At the world’s top and bottom, KU’s CReSIS breaking new ground

Tents on the ice at the CReSIS Subglacial Lake Whillans field camp on the Siple Coast, Antarctica. Photo courtesy of KU CReSIS Deputy Director, Carl Leuschen.

CReSIS Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) on approach to land at the CReSIS/SLW field camp, Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Shawn Keshmiri, KU CReSIS.

While the rest of the world hunkers down inside during winter and fantasizes about warmer climates, scientists at Kansas University’s Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, or CReSIS, head off to some of the coldest places on Earth.

This winter again saw teams from CReSIS, a multi-university, international project to help predict the role of melting polar ice sheets on sea-levels, venturing to Greenland and Antarctica.

The research season has produced several firsts and milestones for CReSIS, including a government shutdown that threatened to derail Antarctic plans.


Operation IceBridge is an ongoing collaboration between CReSIS and NASA to carry out the largest-ever airborne survey of Earth’s polar regions.

This year marked the first time ever that crews took off from the Arctic ice itself in NASA’s P-3, a Cold War-era plane retrofitted for research. Last year’s mission had flown out from Chile.

Prasad Gogineni, CReSIS director and a KU professor of electrical engineering and computer science, said the IceBridge crew flew six survey missions over Antarctica this season and was, on the whole, “very, very successful.”

Theresa Stumpf, a KU Ph.D. student in electrical engineering and computer science and part of the IceBridge team in Antarctica, said the range of the P-3, and the fact that they took off from the continent, allowed the team to gather far more information during a single flight than in the past, when they had to essentially commute from Chile.

Good thing, too, because the team lost more than 20 potential flying days during October due to the federal government shutdown. The shutdown forced the National Science Foundation to close McMurdo Station, a critical hub of logistical support for all headed to Antarctica.

After the shutdown ended, the crew made it to Antarctica by the second week of November and left the ice on Dec. 2.

As for taking off from the ice on the fiercest continent on Earth, Stumpf said she wasn’t much worried. “I feel like I’m safe in a NASA aircraft.”

Drones over Antarctica

In another first, a CReSIS team currently in Antarctica successfully collected radar data from an unmanned aerial vehicle.

The team is testing the unmanned craft over the Sub-glacial Lake Whillans in western Antarctica. Unmanned crafts could prove safer to fly in areas of rough, crevassed topography where pilots must fly along a tedious, closely spaced grid for long stretches, in heavy winds, to obtain good measurements of ice thickness, Gogineni said.

Altogether three CReSIS teams are in Antarctica studying ice sheets from the air and ground, with crew members sleeping in tents on the ice. All teams are expected back by Jan. 21, according to CReSIS.

“We know everything is going well, and they’re getting good data,” Gogineni said.

Massive formations

Data and research done by CReSIS has led to some big finds. Very big.

A December article from Nature outlined the discovery of an aquifer the size of Ireland resting below the ice of Greenland. Scientists found the aquifer using radar technology developed by CReSIS, and four CReSIS scientists were authors on the article.

Gogineni, who was among the authors, said understanding the aquifer might prove important in determining how quickly the glaciers of Greenland melt as climate change ramps up. Should water from the aquifer drain and lubricate the ice bed around the glacier, it could speed the melting process.

In August, CReSIS data was also used to identify a massive canyon — 460 miles long and 2,600 feet deep in places — hiding under a Greenland ice sheet.