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Wings Over Antarctica: Breathtaking Photos from NASA's IceBridge Survey

Operation IceBridge is a NASA program tasked with tracking changes in polar ice.
November 14, 2011, 8:08pm

Operation IceBridge is a NASA program tasked with tracking changes in polar ice. The six-year program, started in 2008, is using aerial surveying to measure shrinkage and movement changes of glaciers crucial to sea level change projections.

The operation was spurred by a gap in NASA satellite coverage. The agency’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) was launched in 2003 but stopped collecting science data in 2009. Its successor, ICESat-2, won’t be launched until 2016. That seven year gap comes at a crucial period for climate change research as more emphasis is put on the measurable monetary effects that rising sea levels will have on the world’s oceanfront property.

IceBridge is continually developing advanced laser altimetry data over key locations in Antarctica. For example, IceBridge has been able to compare current data from that of ICESat to show that the massive Pine Island Glacier is deteriorating at a pace that accelerated heavily around 2006. In 2005, the glacier lost about 7 gigatons of freshwater mass a year. In 2010, that rate had increased to 46 gigatons a year. In comparison, Chesapeake Bay contains about 70 gigatons of water in total.

Right now IceBridge is flying its trusty DC-8 on a lengthy stretch of aerial surveys and tweeting the results. As an added bonus, IceBridge’s plane is being tracked in real time (just scroll down to Antarctica). In support of sharing the fruits of research through social media, I’ve pulled some of the coolest photos from @NASA_ICE’s feed.

Pine Island Glacier

This photo shows the tip of the brand new crack in the Pine Island Glacier.

Thwaites Glacier Rift

Here’s another shot of the quickly-spreading crack splitting through the Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers. Photos like this highlight the flexibility and precision of performing targeted aerial surveys.

Pine Island Glacier Calving

Using laser telemetry, IceBridge has been able to measure, in detail, the breaking away, or calving, of a fresh iceberg off of the Pine Island Glacier. The new iceberg may span as much as 310 square miles. NASA had previously predicted that Pine Island would soon have a major calving event (the last took place in 2001), but IceBridge was able to confirm the forming crack and measure it in detail.

Recovery Glacier

The Douglas DC-8 used by NASA is a workhorse throwback to the early days of commercial jet liners. It was in production from 1958 to 1972, with seven variants developed over the span of its production lifetime. As old as they are, they make for great cargo planes and many DC-8 airframes are still in service, albeit with more modern engines in most cases.

Mount Murphy

Mount Murphy is an 8,875 foot shield volcano photographed as IceBridge flew over Antarctica’s Crosson Ice Shelf. It’s named after Robert Cushman Murphy, an expert on Antarctic wildlife at the American Museum of Natural History.

Shackleton Range

Another look at those uprated DC-8 engines for all of the aviation geeks out there. In the background is the Shackleton Range. The nearly 100 mile-long range peaks at just over 6,100 feet and traces a line between the Slessor and Recovery glaciers.

Wilkins Ice Shelf

IceBridge cruised over the Wilkins Ice Shelf in late October. The flight took the team over Alexander Island, a 19,000 square mile island in the Bellingshausen Sea. Alexander Island is claimed by the British, and oddly enough is the largest overseas island still under British possession.

Coats Land

This snap of the Shackleton Range was taken during a flight over Coats Land, which butts up against the Weddell Sea.

Marie Byrd Land

Photos like this really remind you that Antarctica is nothing but ice. This was shot in Marie Byrd Land in West Antarctica. Even by Antarctic standard, Marie Byrd Land is so far in the middle of nowhere that it’s yet to be claimed by a sovereign nation.

Amundsen Sea

Also from late October, this was taken during a nearly twelve hour mission over the Bellingshausen and Amundsen Seas. The Amundsen lies off of Marie Byrd Land, bounded by the wonderfully-named Cape Flying Fish and Cape Dart. The sea pays homage to intrepid Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

Five Times Around Earth

IceBridge has logged a total of 300 flight research hours in 2011, split between its DC-8 workhorse and Gulfstream V. That’s a total of 210,000km, or five trips around Earth.