NASA flies northward to monitor Greenland’s glaciers
I looked out the window of NASA’s modified G-III aircraft across the expanse. I knew what I would see. I knew it would look like white pillow-y ripples going on and on and on, way farther than anyone could see, like a vast field of white sand dunes stretching away into the distance.
The Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) aircraft was flying across the entire top half of Greenland from the northwest coast to the northeast coast to make the day’s first science measurements. And the first science flight line was all the way across the Greenland Ice Sheet, across 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) of ice that’s up to 2 miles thick and hundreds of thousands of years old. And although I’d flown in Greenland a bunch of times before, I’d only ever flown over the coastal areas, where glaciers around the ice sheet’s edges carve their way through the Greenland terrain, to cut out deep, narrow fjords over centuries’ time.
Everything here is vast and expansive: the size, the views, the enormous quantity of ice.
Two days before, I’d trekked up to the ice sheet with a few members of the OMG team. We stood in the insanely cold, dry, biting air (Greenland is one of the least humid areas on planet Earth, with the cleanest, clearest air) and gazed into the incomprehensible distance. It was easy to use a snow boot to scrape the 2 inches or so of fine, dry, powdery snow away from the ice sheet to uncover the hard, greenish blue ice.
On the edge of the ice sheet, a slice of ancient ice layers was exposed like a glistening wall, and we’d walked past it on the way up to the top of the sheet. The ice wall was so vertical and so sheer, the snow that hid the other parts of the edge had fallen away, and we could see its smooth surface shining like a gem: striped blue and green. That ice is hundreds of thousands of years old, made from snow that fell year after year after year, eventually becoming compressed and preserved in this cold, dry desert environment.
Standing on top of the ice sheet, I imagined it under my feet, going down and down and down for a mile or more.
A mile—or more—of ice.
Everything here is vast and expansive: the size, the views, the enormous quantity of ice. Flying over them, the glaciers look like hundreds of broad frozen rivers, each one up to a few miles across, each one channeling its way from the interior of the landmass toward the sea over thousands of years. Each glacier carved out a fjord through the rock and out to sea in the same way a river erodes its channel, except it’s so much bigger, so much slower and the erosional power of the ice is so much more intense. From up here, the glacier’s impossibly slow creep seems frozen in both space and time. But the glaciers are moving. Stress fractures or crevasses, which are easy-to-observe evidence of glacier movement, form as the glaciers slope downhill toward the sea. And of course, we also have scientific measurements. Detailed satellite images show that the terminal edges of many glaciers such as Jakobshavn have receded by as much as 0.4 miles (600 meters) per year in recent times. Scientists also have time-lapse footage of seaward glacier flow.
But having evidence of glacier flow, and even glacier recession, is only part of the story. As a warmer atmosphere and a warmer ocean around the coastline continue to melt the massive amount of ice that covers Greenland, the ice ends up flowing into the ocean, which causes sea level rise worldwide.
As we flew over, the GLISTIN-A instrument received data from a 12-kilometer swath of whatever is below and off to the sides of it, in this case glaciers. Using these data, we can measure, with great precision, the height of each glacier we fly over. See, when the end of an individual glacier melts and calves into the ocean, the whole glacier speeds up and flows even faster downhill toward the ocean because there’s less friction against the sides and bottom to slow it down. The faster it moves, the more it stretches — like pulled taffy — and when a glacier is all stretched out, its elevation is lower. And because OMG will fly the same science lines along the same coastal glaciers every year for five years in a row, we’ll be able to find out how much elevation each glacier has lost, how fast it’s flowing into the ocean and how much ice has been lost.
They sure appear stable, still, enduring. But they’re not. They’re melting.
They sure appear stable, still, enduring. But they’re not. They’re melting.
And northern Greenland, along with the rest of the higher latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, is experiencing some of the most intense impacts of global climate change right now, today.
Thank you for reading.
“This year we’re gonna bring it!”
Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) Principal Investigator Josh Willis told me excitedly. “It’s the beginning of year two of this five-year airborne mission, which means that by comparing data from the first and second years, we’ll be able to observe changes in Greenland’s glaciers and coastal ocean water for the first time.” Glaciers around Greenland’s jagged coastline have been melting into the ocean and causing increased sea level rise, so measuring the amount of ice mass loss will help us understand the impact of these changes, Willis said. “Will we see 5 feet of sea level rise this century … or more?”
