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Greenland is one of the few places that’s harder to get to than outer space

I’m going to Greenland. I told my brother, and he replied, “Oh cool, I’m headed to Ireland.” That’s the typical response, as if Greenland were just some place one could book a ticket to, with commercial airports, and hotels, and restaurants and stuff. But … no, Greenland is different. It’s actually not an independent country, for example. (It’s a territory of Denmark.)

The other response I keep getting is that dumb, corny comment about it not being green. So it seems like the only thing we collectively understand about Greenland is that it’s a place to go and it has a hypocritical name.

But that is just so wrong. My husband and I finally got on the same page this morning when he opened the Google Maps satellite view of Kangerlussauq Airport, where I’m scheduled to land. “Oh,” he said. “It’s a barren dirt strip in the middle of nowhere and nothing.”

At last, an acknowledgement of the truth. The only place that’s harder to get to than Greenland is outer space. I know that sounds funny, but I’m not even kidding. (Okay, okay, Antarctica is also hard to get to, along with the Marianas Trench. Ugh.)

I first became aware of how little we know about Greenland when I was creating NASA’s Global Ice Viewer for our climate website. I found shots from Alaskan glaciers that dated all the way back to the late 1800s for the gallery. Gents with top hats and ladies in bustles with Victorian cameras stood on the ice. But Greenland? Photos taken before the 1980s are extremely rare.

Muir Glacier, Alaska, disappears.
Muir Glacier, Alaska, disappears. Left image: 1891. Right image: 2005. Photographed by G.D. Hazard in 1891 and by Bruce F. Molnia in 2005. Courtesy of the Glacier Photograph Collection. Boulder, Colorado, US and the National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology.

And while most people understand that increased atmospheric temperatures have been melting the ice sheet from above, global warming has also been increasing ocean temperatures. And this means the ocean waters surrounding Greenland are also melting the ice sheet from around its edges.

Which is the reason I’m headed up there with NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) campaign in the first place: to measure the temperature and salinity of those unknown waters. See, the fresh water that flows into the ocean from ice melt is about 0 degrees and less dense, so it floats right at the sea surface. The North Atlantic Ocean Water is about 3 or 4 degrees, salty and denser, so it sits right below the fresh melt water. And these two waters don’t really mix much. When the 3- or 4-degree North Atlantic Ocean Water gets in contact with Greenland’s ice sheet, it’s warm enough to melt it.

But no one knows the melt rate yet. No one.

Even though Greenland’s melting ice sheet impacts each and every one of us right now. The rate of ice melt will determine how much sea level rise we’re going to get, 5 feet or 10 feet or 20, everywhere, all over planet Earth, not just in Greenland, but at coastlines near you and me.

This is where that whole NASA “exploring the unknown” theme comes in. Next week, the OMG team (including yours truly) will be in Greenland on NASA’s G-III aircraft. We’ll spend five weeks flying around the entire coastline, measuring the salinity and temperature of the coastal waters by dropping 250 Aircraft eXpendable Conductivity Temperature Depth (AXCTD) science probes through a hole in the bottom of the plane. The reason we’re going in September is that’s the warmest time of the year in the ocean, the ice will reach its lowest extent and we’ll be able to measure as much of the coast as possible. The plan is to repeat the same mission for five years to find out what the melt rate is and how much that rate is increasing.

Am I excited? Yes, beyond. Aside from the science preparation, it took months and months of personal prep. I passed a Federal Aviation Administration medical exam, then got trained in First Aid, CPR, AED, hypoxia, disorientation, survival, and hearing conservation, and then had to buy steel-toed shoes, which are required to fly on that NASA plane. Today, I am psyched beyond belief.

Underwater disorientation training in action.

Why else would anyone work so hard to do something? Just like the rest of the team, I hope our work really makes a difference.



One of NASA's modified G-III aircraft in the hangar at Armstrong Flight Research Center being prepped for a mission to study glaciers around Greenland.

Dr. Josh Willis oversees integration of the GLISTIN-A radar instrument to the belly of the aircraft.

We overlook Greenland ice loss at our own peril. It’s one of the largest contributors to accelerating sea level rise, and in the U.S. alone, nearly 5 million people live in 2.6 million homes at less than 4 feet above high tide. If you happen to be one of them, you should definitely pay attention to Greenland.   

