Archive for Sunday, November 1, 2009

KU team delves into ice sheet research

Lei Shi, Kansas University graduate student and research assistant, tweaks inputs to the Multi-channel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder, or MCoRDS, on the plane during a flight. KU researchers are stationed in Chile to help NASA gather more information on the world’s polar ice.

Lei Shi, Kansas University graduate student and research assistant, tweaks inputs to the Multi-channel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder, or MCoRDS, on the plane during a flight. KU researchers are stationed in Chile to help NASA gather more information on the world’s polar ice.

November 1, 2009


A low-altitude flight of 1,600 feet focusing on sea ice takes the crew near the coast of Antarctica. The power of glaciers is apparent in one of the foreground icebergs, which has carried large quantities of Antarctic rock out to sea.

A low-altitude flight of 1,600 feet focusing on sea ice takes the crew near the coast of Antarctica. The power of glaciers is apparent in one of the foreground icebergs, which has carried large quantities of Antarctic rock out to sea.

— A team of Kansas University researchers is in the midst of playing a special role in monitoring the health of the planet. It began with “mowing the lawn.”

In a jet. Over Antarctica.

Stationed for six weeks in Chile, electrical engineering professor Chris Allen and several graduate research assistants from the National Science Foundation’s Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at KU are taking long flights over Antarctica for NASA’s Operation ICE Bridge.

As a NASA satellite that monitors climate fails, this mission provides information about the world’s polar ice by flying various scientific instruments until a new satellite is launched in 2014.

“Probably the greatest uncertainty right now on ice sheet models is the shape of the bed. That’s why the radar work that CReSIS is doing is so important,” says Tom Wagner, NASA’s cryosphere program manager. “CReSIS is widely recognized as one of the leaders in ice sheet radar work. They currently have the most sophisticated radars.”

This part of the mission, which ends Nov. 24, includes 17 strategically plotted flights over Antarctica. Each path — whether “mowing the lawn,” or flying an arc along

-86° latitude — was selected for the new information it provides or to replicate the path of the dying satellite.

The KU team brings an engineer’s detached interest and passion for the craft to the mission. Members are focused on the radar gizmos they made back home in Kansas.

“I would put them in the class of pioneering instruments, giving the scientists new capability,” Allen says. “The MCoRDS — Multi-channel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder — allows us to measure the thickness of the ice. It’s the only instrument on the plane that allows us to measure, directly, the thickness of the ice.”

The two other KU radars — altimeters — will tell scientists the thickness of the snow on the ice sheets, data that Allen says scientists have long wanted.

Wagner elaborates.

“That’s really important because that’s one of the biggest unknowns, is how much is accumulating on top of them,” Wagner says from his Washington, D.C., office. “It changes the elevation.”

More snow means ice sheets may not be as robust as originally thought.

Wheels up

Flight days begin early with a quick breakfast at the headquarters hotel in Punta Arenas. Nearly 40 people grab coats and gear before heading to the airport 10 miles outside the city.

Bill Brockett, chief pilot for NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory, leads the preflight briefing for crew and passengers. There’s a review of the 11-hour flight plan and an overview of the day’s objective — a high-altitude pass over Pine Island Glacier.

“If you’ve ever had the pleasure of hand mowing about two acres of lawn, this is what we’re going to be doing today,” Brockett adds. “Back and forth in parallel lines; most of them are on the order of 75 miles long and a couple of them are 128.”

Brockett has the wheels up by 9 a.m. After the jet clears land, the craft rocks through a quick pitch-and-roll maneuver that calibrates a laser altimeter on board. Everyone wears light green headsets that allow them to talk about changing weather patterns and remaining mission objectives.

Most researchers work on laptops or fine-tune their delicate instruments until Antarctica comes into view and the real work begins.

After 11 parallel passes and numerous wide “teardrop” turns, the DC-8 begins its journey northward. Before returning to the airport, the laser is calibrated again with the stomach-tugging, roller-coaster pitch-and-roll maneuver. Within a half-hour of landing, all hands reassemble for debriefing. Instrument teams report on the day’s work.

