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.
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.
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.
Reports and brochures about the history of aerodynamic facilities at JPL usually identify the 12-inch Supersonic Wind Tunnel as the first wind tunnel at JPL.
Reports and brochures about the history of aerodynamic facilities at JPL usually identify the 12-inch Supersonic Wind Tunnel as the first wind tunnel at JPL. It went into operation in 1949. However, in October 1947, this small induction wind tunnel was being used in studies of air-fuel combustion and turbulence. Studies were conducted by Division 2 (Thermal Jet Propulsion), which included Section 1 (Research Analysis), Section 10 (Ramjet), and Section 13 (Wind Tunnels).
This wind tunnel was located in building 106, also known as the Thermal Jet Test Cell. The cooling tower for the test cell can be seen in the background. This facility no longer exists, but it was located northeast of building 79 (former home of the 20-inch Hypersonic Wind Tunnel).
[Archival Sources: JPL Facts and Facilities, HC3-280; Performance of the 12-Inch Wind Tunnel, Memo 4-52; JPL maps; organization charts; telephone books; and Section 326 photo albums and indexes.]
Everyone you admire, everyone who’s accomplished greatness, faced obstacles along the way. Think about it. Everyone. The most impressive athletes, artists or public figures found their way to success by moving through and overcoming roadblocks.
Today, as my morning jog turned into a run and then a sprint, I felt my power and strength as a woman to keep pushing forward. No. Matter. What.
At the entrance to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where I work, there’s a sign that says “Dare Mighty Things.” The way I see it, that sign is talking directly to me. “I dare you,” it says. Not to try something easy, but to run toward the challenge of climate change with confidence, strength and courage. And now I dare all of you.
Where ice meets water at the bottom of the sea.
A person can look at a thing over and over again before finally seeing it for the first time. That’s how I felt standing in front of an Arctic map at the University of Washington in Seattle. I gazed at the northwest coastline of Greenland, north of Baffin Bay, up where the Canadian Queen Elizabeth Islands come close to Greenland.
Of course I’ve looked at Arctic maps before, from a zillion different angles. Normally I’m the one pointing and explaining. “Look at how small the Arctic area is. It’s a shallow sea, mostly surrounded by continents and islands where sea ice forms and gets trapped,” I say, encouraging folks to get as excited as I am about this remote part of the planet that’s chopped up, spread out and distorted by most maps. But this time, standing next to James Morison, senior principal oceanographer from the University of Washington, I was the one listening, looking closely and being amazed.
We were in the hallway of the Applied Physics Laboratory’s polar science wing, taking a break between Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) science team presentations. The walls were lined with photos of teams out on glaciers, ice drilling equipment, ice sheets of the world and grand ice-covered landscapes. Ice, ice and more ice, and penguins. There were pictures of polar bears and narwhals, too. But Greenland’s jagged coastline had me captivated. The islands, the convolutions, the fjords: phenomenal, mindboggling. I couldn’t take my mind off it.
But the Oceans Melting Greenland team is doing more than looking at maps of Greenland. Way more. “We’re trying to look under the ice,” Principal Investigator Josh Willis told me. “What is the sea floor like under there? What is the interface between where the bottom of the ice sheet reaches out over the seawater and down into the ocean?”
The seawater around 400 meters (1,312 feet) deep is 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (5 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the water floating near the sea surface. And the shape of the sea floor (bathymetry) influences how much of that warm, subsurface layer can reach far up into the fjords and melt the glaciers. The OMG team wants to measure how much of that warm water could be increasing due to climate change.
What will the future hold? Will we see 5 feet of sea level rise … or 10 or 20?
And even though Greenland feels untouched and remote, feels so “Who cares?” we all need to be concerned about its complex coastline and the rapid pace of its melting ice sheet. NASA’s GRACE satellites observed Greenland shedding a couple trillion—with a “t”—tons of ice over the last decade, and the rate of melt is increasing. So that winding coastline and those unfamiliar fjords have already impacted all of us—yes, that means you—undoubtedly, no matter how far away or how far inland you reside.
As each of the dozen or so OMG members took his or her turn updating the team on their most recent topography, temperature and salinity measurements, I noticed a trend. Everyone kept repeating the phrases “never been surveyed before,” “it’s a very tough area,” and “these fjords are so very small, they have no names and have never been visited before.” They are literally exploring these unknown areas in detail for the first time.
