NASA’s Operation IceBridge Completes Eleven Years of Polar Surveys

From NASA Global Climate Change

NASA’s Operation IceBridge, a ten-year mission to collect polar data between ICESat and ICESat-2, may be coming to a close, but its hundreds of terabytes of data and the expertise of its team will continue to fuel research and discovery for decades to come. Credit: NASA / Jim Yungel

By Jessica Merzforf,
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

For eleven years from 2009 through 2019, the planes of NASA’s Operation IceBridge flew above the Arctic, Antarctic and Alaska, gathering data on the height, depth, thickness, flow and change of sea ice, glaciers and ice sheets.

For 11 years from 2009 to 2019, the planes of NASA’s Operation IceBridge flew above the Arctic, Antarctic and Alaska, gathering data on the height, depth, thickness, flow and change of sea ice, glaciers and ice sheets. Credit: NASA/ Katie Jepson. This video can be downloaded for free at NASA’s Scientific VIsualization Studio.

Designed to collect data during the years between NASA’s two Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellites, ICESat and ICESat-2, IceBridge made its final polar flight in November 2019, one year after ICESat-2’s successful launch.

As the team and planes move on to their next assignments, the scientists and engineers reflected on a decade of IceBridge’s most significant accomplishments.

2009: IceBridge’s Launch and First Flights

NASA’s first Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) monitored ice, clouds, atmospheric particles and vegetation globally beginning in 2003. As ICESat neared the end of its life, NASA made plans to keep measuring ice elevation with aircraft until ICESat-2’s launch. ICESat finished its service in August 2009, and IceBridge took over land and sea ice measurements for the next decade.

The number and models of IceBridge aircraft changed from year to year, and they carried more than a dozen instruments, from elevation-mapping lasers and ice-penetrating radars, to optical and infrared cameras, to gravimeters and magnetometers that reveal information about the bedrock under the ice. Beyond simply bridging the altimetry gap, the mission’s comprehensive suite of instruments allowed it to document fast and slow changes to the ice sheets, understand the geophysical causes of those changes, track yearly fluctuations in sea ice thickness and improve computing and modeling tools for research.

Before IceBridge, NASA was annually monitoring vulnerable areas of the Greenland Ice Sheet via the Arctic Ice Mapping Project (AIM). But IceBridge far surpassed previous campaigns in size and scope, with annual surveys of both poles, more instruments and a longer timeframe that allowed it to track changes across and even within years.

One of IceBridge’s first important contributions was mapping hundreds of miles of grounding lines in both Antarctica and Greenland. Grounding lines are where a glacier’s bottom loses contact with the bedrock and begins floating on seawater. A grounding line that is higher than rock that the ice behind it is resting on increases the possibility of future unstable retreat.

“Before IceBridge, we had a lot of glaciers where we didn’t have information on their grounding lines, which made it challenging to model them and develop reliable projections of sea level rise,” said Michael Studinger, team lead for the Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) instrument and IceBridge’s project scientist from 2010 to 2015.

The team mapped 200 glaciers along Greenland’s coastal areas over their decade of work, as well as coastal areas, the interior of the Greenland Ice Sheet and high-priority areas in Antarctica. “We asked, ‘How will this look in 2030 or a hundred years from now?’” Studinger said.

2011: Antarctic Glacier Rifts and Calving Events

The team’s expertise and adaptability enabled them to quickly modify flight routes as needed. During their 2011 Antarctic survey, IceBridge scientists spotted a massive crack in Pine Island Glacier, one of the fastest-changing glaciers on the continent. They later returned to study it more closely, and the crack produced a new glacier that October. This nimbleness made IceBridge uniquely versatile and responsive to the needs of the science community, enabling more science than their baseline assignments.

A photo from the window of NASA's DC-8 shows the rift across the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf running off toward the horizon.

A photo from the window of NASA’s DC-8 shows the rift across the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf running off toward the horizon. The plane flew across the crevasse on Oct. 26, 2011 as part of NASA’s Operation IceBridge, and also flew directly over the rift for about 18 miles, taking detailed measurements of its depth, width and shape. The ice shelf hadn’t calved a major iceberg since 2001, and IceBridge took advantage of the opportunity afforded by spotting the crack to fly over it and measure its characteristics. Credit: NASA / Michael Studinger

Pine Island has grown thinner and more unstable in recent decades, now generating new icebergs almost every year. IceBridge monitored Pine Island and other Antarctic glaciers every year, watching for cracks that could lead to icebergs and using radar and gravimeters to map features like the deep water channel underneath Pine Island Glacier, which may bring warm water to its underside and make it melt faster.

“We need measurements to understand Antarctica’s ice today and models to understand its future, which ultimately affects us all via sea-level change,” said IceBridge project scientist Joe MacGregor. “Precisely measuring which Antarctic glaciers are thinning right now – and watching how they evolve over several years – helps us improve those models. Most of the biggest changes in Antarctic ice are occurring in West Antarctica, and unfortunately, that ice is very likely to continue thinning for the foreseeable future.”