KU graduate student Lei Shi speaks for the MCoRDS radar team.

“We gathered data the entire time, about four hours’ worth,” Shi says. “We saw bed reflections coming from the ice shelf when it was thinner so we know that the radar is working, but once we got to some of the thicker areas, our scrolling echogram doesn’t have the processing power to see what’s at the very bed. But I believe that with some more processing, we might be able to pull that out.”

Since the next day looks promising for a flight over sea ice, Brockett announces the morning’s schedule.

“Eight-thirty brief, 10 o’clock take off, close the door at 9:30, pretty standard,” he says.

It’s 9 p.m. before the researchers and flight crew head to their cars. Chileans traditionally eat dinner late, so it’s easy to find an open restaurant. Finding one with the flavors of home, well, that’s a challenge. KU graduate student Ben Panzer voices a craving for a Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich or Baconator. Three weeks into the mission, he’d settle for just the smell.

Reading the ice

Work continues well into the night.

During one 11-hour, low-altitude flight over the Antarctic Amundsen Sea, the CReSIS team collected more than 330 gigabytes of data from the SNOW radar and 256 gigs from the Ku-band system. It’s equivalent to more than 100 million short plain-text e-mails.

For the students, delivering results translates into several all-nighters of data processing and backup. They survive on power naps.

“The near real-time turnaround of practically science-quality data from our systems is something that we’re pushing,” KU’s Allen says. “We are advancing that capability now through the support of folks from Polar Grid at Indiana University.”

The KU researchers are finding more than just the thickness of the ice and the nature of the bedrock below it. Data images collected over the continent suggest a distinct layer of ice 300 meters from the surface, where it’s likely that sulfur was deposited by a volcanic event millennia ago. The MCoRDS radar also reveals a deep gouge in bedrock that cuts well below sea level. Other early images show ice on the continent as much as 1.8 miles thick.

Wagner stresses it’s not time to rest. ICESat, the aging NASA satellite, indicates change to the ice sheets is here and now.

“ICESat recently showed that some of the ice sheets lose 9 meters of ice per year. That’s ice in elevation. These outlet glaciers are only hundreds of meters thick,” Wagner says. If the current rate of loss had been constant, the ice sheets would have disappeared within 1,000 years. “We know these have been there millions of years, so we know there is change happening today.”

KU researchers are looking at five more years of mowing the lawn. In a jet. Over Antarctica.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 6 months ago

" indoctrination of the people"

I'm sure glad that you are immune to indoctrination, lawrence guy (heavy sarcasm.)

Olympics 8 years, 6 months ago

We all know that science has a well-known liberal bias.

Olympics 8 years, 6 months ago

By all means disagree with the people who have the advance degrees in the relevant fields. I'm sure you know better with your extensive search of the internets.

Xoxo, A hard-working taxpayer

Fugu 8 years, 6 months ago

wow Lawrenceguy, did you even attempt to read the article?

This research is funding by the NSF, not the state. Also, the studies have nothing to do with the cause of global warming, only assessing its impacts. Research like this will continue as we attempt to understand how the earth responds to shifting climate patterns, so get over it.

For someone who doesn't even read an article before making an opinion, it would be wise not to make such unsubstantiated statements and then claim others of being indoctrinated.

I, myself, am proud that such world-class research is being done right here at KU. Keep it up CReSIS.

Fugu 8 years, 6 months ago

There is a difference between teaching beliefs and teaching science.

'got any hard evidence that global heating and cooling cycles are man-made?'