My mind drifted off to the edge of that unimaginably complicated winding coastline, that unknown place where ice meets water meets seafloor, where the ice is melting as fast as we can measure. And I had to stop the group to ask why. Specifically, why is it so tough? Why has no one been there before? It turns out this area is difficult to navigate because big chunks of remnant sea ice clog up the water. The crew has to snake in between floating icebergs and weave in and out of the narrow fjords. It’s rather treacherous. And weather conditions can be challenging up there. The other reason this area is so unknown is that the glacier has retreated so recently that the coastline is changing as fast or even faster than we can study it.Last summer, a small group that included UC Irvine graduate student Michael Wood sailed on the M/V Cape Race deep into some of the most jagged areas around southeastern Greenland, which, according to Co-Investigator Eric Rignot, is the “most complex glacier setting in Greenland.” After more than 7,871 kilometers (4,250 nautical miles) and more than 300 Conductivity, Temperature Depth (CTD) casts, the first bathymetric survey was completed.
Over the next five years, OMG will measure the volume of warmer water on the continental shelf around Greenland to figure out whether there is more warm water entering the fjords and increasing ice loss at the glacier terminus.
Here are some details about the OMG plan:
- Every year for four years, survey glacier elevation near the end of marine-terminating glaciers around Greenland’s coastline using NASA’s airborne synthetic aperture radar altimeter GLacier and Ice Surface Topography INterferometer (GLISTIN-A).
- Every year for five years, deploy 250 Aircraft eXpendable Conductivity Temperature Depth (AXCTD) probes to measure temperature and salinity of the waters around Greenland from one of NASA’s G-III aircraft.
- Use a ship with multi-beam sonar to measure bathymetry of the seafloor up very close to the extremely jagged coastline of Greenland, as well as a small vessel with a single beam going up into small places, driving up fjords and getting as close to glaciers as is safe.
- Collect gravity measurements from small planes in Northwest, Southeast and Northeast Greenland to help map the sea floor in places the ships cannot go.
Find out more about Oceans Melting Greenland.
View and download OMG animations and graphics.
Thank you for your comments.
Before personal computers, web sites, email, smart phones, and social media were commonplace, JPL posted mission photos on a bulletin board in the mall, with a caption by each photo. This was the only way for most employees to see the images that were released to the public.
In July 1976, JPL celebrated the arrival of the Viking 1 lander on Mars. Many images were received from the Viking orbiter and lander during that summer and some were assembled (by hand) into panoramas and mosaics. Photos were displayed by closed-circuit television during the landing event to groups of visitors in a few locations on Lab, and were filmed or broadcast by visiting news crews. Hard copy photos were distributed to the news media. A small set of images from each JPL mission was typically selected for distribution to all JPLers, along with a letter of congratulations and thanks for their contributions. Decades later, many of these photographs and lithographs have found their way to the JPL Archives.
For more information about the history of JPL, contact the JPL Archives for assistance. [Archival and other sources: JPL photo albums and indexes; JPL Annual Reports, and The Viking Mission to Mars.]
The average amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s global atmosphere is 400 parts per million (ppm).
The average amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s global atmosphere is 400 parts per million (ppm), but according to Ken Davis, Atmospheric Carbon and Transport - America (ACT-America) principal investigator, areas near agriculture like cornfields can consistently run about 10 ppm lower in the summertime. That’s because terrestrial ecosystems like trees and corn suck about a quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere.
Thank you, trees and corn.
But wouldn’t you like to know exactly where this is happening, and by how much? Does the amount of carbon dioxide taken up by farms and forests change across seasons, across weather patterns? And even more important, will these ecosystems still be able to continue pulling our carbon pollution out of the atmosphere for us 50 years from now, especially if our climate changes unfavorably for these biological systems? Will dead trees start releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere? It’s as if the forests and farms are “Get Out of Jail Free" cards and we’re not sure for how long the free pass will be good.
See, scientists have been measuring carbon dioxide and methane on a global basis. But we’d like to understand the mechanisms that are driving biological sinks and sources regionally. And we’d like to measure these greenhouse gases so that we can know if and when we’ve succeeded in reducing our emissions.
Davis explained that right now, most of our knowledge about regional sources of methane and carbon dioxide comes from a ground-based network of highly calibrated instruments on roughly 100 towers across North America. Yet being able to understand the regional sources and sinks of these two greenhouse gases is crucial to being able to predict and respond to the consequences of a changing climate.
“We don’t have all the data we need? That’s unbelievable,” I said, shocked. How is that even possible in 2016?” But Davis kept repeating: “No, we definitely don’t have enough data density.” Indeed, we take our data for granted, even as we continue burning fossil fuels.