Yes, yes, Greenland is melting. You already knew that…probably. And the giant flux of fresh water pouring out of the second largest ice sheet on the planet isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Greenland’s ice melt is actually accelerating. In the last decade alone, NASA’s twin GRACE satellites measured it gushing 2 trillion tons of ice like a fire hose pouring fresh water into the North Atlantic.

But it’s easier to focus on politics, celebrity gossip, reality TV and cat videos than on Earth’s climate. It seems like everyone’s all “Greenland? Who cares. Whatever. Next.” And that upsets me.

Is it really that easy to pretend the effects of global warming don’t exist?

We overlook Greenland ice loss at our own peril. It’s one of the largest contributors to accelerating sea level rise, and in the U.S. alone, nearly 5 million people live in 2.6 million homes at less than 4 feet above high tide. If you happen to be one of them, you should definitely pay attention to Greenland.   

Fortunately for all of us, NASA is paying attention to Greenland in a big way. We’re so concerned about the amount of ice loss that we’ve named a Greenland observing expedition Oceans Melting Greenland, or OMG for short, because that's the most appropriate response to the phenomenon.

This week, OMG heads up north on one of NASA’s G-III modified airplanes to continue a five-year mission that will look closely at how warming ocean water interacts with glaciers surrounding Greenland and melts them. The project began this past year by mapping undersea canyons via a ship equipped with an echo sounder. For this next part of the investigation, a radar instrument attached to the bottom of the G-III, called the Airborne Glacier and Land Ice Surface Topography Interferometer (GLISTIN-A), will be able to measure precisely how much the oceans are eating away at the edges of the ice on a glacier-by-glacier basis.

Instrument integration (a fancy word for attaching instruments to planes and making sure they work and don’t come loose) went down at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, and Principal Invesigator Dr. Josh Willis, Project Manager Steve Dinardo, Co-Investigator Dr. Ian Fenty and I headed there to check it out.

Glaciers on the edge 

As the technicians and engineers tweaked fistfuls of wires, we crawled in, under, through and around the aircraft. Then Dr. Ian Fenty (who helped design the flight plan) and I sat aboard our flying science lab and talked ice loss for a while. “We often find that a glacier that’s been retreating a lot might be in 1,000 feet of water,” he explained. “Whereas the glacier that’s not thinning very much is in water that’s only 100 or 200 feet deep.” That’s because the layers of ocean water around Greenland are in a very unique situation, where you have colder fresh glacier meltwater near the surface over salty ocean water that, due to climate change, has been warming. The water found at 600 feet and below is a relatively warm 4 degrees Celsius compared with the surface water, which is just near freezing at 0 degrees. This means that the “primary suspect” behind the acceleration of Greenland’s melting glaciers is the warming ocean waters that can get right up against the edge and interact with the glacier itself.

As the surface of lower elevation glaciers melts, the water percolates through the ice and forms giant subglacial channels, like a river system under the ice. If the ice running through these narrow rivers breaks off, the friction between the glacier and the substrate gets reduced a bit and literally stretches the ice so the glacier thins out. OMG’s GLISTIN-A radar is going to measure the height of the ice. “If we see a change in elevation from one year to the next, we can know how much ice is being lost and how much the movement of the glacier is speeding up.” Over the next five years OMG plans to go back to Greenland to look for more changes.

As I left the hangar and headed home, I thought about how Greenland is such a weird part of the world and how much I hope our society can put aside its troubles so we can work together to preserve it.

Find out more about Oceans Melting Greenland here.

Thank you for your comments.




Dr. Josh Willis

“The moment the satellite separated from the rocket got me feeling emotional,” Dr. Josh Willis, lead project scientist for the Jason-3 mission, told me. I imagined the satellite emerging from the nosecone of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and unfurling its solar panels 830 miles above where we were standing near the bar at the Jason-3 launch after-party. Seeing a NASA science dude with a crisp shirt, black suit jacket and—can you believe it—cufflinks was heartwarming. I recognized his dad, his wife, his in-laws nearby. My husband was there, too, along with most of our peers, all part of an odd little NASA ocean sciences extended family.

When Willis told me he “had affection” for the Jason-3 satellite, I felt relief; glad that I wasn’t the only one who’d been anthropomorphizing. He said that the French engineers from CNES, the French Space Agency, who were responsible for connecting the satellite to the rocket, had drawn a pair of eyes on the nitrogen storage bags used for sealing the satellite to prevent rust. “It looked like it was alive,” he said.

