Radar aids global-warming research

Lawrence,KS (01-09-2002)

From Lawrence Journal World
By Terry Rombeck

KU professor develops data-collecting tool to aid in environmental studies

Volcanoes, not global warming, could be causing ice to melt in Greenland, according to a study published in a recent issue of the journal Science.

Two Kansas University professors were involved with the NASA-sponsored study, which used an airplane-mounted radar to map the ice sheet and bedrock beneath it.

But it will take decades of data collecting to determine whether the Earth's warming is natural or a man-made problem.

"We don't know really what's going on," said David Braaten, KU professor of physics and astronomy and one of the project's researchers. "It's really a wild card."

The radar was developed by Prasad Gogineni, KU professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Researchers began using the original in 1993, but Gogineni and his students have been improving it annually. The data included in the recent journal article were gathered in 1999.

"The radar has become one of the best in the world in terms of the quality of data it collects and in terms of how rapidly we turn around the data for use in the scientific community," Gogineni said.

Researchers have taken annual data-collecting flights over Greenland, where 84 percent of the island's 1.35 million square miles are covered by ice. The ice sheets are nearly 2 miles deep in some places and include 80 percent of the Earth's freshwater supply enough to raise sea levels a catastrophic 20 feet if it all melted.

"They're very dynamic things," Braaten said of the ice sheets. "They're not these clumps of ice sitting up there in the polar regions. They're moving and changing."

The researchers last month requested a three-year extension to their project.

The radar tracks "ice streams," which are routes ice takes when melting into the ocean. Formations along the bedrock led the researchers to believe some of the melting was caused by geothermal heat the same radioactive decay inside the Earth that causes hot springs and volcanoes.

The radar also maps the bedrock, which will determine routes ice might take if melting during climate changes. The more frozen the bedrock is, the slower melting ice travels.

Drilling projects in Greenland have gathered similar information for selected sites, and have shown the radar is accurate to about 10 meters when measuring ice thickness. Unlike drilling, the radar can be used in wider areas.

Gogineni said computer models will be developed to help determine whether melting in Greenland is part of the Earth's natural warming and cooling or caused by gases released into the atmosphere.

"However long you observe the ice sheets, it's very short compared to the life span of the ice sheet," he said.

A NASA satellite set for launch this year will provide data for all of Greenland every six months. The airplane radar then will provide more detailed information for areas of interest identified by the satellite.

"The changes we're seeing now might be completely natural," Braaten said. "Once the satellite goes up, things will clear up really quickly.

"What you're trying to identify is if that rate (of melting) is going to change significantly. If it does change significantly, 60 percent of the world's population is in trouble."

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