See, Earth’s ocean, more than the atmosphere, is responsible for creating a stable climate. And as global warming has increased the temperature of the ocean waters surrounding Greenland, that warmer ocean water is melting the ice sheet from around its edges. “Hey! The ocean is eating away at the ice sheet!” Willis often cries when explaining the mission. And Team OMG is measuring how much of that warm water could be increasing due to climate change.
Decoding the environment
I understand how Willis and Project Manager Steve Dinardo get excited about measuring sea level rise. Greenland’s ice melt is accelerating, which explains why NASA is paying attention to it. Plus, after a successful first year, the team is fully aware of the stark beauty of Greenland’s rugged landscape and seascape and the rewards of bonding as a team. Dinardo told me he was “ecstatic about the incredible progress Team OMG has made in the last twenty-two months.”
As scientists, decoding the natural world is our way of caring about the environment. We care about Greenland’s icy coastline, so we go there. We go there and observe. We go there and measure. For there is something undeniable about the sheer beauty of this planet, and any time you get to experience it is a moment to feel exuberant and alive. Plus, flying around with a great team in a modified NASA G-III aircraft ain’t too shabby either.After a successful first year, the team is fully aware of the stark beauty of Greenland’s rugged landscape and seascape and the rewards of bonding as a team.
But wait. Before I continue, there’s something you probably noticed: Willis said he named this Greenland observing expedition Oceans Melting Greenland, or OMG for short, because, hey, OMG is the exact response you might have when you find out what’s going on up there.
Parts of Greenland’s coastline are so remote, so difficult to access by boat, that they’d remain uncharted, especially under areas that are seasonally covered with ice. Imagine the edge of an unimaginably complicated winding coastline, that unknown place where ice meets water meets seafloor. Big chunks of remnant sea ice clog up the water, and the glacier has retreated so recently that the coastline is changing as fast as, or even faster than, we can study it.
The seawater around 400 meters deep is 3 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer than the water floating near the sea surface. And the sea floor bathymetry influences how much of that warm subsurface layer can reach far up into the fjords and melt the glaciers. So, to learn about the interface between where the bottom of the ice sheet reaches out over the seawater and down into the ocean, OMG began by mapping undersea canyons on the M/V Cape Race, a ship equipped with an echo sounder, which sailed right up the narrow fjords on the continental shelf surrounding Greenland to the places where the warmer Atlantic Ocean water meets the bottoms of the frozen, 0-degree glaciers. The crew had to snake in between floating icebergs and weave in and out of narrow fjords. The Cape Race used a multibeam echo sounder to map undersea canyons, where the warm seawater comes in contact with and melts the glaciers.
The next four years
In the spring of 2016, the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) team began surveying glacier elevation near the end of marine-terminating glaciers by precisely measuring the edges of the ice sheet on a glacier-by-glacier basis, using the Airborne Glacier and Land Ice Surface Topography Interferometer (GLISTIN-A), a radar instrument attached to the bottom of a modified NASA G-III aircraft. Data collected this spring and over the next four years can be compared with data collected in the spring of 2016 so we can determine how fast the glaciers are melting.
The investigation continued into last fall, with the team dropping more than 200 Aircraft eXpendable Conductivity Temperature Depth (AXCTD) probes that measured ocean temperature and salinity around Greenland, from the sea surface to the sea floor, through a hole in the bottom of the plane. “In most of these places,” Willis told me, “there’s been no temperature and salinity data collected. Ever.”As scientists, decoding the natural world is our way of caring about the environment.
The team will drop more ocean probes across the same locations to find out “how much ice melts when the water is this warm,” what the melt rate is, and how much that rate is increasing, because no one knows the melt rate yet.
Big picture project
“OMG is a big picture project,” Willis explained. ”We want to see what’s happening in the ocean on the large scale and what’s happening to the ice sheet on the largest scales.”
As part of Team OMG, I also flew on NASA’s G-III into uncontrolled airspace to places where no other aircraft had flown before, into narrow and steep ice-covered fjords, winding in and out, up and down, over and through to observe and measure, like scientists do. I saw the brilliant white ice carve its way through steep brown valleys into open ocean water. I saw the glorious expanse of white upon deep blue going on and on and on below us as we flew just 5,000 feet above the winding coastline. It was extraordinary.
And if you just thought “OMG,” Willis would be proud.
Thanks for reading.