Unless you’re a total whack, your affection for flight hardware builds up over time. And Willis’ work with satellites that measure sea surface height goes back to TOPEX/Poseidon, the great granddaddy of ocean surface topography, which launched in 1992 when he was a graduate student. “Back then, the data was cool and interesting and was really accurate. It did what it was supposed to do, which was amazing to me.” TOPEX/Poseidon was originally designed as a 5-year mission to measure currents. “In the beginning, it wasn’t obvious that these satellites would measure climate change. It took years to ensure that the satellites were accurate enough to measure global sea level change, and, of course, now they’re the most important tool for measuring global warming.”

After 23 years of data, we’re continuing the series with the launch of Jason-3, the fourth member of the family. “That’s a huge triumph of science and engineering,” he explained. “NASA always wants to do new things, but for climate science, we really need to do the same thing over and over. That’s a different type of job.” I looked around at our spouses and thought about how I explain marriage to my single friends: You can get a lot of interesting things from a long-term commitment. Willis agreed. It’s a whole career, going the distance, not just one conquest after the other.

“It took years and years for the entire science team, which is a couple hundred people looking at this data year in and year out, to feel confident that we were measuring more than currents. Everything has to be perfect to measure global sea level rise.” And over that 23-year period, while the scientists’ abilities to use the data improved, global sea level rose an inch or two, which, sad but true, made it easier to measure.

Jason-3 launched just in time to observe the 2016 El Niño with its many extreme sea levels, storms and high winds in the ocean. The Jason-2 and Jason-3 satellites will fly right next to each other, separated by 60 seconds, and the calibration will happen over a wide range of different conditions. When I asked Willis if this year’s El Niño is bigger than the one in 1997-98, he said, “The water at its peak temperature in the Pacific this time is warmer than the peak temperature in 97-98. But what most people care about is rainfall, and by that measure, we’ll just have to wait and see. We’ve got a few more months before El Niño clobbers us here in the U.S. Plus, we’ve had another 18 years of global warming.”

“Let’s face it, the ocean dominates everything,” he continued. “Two-thirds of the planet’s surface is rising. That’s the story of global warming. You have to have a satellite to see that, and the Jasons do what nothing else can.”

As always, I welcome your comments.


TOPEX/Poseidon and Jason-1 were cooperative missions between NASA and the French space agency, CNES. Additional partners in the Jason-2 mission included NOAA and Eumetsat. Jason-3 continues the international cooperation, with NOAA and Eumetsat leading the efforts, along with partners NASA and CNES.



Illustration of Earth warming and melting

There are days when you just want to crawl under your desk and hide in the fetal position. I felt like that this morning. And indeed, I may feel this way for the rest of the week – or longer. Everywhere I turn, some giant challenge smacks me in the gut (ahem, global warming) and I'm supposed to bounce with glee like "NASA, NASA, rah rah roo!" all day long.

I'm sure you know what I mean. This weekend I walked past a busy café and saw single-use plastic trash spilling everywhere. You can see this in café after café, day after day, everywhere. It's a symptom of people paying lip service to caring for the environment, but being absolutely paralyzed. If the most we ask of ourselves is to buy more and more stuff and carry it a whole 2 feet to a trash bin, then how in the world are we going to tackle the big things?

The energy it takes to make honest, interesting and informative content for this climate website, the energy it takes to not let the daily deluge of Internet trolls and nasty comments get to me, all while facing the reality of GLOBAL WARMING, is exhausting.

I try to make a difference, to keep encouraging myself, to lift myself out of despair. We're supposed to keep our noses to the do-something-meaningful-with-your-life grindstone and keep chugging endlessly uphill, just like The Little Engine That Could, while repeating some mindless positive slogans of encouragement to keep our heads up.

I try to find a way to cope with these enormous problems without turning away, without downing a pint of ice cream, without watching the stupidest reality TV show I can find. For to be so disconnected from the world as to be capable of polluting it, is to be disconnected from life. And connection is the one thing I refuse to let go of.

True, maybe you really should crawl under your desk and your little engine should pull over to the side of the road for a break. But you're here, just like I am, pushing through because it's somehow better to stay connected even if it hurts.

I've sat in countless meetings here at NASA, where scientists and engineers fight to create complex flying machines that observe particles as tiny as a molecule from miles away, or hand build a one-of-a-kind experimental instrument from scratch, out of nothing but innovation and dreams. We thrive on the incomprehensibly difficult. We welcome problems, challenges, roadblocks, obstacles that are impossibly, mind-bogglingly large. That's why I'm here: To feed on frustration, difficulty and hindrance until I grow stronger and more ferocious.

