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It’s a satellite’s job, but someone’s got to do it

Now at seven, Nasa’s aeroplane-based ice-mapping mission is hitting its stride
A Bridge over the ‘Lance’ (Image: Nasa)

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After nearly a decade of being on the wing, Nasa’s ice-mappers seem to have got their routine down-pat.

Since 2009, IceBridge, which uses aeroplanes to conduct annual ice surveys in the Arctic and Antarctic, has been collecting information about sea ice north of Greenland and Alaska by flying patterns out of Thule, Greenland, and Fairbanks, Alaska.

Typically, the patterns have varied from the previous year, but this year, it followed the same routes at the 2014 mission did.

“We’ve achieved a pattern survey of flights that is doing its job,” said Jackie Richter-Menge, one of the programme’s head scientists, prior to this year’s mission beginning on March 19.

SEE VIDEO: A bird’s eye view of Greenland’s ice cap (at end of article)

IceBridge’s job is reveal things like distribution and thickness if ice and pass it on to scientists seeking to predict seasonal ice coverage. It also supplements information being supplied by European satellites. In addition, IceBridge flights over Greenland have contributed new understanding of land-based ice as well.

All of this information helps Nasa keep tabs on the changes that have been happening in recent years, despite not having a satellite of its own.

Between 2003 and 2009, Nasa relied on ICESat, a satellite, to collect data about ice. Starting in 2017, those duties will be taken over by another satellite, ICESat2.

IceBridge, a stop-gap measure that became necessary due to the inability to launch ICESat 2 in time to replace ICESat, is due to keep flying until 2019, which the programme’s administrators say is necessary in order to be able to ensure that ICESat2 is reporting back properly.

SEE RELATED: Greenlandic canyon is ‘a tiny piece in the big puzzle’

So far, IceBridge has proved to be an adequate replacement, and has offered scientists with something satellites cannot: low-altitude flyovers of research stations.

This year it overflew experiments in Alaska, Greenland and perhaps most dramatically, the Lance, a ship that had been intentionally trapped in the ice of the Fram Strait (pictured above).

“We use their detailed measurements collected on the ground to better understand the geographically much wider, but in some cases less detailed measurements we take from the air,” said John Sonntag, the head of the IceBridge field team.

At the end of May, IceBridge wrapped up its annual Arctic campaign. While the mission, this year involving 33 eight-hour flights over a ten-week period, now resembles those flown in previous years, it was not all business as usual.

The plane the mission normally uses, a P-3, a type of surveillance plane, needed new wings this year, requiring the team to install their kit on a modified C-130, a cargo plane. Even a replacement needs replacing sometimes.