Nobody thinks that all 'global heating and cooling cycles' are man-made.

parrothead8 8 years, 6 months ago

lawrenceguy40 (Anonymous) says… Bozo - got any hard evidence that global heating and cooling cycles are man-made? Let us know. You cannot because there isn't any. You just believe what people tell you. That is indoctrination!

lawrenceguy40 - got any hard evidence that your Christian beliefs are NOT man-made? Let us know. You cannot because there isn't any. You just believe what your pastor and a book tells you. That is indoctrination!

windex 8 years, 6 months ago

lawrenceguy, I can understand arguing different points of view, but your main objective seems to be to hammer home the fact that you are not very smart. Whatever.

To the CReSIS team, thank you for your work. Most people understand that basic scientific research has contributed to the quality of life we enjoy, in fields ranging from transportation to nanotechnology to medicine to agriculture.

Even lawrenceguy seems to enjoy his computer, though if he had been around in the early years of its development he probably would have whined bitterly about some liberal heathen scientist getting a grant to work on it. And lawrenceguy, just in case you're about to say that the computer and the internet are the direct result of our wondrous Christian nation free market economy, just spare us, please. Because without federal support for basic research in the early years of its development we wouldn't have what we have now.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 6 months ago

"I am not forced to pay for my Christian faith."

So you arrive at your willful ignorance all by yourself. What a hero.

Tell me, where can one get a sand-proof computer?

kuwxlady 8 years, 6 months ago

woot woot!!! Go CReSIS! What an honor for the team and university to be a part of such a huge research mission! We should be be cheering them on! Not debating global warming issues here

bisky1 8 years, 6 months ago

remember lawrenceguy40 to bozo and the others determining your intelligence smart only means that you agree with them. dissent is not allowed

windex 8 years, 6 months ago

Lguy, again: they are doing basic scientific research. Good scientists do not "believe" in things; they try to find out what is going on. These scientists are trying to find out what is going on with the Antarctic ice sheets. They are not trying to make you drive a little car. This is not a story about whether climate change is man made. It is an article about scientists doing research on the Antarctic Ice sheets. Nowhere does it indicate that they blame you personally for the growth or shrinkage of the ice sheets.

jonas_opines 8 years, 6 months ago

"remember lawrenceguy40 to bozo and the others determining your intelligence smart only means that you agree with them. dissent is not allowed"

Not sure, reading a few pages of your history, that you have much room to talk.

At the least, there's little evidence of respect for other viewpoints that I can see.

Escapee 8 years, 6 months ago

Lguy, read Windex comment again. It's right on. Very simple. These people are gathering data to try to determine what HAS happened already. And, in fact, have come closer (at this point at least) to pointing to volcanic reasonings for 'global warming' -- not 'man-made' reasons. Please read carefully. And as for attacking their religious beliefs...if you only knew....

Tax dollars? Yes, I am just as concerned about their use as anyone is these days. But I'd much rather my dollar be spent on PRESERVING life with significant research than on DESTROYING life in ridiculous war games. If you want to spout off on 'religiosity'...take on the blight of how religion's role in the middle east has been used as validation for destruction of life around the world....

pace 8 years, 6 months ago

:You guys know that Lawrence guy is getting attention for sharing his emotions while we ignore the excitement of people really doing something. I find science much more exciting than that one person proving he can type how he feels.

Escapee 8 years, 6 months ago

Pace, good point. I'll resist the urge to 'diss' him (and others) in the future.

This glimpse into the real time activity of real scientists truly is an exciting thing. LJ World -- we need more coverage of events like this that not only enlighten us, but can also make us proud of our 'homegrown talent'.

parrothead8 8 years, 6 months ago

lawrenceguy40 (Anonymous) says… But global warming is a lie. Again I note that despite my challenge, no one has offered any evidence that it is man made. (We don't need to. Over 80% of the scientists in the world have done that for us, and you've done nothing to refute their evidence. Just saying it is a lie does not make it so.) But we see today that we are soon to be controlled by Big Brutha in the form of smart meters. (Paranoid hyperbole. You have no proof that the government will control my washing machine or coffeemaker. I challenge you to prove this.) We will soon all have to buy euro box tiny cars to be able to afford al gore's gas prices. (Al Gore's oil prices? Since when has Al Gore owned an oil company?)

