Scientists say the project will give them a rare look at melting
Unmanned airplanes flying over Greenland’s ice sheet this month is expected to give Boulder scientists a rare chance to do everything from monitor melting to tracking seal and polar bear populations.
A team of scientists from the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are flying the two small, crewless planes over a portion of the ice sheet. The technical remote-control airplane operation, with the pilot stationed on the icy island, will allow scientists to probe into territory where dangerous conditions have limited research.
Scientists are heralding the mission as the next era of Arctic exploration.
Researchers want to better understand the lakes that are fed from meltwater, and their relationships with the ice sheet’s movement and the rate at which it melts, said field campaign coordinator John Adler, a CU doctoral student and NOAA Corps officer.
They are curious whether the lakes can signal how much water will drain from the ice sheet, and contribute to the sea-level rise, he said. When the glacier moves, it forms cracks, holes and cylinder-like shafts that allow water to quickly drain down the glacier, he said.
“We want to know how much water is on top of the ice sheet, where it goes and how much it takes to influence how fast the ice sheet slides to sea,” Adler said.
Adler is studying under Professor Konrad Steffen, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a joint institute of CU’s Boulder campus and NOAA.
Researchers have been closely monitoring Greenland’s climate over the past few decades, watching to see whether the ice sheet is shrinking over time, Steffen said. Greenland is currently shedding about 50 cubic miles per year, he said.
Steffen runs a research camp on the ice sheet and directs a network of 22 stations on the ice known as the Greenland Climate Network. He said there’s a link between the melt lakes and the melting ice sheet.
“They may allow water to drain to the bottom of the ice sheet and lubricate the base,” Steffen said.
The two planes, which are called Mantas, were developed by an industry partner — Advanced Ceramics Research Inc., which is based in Tucson, Ariz. The planes are less than six feet long — small enough to fit in the bed of a pickup truck. They will carry a digital camera, atmospheric temperature and pressure sensors and other science tools.
The Mantas will be able to fly between 500 and 1,000 feet above the surface, which is a lower altitude than would be possible with a manned plane.
By measuring the amount of sunlight penetrating the lake water, researchers can estimate lake depth and the potential amounts of water that could drain through the ice sheet and out to sea, according to CU.
Betsy Weatherhead, one of the two lead scientists for NOAA’s program in the Arctic, said the unmanned aircraft will be a key tool in monitoring marine mammals and the thinning Arctic sea ice.
“Getting measurements over the Arctic is very difficult, and we don’t understand much about the Arctic because of that,” she said. “That window is now open. This is a major breakthrough.”