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Exploring the arctic with IU and Operation IceBridge: Flying a supercomputer over Antarctica

High performance systems Jun 27, 2019

NASA satellite images show that sea ice in the Arctic Ocean covers 40% less area than it did 40 years ago, a change that already affects global weather patterns, increasing the current rate of warming. But, to predict how the ice will respond to a variety of climate conditions, researchers need accurate models of ice sheets and data about their behavior. Operation IceBridge, a decade-long NASA mission now in its final year, has sought to provide a highly accurate yearly picture of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, ice sheets, and ice shelves, in order to track their behavior and enable predictions about their future.

Since 2009, in collaboration with the University of Kansas’s Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) and Indiana University’s Research Technologies (RT) division of UITS have collected and processed hundreds of terabytes of data amassed as the team flies over the ice in Greenland and Antarctica. The mission uses naval P-3 and DC-8 planes equipped with multiple radar systems and an IU-designed flying supercomputer called the Forward Observer to map surface snow accumulation, the thickness of the snow on top of the sea ice, and the terrain under the ice. They use these same instruments, predefined flight lines, and satellite tracks to gather data and track change over time particularly for regions of interest such as the Jakobshavn Glacier. To assemble a full picture of these icescapes, the team flies back and forth over the terrain’s midline, logging enough nautical miles each year to circumnavigate the globe several times over.

Being part of IU’s collaboration with CReSIS and Operation IceBridge since it’s inception has been rewarding. We are proud partners with CReSIS and NASA and believe changing the computational and storage infrastructure has resulted in fascinating discoveries more quickly.

Matthew Link, Associate Vice President of Research Technologies

Aaron Wells, a polar field engineer coming to Operation IceBridge from IU, runs the Forward Observer while the team is actively in flight, managing the data collected, which can be up to 5 terabytes per flight (up to 350 terabytes per season). Forward Observer captures the data and makes three copies of the information: one copy for preservation, one for backup, one near real time “first-look” analysis in flight. Before Forward Observer, the research team would capture data throughout the flight, land make two more copies of those data and then process the data on-ground. This was an issue which was costly in terms of flight time, personnel time, and time to science. With the IU-designed Forward Observer, the research team can now get a preliminary look at the data which is being collected while in-flight thus making it possible for the team to make adjustments while they’re still out in flight.

I was part of the team of three that developed the Forward Observer allowing researchers to do real time analysis in flight. Having the ability to change course to address issues in flight allows researchers to get to the science faster.

Matthew Link, Associate Vice President of Research Technologies

Over its ten years, the mission’s discoveries have been many and range from the odd to the jarring. In 2012, the team found a large canyon underneath a mile of ice and entirely invisible from the ice’s surface. One of Operation IceBridge’s radar systems, the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder (MCORDS), designed and operated by CReSIS, penetrates through the ice, allowing the researchers to see the bedrock below. Dubbed Greenland’s Grand Canyon, it is longer than its U.S. counterpart, and deeper in some places. In 2018, another fascinating discovery was enabled. While taking core samples of the ice in -15℃ weather, a team from Denmark and Greenland drilled into an area in which CReSIS noted an anomaly, and pulled out the core only to have liquid water erupt like a geyser after being held in its liquid state by extreme pressure.

The NASA Operation IceBridge team, with its unprecedented access to aerial views, has also taken some images of the ice’s anomalies, prompting global speculation about their origins. While flying over the Beaufort Sea in Greenland in 2018, the team saw three perfectly circular holes in the ice. Their precise origin remains unknown, but plausible explanations include convection, and seals creating breathing holes. Similar in nature, and in the extraterrestrial explanations it prompted on social media, was an oddly square iceberg spotted in Antarctica in 2018, which turned out to be one of many tabular icebergs split from the edges of ice shelves. More alarming, however, are the icebergs the team has seen split off from larger glaciers, as was the case with B-46, an iceberg three times the size of Manhattan that split off from the Pine Island glacier in 2018, or another, this time twice the size of Manhattan, that will likely break off from the Brunt Ice Shelf in 2019.

Still curious about Operation IceBridge? Over the course of its ten years, it wasn’t unusual for the team to have media on site and in-flight with them; this past year, they had a film crew from the BBC series Frozen Planet; be on the lookout for its third installment in 2021!

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