Oh, and by the way...University of Illinois researchers surveyed 3146 scientists about global warming and released the results in early 2009.

Two questions were key: Have mean global temperatures risen compared to pre-1800s levels, and has human activity been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures?

About 90 percent of the scientists agreed with the first question and 82 percent the second.

The strongest consensus on the causes of global warming came from climatologists who are active in climate research, with 97 percent agreeing humans play a role.

Escapee 8 years, 6 months ago

Our climatic cycles -- which deal us our everyday weather and which appear to be in flux and attributed to man -- are different in subject than what these scientists are reviewing. They are observing ice sheets and the melting thereof, for which they have already identified a weakening of the earth's crust insinuating a volcanic factor in contributing to the ice melt.

These are two different topics related to the future of our planet's waters evolution -- and which are of interest in many cases to the same groups of folks who are trying to stave off the negative effects of such changes. Or, at least, prepare for them.

How can learning about these very important subjects be considered an agenda for any one particular group -- political or not? We should all be concerned and enlightened. And frankly, I do know for certain that most of the brain power aboard this adventure IS, in fact, 'homegrown' -- what if it wasn't? Who the hell cares who's doing it! It simply is good that it is being handled in such a thoroughly scientific, systematic, non-political manner.

Some folks just can't bare not to f--- up the good intentions of others and distort the meaning of simple facts.

Chris Golledge 8 years, 6 months ago

Why is there a requirement of proof? We all have to go through life with various amounts of uncertainty and play the odds as best as we can.

No one can prove that something bad will happen if you point a loaded gun at yourself and pull the trigger. The mechanism might fail; the round might misfire, you might miss, etc. However, there is plenty of evidence readily available that supports the belief that something bad might, and very likely will, happen. If you choose to ignore the evidence, or simply don't understand it, well, I can only advise against trying the test. I might also request that you not point the gun at me; I'm sorry if you see that as an infringement of your rights.

LG40, I have been following the climate change story for a couple of decades. Every evidence is that the story is getting more dramatic. Likely, I will still be interested in it 10 years from now, but, my guess of where the story is going is opposite of yours. If you really want evidence as opposed to proof, well, here are some references.

or maybe the References section here is more on target

Oh, and Escapee, I read the story carefully; I did not detect any indication that, "...they have already identified a weakening of the earth's crust insinuating a volcanic factor in contributing to the ice melt." But, I chalk that up to, different people interpreting the same information and coming to different conclusions. The possible volcanic activity that was mentioned was ~300 meters ago; since annual ice layers are measured in centimeters, typically 2-10 cm, that was too far in the past to be contributing to more recent changes in the ice mass. On the gouge in the crust, no mention was made of the size, and the way it was listed with other features, I took it as just one of the interesting features they found, as in, 'Hey, this ice stream we've been looking at on the surface also has a gouge under it.', nothing more.

Overall, I'm thinking that we should get another satellite in orbit, with the kinds of instruments these guys are developing.

Escapee 8 years, 6 months ago

CG22165, regarding the 'weakening of the crust'...

KU prof: Global warming not sole culprit 19 comments / December 13, 2007 (ljworld) (This article is the first one listed in the referring articles following this most current one. It was written about this same team from KU.):

"We think it may be a part of greater geothermal activity beneath the entire ice sheet," said Kees van der Veen, a KU researcher and professor in the department of geography.

The CReSIS researchers found the weakness in the crust using data gathered with the center's airborne radar, which has been flying over Greenland, combined with Navy data on the gravitational pull over the ice sheet. Van der Veen and Tim Leftwich, of KU, worked with Ralph von Freese of Ohio State University to analyze the data.

"For the most part, up until recently, the glaciologists ignored the geophysical activity beneath the ice sheets," van der Veen said.

Sorry if I misled you, CG -- I didn't mean it was in the current article. I've been following this story for several years....

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