ice is more vulnerable to rising temperatures, sunny days and ocean circulation patterns that can shove blocks of ice toward the warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean. When ice melts, it opens wide patches of dark Arctic Ocean waters that absorb more heat than the reflective ice it replaces. That accelerates Arctic warming.

This year, the IceBridge team coordinated its flights with the Navy's annual Arctic exercise, known as ICEX. That allowed the NASA effort's scientists to collect data from the air in the same areas surveyed by Navy ships and submarines from the ground.

That helps scientists gauge the accuracy of the plane-based measurements of ice thickness and snow depth, Richter-Menge said.

"We want to get the level of uncertainty in those measurements as low as we can," she said.

Click here to view NASA's Operation IceBridge website.

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