So on July 18th, Davis and his team will head out to the first of three study areas for a two-week stint. These three regional study areas were chosen to represent a combination of weather and greenhouse gas fluxes across the U.S. The Midwest has a lot of farms and therefore has an agricultural signal. It’s also the origin point of cyclones. The Northeast forests are different than the Southern coastal forests, which will give us both types of data. The Southern coastal weather, storms and flow off the Gulf of Mexico are unique, and there’s oil and gas development in both the Mid-Atlantic and Southern regions. This means that between these three study areas, the team will be able to observe a wide range of conditions.
In addition to measuring regional sources and sinks of carbon dioxide and methane, ACT-America is planning to fly on a path right underneath NASA’s OCO-2 satellite to measure air characteristics, provide calibration and validation and make OCO-2’s data more useful. The mission will also fly through a variety of weather systems to find out how they affect the transport of these greenhouse gases.
Davis told me he’s “excited to fly through cold and warm fronts and mid-latitude cyclones to find out how greenhouse gases get wrapped up in weather systems.”
Find out more about ACT-America here.
Thank you for reading.
ACT-America? is part of NASA Earth Expeditions, a six-month field research campaign to study regions of critical change around the world.
NASA's Student Airborne Research Program trains future climate scientists.
We receive a lot of questions, especially from students, asking us for information about how to get a job at NASA. Well, there’s more than one way to get hired here. But one of the most awesome methods we have of training young scientists and preparing them for potential hire here (or a great position anywhere) is by recruiting university undergraduates for our Student Airborne Research Program (SARP).
SARP is our eight-week summer program for college seniors with academic backgrounds in engineering or physical, chemical or biological sciences and an interest in remote sensing. We select about thirty students based on their academic performance, their interest in Earth science and their ability to work in teams. These students receive hands-on research experience on NASA's DC-8 airborne science laboratory. Yup, they get to fly on a modified NASA plane out of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, in Palmdale, Calif., where they help operate instruments onboard the aircraft and collect samples of atmospheric chemicals.
Did I already say “awesome”? Oh right, I did. Well, I’ll say it again: Awesome.
Many students apply hoping to gain more research experience for graduate school. The whole air sampling team, which is exactly what it sounds like, collects air from around the plane in canisters as it’s flying through different locations and altitudes at different times. The air enters the plane from the outside through an inlet, a pipe sticking out of the plane. The student scientists open the canisters, allowing air from outside the airplane to suck into the can. Then they take the air samples back to the lab at the University of California, Irvine, for analysis and interpretation.
SARP students analyze the air samples for hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrocarbons, nitrates, oxygenates and halocarbons. Research areas include atmospheric chemistry, air quality, forest ecology and ocean biology.
Once the airborne data has been collected and analyzed, the students make formal presentations of their research results and conclusions. Over the past seven years, the program has hosted 213 students from 145 U.S. colleges and universities. And this year we look forward to helping our latest crop of SARP students gain research experience on a NASA mission, work in multi-disciplinary teams and study surface, atmospheric and oceanographic processes.
Find out what SARP students thought about their experience here.
Find out more about SARP and other Airborne Science Programs here.
SARP is part of NASA Earth Expeditions, a six-month field research campaign to study regions of critical change around the world.
Even before Hughes Aircraft Company was selected as the contractor that would design and build the Surveyor landers, JPL began conducting tests of materials that would help to cushion the impact of a moon landing. It was to be a soft landing, in contrast to the Ranger crash landings, but there would still be a drop of about 13 feet, where the Surveyor vernier engines would cut off and the lander would free fall to the surface of the moon.
The lander had a tripod structure, with hydraulic shock absorbers in the landing legs. JPL also planned to use three blocks on the underside of the lander, one near each leg, that would absorb some of the impact. Various materials, sizes, and configurations were tested, including aluminum tubes and sheets, some formed into a hexagonal honeycomb pattern. The JPL Photolab took dozens of photos for the Engineering Research Section (354) which are identified simply as “crushable materials” and they show several series of tests completed in 1960-1962. The results were reported in JPL’s bimonthly Space Programs Summaries and other technical reports.
For more information about the history of JPL, contact the JPL Archives for assistance. [Archival and other sources: Surveyor Mission Reports; various Space Programs Summaries; RS36-5, vol. 2; Section 354 photo indexes, JPL telephone books and organization charts.]
At 8 p.m. after a long day of work in the Houston humidity, Derek Rutavic, manager of the NASA Gulfstream-III that will head back to Greenland this fall, and I were in the back of the plane singing One Direction’s "Drag Me Down" over the high frequency radio system. It was stifling hot, getting dark and we were tired and hungry.
But Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) Principal Investigator Josh Willis and Project Manager Steve Dinardo, too busy to take off their sweaty fire retardant flight suits, were troubleshooting electronics at two racks of computers, and they’d asked Rutavic to get on the headset to find out if the headset noise was interfering with the high radio frequency data signal the ocean science probes were sending back to the plane. Rutavic sat on an empty science probe container, while I lounged on one of the sofas singing along in awe of the amount of hard work this team was putting in.
We’d been up early, flown multiple test flights, worked through lunch. And all of this after days and days of maintenance, and weather delays, and more hard work after more hard work. Earlier in the day, NASA T-38 supersonic jet pilot Bill Rieke flew mind-bogglingly close to the G-III to photograph the science probe deployment and determine if the technique of launching the probes through a hole in the bottom of the plane would succeed. And yes, it did. But that success merely signaled the OMG team to continue working.
And I understood exactly why this team kept going, kept moving, kept pushing on into the evening, regardless of being tired and hot and hungry. I knew exactly why they decided to keep working on the challenge. They chose to push through because they’d found something to care about, and that's always more important than our difficulties and problems. When we focus on what we really care about, we get busy doing something, even in the face of trouble. And that’s how science works.
Lessons from a sea slug
I first learned to care about the natural world around me during my junior year in college. I was in an oceanography course and we were studying sea slugs. (Yes, sea slugs.) A sea slug changed my life. Before then, I’d been, like many people, disengaged and uninterested in science. In third grade, someone came to our classroom and told us we could be the first female astronaut, and I remember thinking, “No, I couldn’t, not me.”
And now? Even though I have a job at NASA, I still feel like I don’t belong in the world of science. I feel more comfortable around athletes and artists than I do with a bunch of Ph.D.s. Maybe it’s some poorly defined stereotype that I’ve somehow bought into or some preconceived notion of how someone who does science is supposed to behave.
But those sea slugs taught me that I cared more about the natural world than I cared about the struggle of not fitting in or the challenge of the work. They appeared so delicate, small and defenseless, and I identified with that. They helped me feel connected. Noticing them forced me to wonder what else I’d start to notice if I slowed down enough to pay attention. And that connection to the natural world helped me stay committed to science, even when it was hard, even when there were problems, even when I felt like running away.
Sure, scientific experimentation, just like much of real life, includes problems, troubles, obstacles and difficulties almost every day. And while it’s true that someone, somewhere has to troubleshoot something every step of the way, we can also be excited about the effort. The OMG team understands that problems and hard work are not the exception, they are the norm. They are part of accomplishment. And it’s totally possible to thrive on these difficulties and challenges.
Look, we could be setting the world on fire right now, not by burning fossil fuels, but by our burning desire to understand our environment. Because the whole point of this experimental mission is to find out how quickly the warmer waters around Greenland are melting the second-largest ice sheet on the planet. It’s major; it’s dire; it’s intense. It’s one of the most important issues of our time.
And sitting there in the back of that plane made me think about how we, as individuals and as a society, have to find something in this world to care about. We have to find something in this world that is more important than our challenges and problems.
And you? I hope you decide to find something to care about. I hope you find something that’s important enough that you’re willing to push through your struggles, your fears and your problems to just do the work.
Find out more about Oceans Melting Greenland.
View and download OMG animations and graphics.
We know more about the moon and other planets than we do some places on our home planet. Remote parts of the world ocean remain uncharted, especially in the polar regions, especially under areas that are seasonally covered with ice and especially near jagged coastlines that are difficult to access by boat. Yet, as global warming forces glaciers in places like Greenland to melt into the ocean, causing increased sea level rise, understanding these remote places has become more and more important.
This past spring, Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) Principal Investigator Josh Willis led a team of NASA scientists to begin gathering detailed information about the interface between Greenland’s glaciers and the warming ocean waters that surround them. The next step in accessing this extremely remote region involves dropping a series of Airborne Expendable Conductivity Temperature Depth, or AXCTD, probes that will measure ocean temperature and salinity around Greenland, from the sea surface to the sea floor. With this information, they hope to find out how quickly this warmer ocean water is eating away at the ice.
Since no one has ever dropped AXCTDs through a tube at the bottom of a modified Gulfstream-III, the OMG team headed to Ellington Field Airport near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for a test drop into the Gulf of Mexico. I went along for the ride.
The money shot
Temperature and salinity
3, 2, 1 ... drop!
AXCTD sails down
The flight path
Details, details, details
Find out more about Oceans Melting Greenland.
View and download OMG animations and graphics.
Thank you for your comments.