JPL engineers working on hardware in the clean room. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
JPL engineers working on hardware in the clean room. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

I look forward to your comments.


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Total Lunar Eclipse

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth is positioned between the sun and the moon. Although the Moon passes through the Earth's shadow, the lunar disk remains partially illuminated by sunlight that is refracted and scattered by the Earth's atmosphere.

Refraction is the bending of light that occurs when the rays pass through media of different densities (our atmosphere is more dense near the surface and less dense higher up). Scattering of sunlight by molecules of air also deflects the light into different directions, and this occurs with much greater efficiency at shorter (bluer) wavelengths, which is why the daylight sky appears blue. As we view the sun near sunrise or sunset the light traverses a longer path through the atmosphere than at midday, and when the air is relatively clear, the absence of shorter wavelengths causes the solar disk to appear orange.

Tiny airborne particles, also known as aerosols, also scatter sunlight. The relative efficiency of the scattering at different wavelengths depends on the size and composition of the particles. Pollution and dust in the lower atmosphere tends to subdue the color of the rising or setting sun, whereas fine smoke particles or tiny aerosols lofted to high altitudes during a major volcanic eruption can deepen the color to an intense shade of red.

If you were standing on the Moon's surface during a lunar eclipse, you would see the Sun setting and rising behind the Earth, and you'd observe the refracted and scattered solar rays as they pass through the atmosphere surrounding our planet. Viewed from the Earth, these rays "fill in" the Earth's shadow cast upon the lunar surface, imparting the Moon's disk with a faint orange or reddish glow. Just as we sometimes observe sunrises and sunsets with different shades of orange, pink or red due to the presence of different types of aerosols, the color of the eclipsed lunar disk is also affected by the types of particles that are present in the Earth's atmosphere at the time the eclipse occurs.


  • Dr. David Diner

Watch Frank Capra's 1958 Film on Global Warming (Video)Youtube video

You might think from the amount of “climate science debate” that is given airtime in the U.S. media that it’s undiscovered territory. But it’s not. The science is very well established and goes back a long way. Global warming is not a new concept.

The Victorians knew about it. John Tyndall (born 1820) knew about it. So did Svante August Arrhenius. In April 1896, Arrhenius published a paper in the London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science entitled “On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground.” (Arrhenius referred to carbon dioxide as “carbonic acid” in accordance with the convention of the time.)

Arrhenius’ paper was the first to quantify how carbon dioxide contributed to the greenhouse effect — carbon dioxide warms up the Earth by trapping heat near the surface, a bit like swaddling the planet in an extra blanket. Arrhenius was also the first to speculate about whether changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have contributed to long-term variations in Earth’s climate. He later made the link between burning fossil fuels and global warming.

Another person who “knew” some time ago was Frank Capra. Graduating from Caltech in 1918, he went on to become a famous filmmaker responsible for “It’s a Wonderful Life” and other movies. But one that stands out, at least for nerds like me or people with an interest in climate change is “Meteora: The Unchained Goddess”, released in 1958.

Made for Bell Labs, this most awesome educational film speaks of “extremely dangerous questions”:

Dr. Frank C. Baxter: “Because with our present knowledge we have no idea what would happen. Even now, man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate through the waste products of his civilization. Due to our release through factories and automobiles every year of more than six billion tons of carbon dioxide, which helps air absorb heat from the sun, our atmosphere seems to be getting warmer."

Richard Carlson: "This is bad?"

Dr. Frank C. Baxter: "Well, it's been calculated a few degrees rise in the Earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps. And if this happens, an inland sea would fill a good portion of the Mississippi valley. Tourists in glass bottom boats would be viewing the drowned towers of Miami through 150 feet of tropical water. For in weather, we’re not only dealing with forces of a far greater variety than even the atomic physicist encounters, but with life itself."

In 1958, they knew about the effects of heating up the planet. In the 1800s they knew about it. Today, the biggest challenge facing climate scientists lies in predicting how much our climate will change in the future. It’s not a trivial task, given how complicated the climate system is — we can barely predict in detail more than a week’s worth of weather. We’re not viewing Miami through bottomed-glass boats yet, but we’re already beginning to see some of the predictions of global warming — melting sea and land ice, sea level rise, more extreme weather events, changes in rainfall and effects on plants and animals — be borne out.

Thanks to OSS and Discovery News for the tip.

