University of Kansas and Indiana University team up for NASA Operation IceBridge


By Vicky Diaz-Camacho & Elise Reuter
Winter 2014

A group of researchers from the University of Kansas and Indiana University teamed up Feb. 24 for an Operation IceBridge deployment on a NASA aircraft to research and run surveys in Greenland.

Field Director Carl Leuschen, out of KU, said the project is an airborne mission to fill in the gap of measurements between ICESat-I and ICESat-II. From Feb. 24 through 26, three KU and two IU personnel installed equipment at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility (WFF) in Virginia. From March 6 through 7, the project was supported by four KU personnel and one IU personnel.  

“IU and KU perform two different sets of tasks during a field deployment, both of which are very important to ensuring we collect and back up the best set of data as possible,” Leuschen said.

CReSIS has developed four radar systems that are used to obtain this information: the MCoRDS Radar Depth Sounder/Imager, the Accumulation Radar system, the Snow Radar system and the Ku-Band Altimeter system. Each radar system serves a unique purpose, but they all have the same basic function. The instruments are mounted on a NASA P-3 aircraft and flown over Greenland, Alaska and Canada.

The radar sends out an electromagnetic pulse, which reflects off of the surface of the glaciers and sea ice below. These reflections are mapped based on the time it takes for each signal to return, producing two-dimensional images of the ice sheet, called echograms.

While these maps help show the thickness of an ice sheet, determining the substance of each layer is another matter.

“Those are things we interpret based on prior knowledge and the context of what we know should be there,” Leuschen said. “We’re trying to develop instruments that will provide us more information on stuff like that, so wider bandwidths.”

So far, two interesting observations from the mission are the folding of ice layers at the base of the Greenland Ice Sheet and shallow melt ponds seen at the surface. While folding at the base of the ice sheet makes the layers difficult to date, radar measurements taken during the mission help researchers interpret what they’re seeing.

Leuschen said the shallow ponds of water at the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet, covered in a layer of ice, were interesting because “it looks like these ponds have survived the winter without freezing.”
He said the community is interested is how thick the ice is and what the interface looks like between the ice and the bedrock.

The team plans to share the data after the mission concludes in May. They will post it to the CReSIS website within six months of deployment so the community can use the information and draw their own conclusions.

Leuschen said this research might be particularly useful to ice sheet modelers by helping them predict where the ice sheets will shift with the changes in the climate. He said they can use the data bedrock topography and snow accumulation rates in their models. CReSIS has worked with NASA on Operation IceBridge missions since spring 2009. Leuschen said that the missions have changed little since IceBridge’s conception.

“For the last few years, we have had the same number of instruments, the same time frame and the same number of flights,” Leuschen said. “One of the instruments they have on there is a laser altimeter, with which they’re looking for changes in surface height, so they go fly the same lines each year. With other parts, we’re trying to systematically map out Greenland, so in that case we would fly different lines just to get more information.”

Although Leuschen has returned from the mission, four other CReSIS researchers are still in the field, conducting flights from Thule Air Base in Greenland. Two graduate research assistants, Daniel Gomez-Garcia and Calen Carabajal, are scheduled to leave later this month.

All of the researchers will return on May 26, when the equipment is shipped back to the United States.