2013: Looking Below the Ice – at Both Poles

Bedrock map of Antarctica The new bedrock map of Antarctica developed in 2013 from IceBridge and other data was far more detailed than previous maps, giving researchers and modelers new information about how ice flows or sticks on the rock below the Antarctic ice sheet. Credit: NASA / Cynthia Starr

In 2013, scientists from the British Antarctic Survey released an updated map of the bedrock beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The model included surface elevation, ice thickness and bedrock topography data from ICESat, IceBridge and missions from international partners.

Understanding what kind of rock lies beneath an ice sheet can yield important clues about how the ice on top might flow and change, said Studinger.

“Gravity and magnetic measurements provide you with constraints to infer what kind of rock you have below an ice sheet,” he said. “That matters for the way and speed the ice is flowing. If you have soft sediment rock, that and meltwater can be a lubricant for an ice sheet. Crystalline rock, like granite, is harder to turn into a lubricant, making it more challenging for an ice sheet to develop a fast flow.”

Carried by its own weight and the dynamics of the ground or water beneath it, ice flows toward the ocean, eventually floating offshore and potentially breaking off into icebergs, like those of the Pine Island Glacier. The better scientists understand this flow, the better they can model how it might progress in the future. IceBridge’s array of instruments measuring the top, middle and bottom of the Antarctic ice sheet are uniquely suited to studying this process, said Studinger.

“Having all these pieces of information together is incredibly valuable, and we repeat the measurements year after year so we can see how things change over time,” he said. “That is a tremendous data asset and something we can’t do from space.”

Sometimes measuring the unseen bedrock not only helps explain known processes, but also yields new surprises. Researchers from the University of Bristol used decades of airborne radar data, much of it from IceBridge, to map the bedrock underneath the Greenland Ice Sheet. They found a previously unknown canyon more than 400 miles long and up to a half-mile deep slicing through the northern half of the country.

The scientists believe the canyon — dubbed the “grand canyon” of Greenland — may have once been a river system, and today likely transports subglacial meltwater from Greenland’s interior to the Arctic Ocean.

2015: It’s What’s Inside (the Ice Sheet) that Counts

After mapping the bedrock under the Greenland Ice Sheet, scientists turned their attention to the middle layers of the ice. Using both ice-penetrating radar and ice samples taken in the field, MacGregor and his team created the first map of the ice sheet’s many layers, formed as thousands of years of snow became compacted downward and formed ice.

As with all models, a better understanding of the past means more robust predictions of the future. Measuring past melt, accumulation and flow helps glaciologists refine their models of the Greenland Ice Sheet’s future.

“Getting a sense of how old Greenland’s ice is at different depths across the island allowed us to peer into its past,” said MacGregor. “Making the 3D map of Greenland’s ice layers enabled us to discover that the ice sheet has slowed down over the last several thousand years. It also gave us clues as to how the ice sheet has warmed in the past, and where it may be frozen to bedrock or slowly melting instead.”

2018: Completing the Data Bridge

ICESat-2 launched from California’s Vandenburg Air Force Base on September 15, 2018, rocketing IceBridge into the final phase of its mission: connecting ICESat and ICESat-2.

IceBridge continued collecting data after ICESat-2’s launch, its primary function being to validate the new satellite’s measurements. By conducting precise underflights, where planes traced the satellite’s orbit lines and took the same measurements at nearly the same time, the science teams could compare results and make sure ICESat-2’s instruments were functioning properly.

Normally, IceBridge flights were conducted in full daylight, for maximum visibility. But during the satellite underflights, the planes also took measurements at dusk, to look for changes in accuracy with lower light. They also measured so-called “blue ice,” or ice not covered by snow, to better understand how the lasers penetrated ice.

IceBridge underflew a number of European satellites during its ten years, like the ESA’s CryoSat-2 and Sentinel-3 satellites, and overflew ground campaigns like ESA’s CryoVEx campaign and the Danish PROMICE weather stations. Its precise, reliable measurements provided a standard to help other missions ensure high-quality measurements of their own.

2019: The End of an Era

In 2019, IceBridge continued flying in support of ICESat-2 for its Arctic and Antarctic campaigns. The hundreds of terabytes of data the team collected over the decade will fuel science for years to come.

“This data doesn’t get old,” Studinger said. “This data set we have right now will be incredibly valuable going into the future. It’s basically the only data set of its kind that we have.”

“Our data is freely available to anyone,” said project manager Eugenia De Marco. “I believe that, as humans, we are stewards of this planet, and as such, it is our responsibility to take care of it. The first step in that process is to find out what’s going on with the physical world so we can better address the challenges facing our planet. I believe IceBridge and the data it has collected helps answer the question of what’s going on, and that is one of the biggest contributions IceBridge has provided over the years.”

