Students chill in Greenland, study polar ice with scientists

Lawrence,KS (07-03-2002)

From The University Daily Kansan
By Eve Lamborn

It was early June, and I was shivering.

Even though I was wearing my winter coat, gloves and a hat, the brisk wind made my teeth chatter. I thought of my friends back in Kansas, likely weathering the summer heat and humidity in shorts and T-shirts, but my thoughts were interrupted by a sharp crack that echoed across the boulder field where I was perched, followed by a deep boom.

The cold wind was blowing off the Greenland ice sheet, and I was 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle, so far north that it didnt get dark at night, watching a glacier drop chunks of ice into a stream.

I was in Kangerlussuaq, a dusty, one-road town nestled between the western coast of Greenland and its polar ice sheet, on the ultimate field trip.

Scientists at the University of Kansas have developed two types of airborne radar to measure Greenlands ice sheet, which is more than two kilometers thick in some places and covers 80 percent of the worlds largest island. Every summer they travel to fly over the ice and gather data, and I got to tag along for a week as a reporting intern, paid through a University grant.

I could see a crack across the face of the glacier that had been widening almost imperceptibly for the last half-hour, a tantalizing hint that a big piece of ice was going to fall off. Almost without warning, the entire face of the glacier split off and thundered to the ground. The impact sent a wave of water and ice shooting into the air. The reverberations echoed off the rocks.

The scientists are studying polar ice because sea levels have been rising over the last century. Sixty percent of the worlds population lives in coastal areas, so rising oceans could have catastrophic long-term consequences. Scientists think melting ice sheets are causing some of the oceans rise as a result of climate change, but much research is still needed to be able to predict what will happen in the future, and thats where the University scientists contribute.

We are trying to determine what role the polar ice caps are playing in sea level rise, said Pannirselvam Kanagaratnam, graduate research assistant and research engineer with the Information and Telecommunications Technology Center, who was on the trip.

Led by Prasad Gogineni, Deane E. Ackers Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, scientists from ITTC at the University first came to Greenland in 1993 with a radar that measured the thickness of the ice sheet.

We need to know the thickness to be able to tell how much ice is coming out, Gogineni said.

Kanagaratnam developed another type of radar for his doctoral thesis that maps the internal layers of the ice sheet. These annual layers help determine how quickly snow is accumulating.

The accumulation rate is one of the most important experiments that is required to see what the contribution of the ice sheet is to sea level rise, he said.

We flew on a P-3 Orion that was built by the Navy and owned by NASA. Instead of torpedoes, the bomb bay underneath the plane carried scientific equipment; instead of flying over oceans searching for enemy subs, it flew over ice sheets gathering data.

While the flight crew fueled the plane and warmed up the engines, the scientists booted up their computers and calibrated their machinery. KU graduate Torry Akins operated the ice-thickness radar.

If you know how thick the ice is, you can know how much ice is flowing past a certain point, he said.

I got to sit in the cockpit for a prime view of the blue seas, brown hills and brilliant white ice. We flew low, 5,000 feet above the ice.

The surface of the ice was sometimes soft and hazy, and other times it was jagged and sharp. Sometimes we were so far out over the ice sheet that it spread to the horizon like a frozen ocean, and other times we skimmed over glaciers dropping icebergs into the water. One flight took us over the Jakobshavn Glacier, the fastest moving glacier in the world, which produces 20 million tons of ice a day.

Bill Krabill, a NASA senior scientist who was on the plane doing similar research of his own, said that glaciers were drainage points for the ice sheet.

The dynamic part of the ice sheet is the edge, he said.

In between flights I had time for a close-up view of the ice, as well as musk ox, reindeer and mosquitoes.

Kanagaratnam said after the trip that his radar had worked superbly. He, Akins, Gogineni and the students they are working with are spending the rest of this summer back in hot, humid Lawrence, processing the data and tweaking their systems for the next trip, where they and the other scientists they work with will continue the arduous process of scientific inquiry.

Were taking a little piece of the puzzle and trying to understand it, Krabill said.

For more information, contact ITTC.

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