This post was written for "My Big Fat Planet," a blog hosted by Amber Jenkins on NASA's Global Climate Change site.


  • Amber Jenkins

A guest blog written for <a href="http://climate.nasa.gov/blogs/index.cfm?FuseAction=ListBlogs"><em>My Big Fat Planet</em></a> by Ed Begley Jr.

I visit the NASA website and review the data. CO2: Up. Ocean and land temperature: Up. Sea level: Up. Polar ice: Down.


But, as bizarre as this sounds ... I find myself pulling for the climate change deniers. Wouldn't it be swell if they were right? We could all just relax and ride around in huge cars, and life would be good again.

Like it was in 1970 when I showed up at the first Earth Day. Oh, wait. The smog kind of sucked back then. That might not be the best example.

But, what about the main reason the deniers give not to address climate change?: The cost.

As it turns out, a great example can be found back in smoggy Los Angeles in 1970. Many of us wanted to do something about the horrible choking smog of that era. But, we were told we couldn't afford it.

"We'd love to do something too, Ed, but ... the cost!" Fortunately, we didn't listen to them. Fortunately we also weighed healthcare costs and lost productivity into the equation, and realized the cost of doing nothing was much greater.

And, now, even though we have millions more people in L.A., and four times the cars ... we have far less smog. And, there were many jobs and tremendous wealth created by doing the things that addressed the problem.

Making catalytic converters, combined cycle gas turbines, spray paint booths, and a myriad of other clean technologies of that day - they all created new industries, and brought growth with them.

We have that same choice today. Do we want to accept the costs of doing nothing, and hope that the problem goes away?

So, please, do as I do, and direct everyone you know to reputable sources of climate data, such as NASA's Global Climate Change website. At every talk I give, I make sure that everyone is aware that this information if available. The clock is ticking, and to ignore the science on this one is the worst bet we have ever placed.

Ed Begley Jr. is an Emmy-nominated actor who is active in the environmental community and turns up to Hollywood events on his bicycle. He currently lives near Los Angeles in a self-sufficient home powered by solar energy.


  • Ed Begley Jr.

Gambling with Earth.

This graph shows Earth's global temperature has been in an upward swing overall for more than 100 years. Image credit: Goddard Institute for Space Studies

My wife likes to gamble. She's no high roller or anything, but give her a hundred dollars, a spare weekend and a room full of slot machines and she's happy.

Not me, though. Somewhere along the way, I guess I took one too many math classes and betting against the house just isn't much fun anymore.

But I understand why she likes it. It's the ups and downs of gambling that are fun. You lose, lose, lose and then every once in a while you win a great big jackpot. Maybe you even win enough to make up for the last 30 or 40 bets you lost. But like any game in the casino, the odds are stacked against you. If you play long enough, you will eventually lose.

Global warming and climate change work in much the same way. Wait long enough and odds are, the Earth will be warmer. But will tomorrow be warmer than today? Who knows! There are plenty of things about the atmosphere and ocean that can't be predicted. Over a period of days or weeks, we call these unpredictable changes "the weather."

No one can predict the weather more than a few days in advance, any more than they can predict which slot the roulette ball will land in before the croupier spins it. Weather, like roulette, is essentially random.

But a little randomness doesn't stop casino owners from taking your bet at the roulette table. They know the odds, and they know if enough bets are laid they will eventually come out ahead. Climate scientists know that, too.

Random events happen in the atmosphere and oceans all the time. Not just the weather, but things like El Nino, La Nina and huge volcanic eruptions can make the planet warm up or cool down for years at time. There could even be a few others that we haven't discovered yet.

Still, for all its short-term ups and downs Earth's average temperature has risen dramatically over the last one hundred years. That's no accident. Like the house edge at the roulette table, human-made greenhouse gasses have tilted the odds in favor of a warming planet.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that fact when new science results come out. Like the recreational gambler, we often find it more fun to focus on the ups and downs: a short-term cooling period, a warm year during a big El Nino.

But for climate change and casino owners, it's important to remember the big picture. The roulette player might win three or four bets in a row, but that doesn't change the odds. Eventually the casino will win. Likewise, as long as humans continue to add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the planet will continue to warm.

So whenever people ask me about the latest warming or cooling in the climate record, I'm always reminded of my wife and her slot machines. By the end of the weekend her hundred dollars is almost always gone, but the thrill of the ups and downs kept her entertained for the entire time. "Did you win?" people ask. She always flashes her sly smile and says, "Sometimes!"


  • Josh Willis