The campaign completed more than 900 flights between Greenland and Antarctica, and more than 150 in Alaska. While some members of the team changed over the decade, some have been with the project since its beginning.

“We had this incredible can-do attitude on both the instrument teams and the aircraft teams,” said Studinger, who was the project’s first lead scientist in 2009 and worked with the mission throughout the decade. “We might have been working really long days for 11 weeks straight in Greenland, but still, at 5 in the morning, people step on the airplane and say hello with a big smile on their face. It really speaks to the people, who, for me, were the most enjoyable part – the IceBridge family.”

IceBridge finished its last polar flight on November 20, 2019. The team will complete one more set of Alaska flights in 2020.

“Operation IceBridge took what NASA had already learned how to do with planes at the poles and supersized it, with consistently successful airborne campaigns across the Arctic and Antarctic for eleven years straight,” said MacGregor. “While IceBridge was laser-focused on its primary objective – bridging the gap between ICESat and ICESat-2 – it was sufficiently big and broad in scope that it generated a momentum all its own, too. IceBridge opened the door to new ways of thinking about monitoring the polar regions and enabled numerous unexpected discoveries, and brought new scientists and new data types into the fold.”

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Ron Long
December 16, 2019 6:28 am

Wow! This report is a mixture of good and bad. The good is such a large collection of geophysical data. The bad is: 1. not utilizing known geology to project, via assistance from geophysics, the geology underneath the glaciers, 2. citing the Pine Island ice crack as “starting a new glacier”, when they probably meant a new iceberg, 3. suggesting there is warm water in Antarctica melting glaciers from below (If there is warm water lets see some bikini pictures, please), and 4. citing the Grand Canyon of Greenland, 400 miles long and up to a half mile deep, probably an ancient river canyon, and not pointing out the obvious idea that Greenland was once much warmer than today (global warming writ large sometime in the past?). This data could be put to good use, especially as regards mining exploration in Greenland, sign me up.

Reply to  Ron Long
December 16, 2019 11:37 am

Go to utube and find “The Plate Climatology Theory”. Takes about 1 hr. Fascinating stuff, probably at least partially correct, but it also gives you the picture you wanted..

Ron Long
Reply to  B.Quartero
December 16, 2019 12:14 pm

OK, BQ, I read up on “The Plate Climatology Theory” and agree with your comment “probably at least partially correct”, in that the upwelling magma plumes put a lot of heat energy into shallow earth environments. However, the intra and inter glacial cycles we find ourselves in with the current Ice Age are too regular to support a significant impact. Also, the major climate cycles are world-wide, and it is hard to imagine how the upwelling magma could be so balanced. I went down into the Galena Mine, in the Coeur d Alene silver district in Idaho, one January day, snowing hard and very cold. At 3,000 feet below surface it was close to 90 deg F. This is a strong indication that the heat flow from our molten core is not properly accounted for in weather/climate.

Reply to  Ron Long
December 16, 2019 10:18 pm

There are volcanos under the Western Antarctic area likely resulting in warm water.

Reply to  Redge
December 17, 2019 4:01 am

Yes, but the volcanoes are produced by the CO2 which WE are polluting the planet with !
It’s the pressure of all that extra CO2 in the atmosphere which pressing down and causing the crust to give in certain weak zone : like those under that Antarctic ice sheet?

All roads lead to Rome ! ( The Club of Rome , more precisely ).

A C Osborn
December 16, 2019 7:28 am

Ron, of course Anartica was green. It only iced over recently in geologic terms.
Was there no mention of those underwater/ice Volcanoes and Vents?

December 16, 2019 8:29 am

Wow, they were actually flying a DC-8? Haven’t seen one of those in maybe 30 years. Flew on one once, Aero Mexicana I think.

A plane that old, if they are still using the original engines, really awful fuel consumption, and how safe could it be to fly it over the Antarctic?


Reply to  Michael Moon
December 16, 2019 12:34 pm

DC 4.

December 16, 2019 8:32 am

No, they re-engined, got turbo-fans now.

Thomas Homer
December 16, 2019 8:51 am

This will be interesting to see their results juxtaposed with their concurrent readings of ‘back radiation’ at those same locations.

They were measuring ‘back radiation’ this whole time right?

December 16, 2019 9:27 am

The data needs wide distribution and multiple duplications so it cannot be “massaged” in the future.

I don’t trust anything that touches any part of the Federal Government. They never earned that trust in the first place…then everything I’ve witnessed over the past 4 decades has fortified this suspicion and skepticism.

December 16, 2019 10:14 am

ICESat’s first two lasers malfunctioned catastrophically after only about 1 month each, and the third was operated at low powers and reduced activity to provide something for all the effort.

I would be very skeptical of results until I saw error bars/uncertainties on the measurements and subsequent calculations.

J Mac
December 16, 2019 10:16 am

Hard science, writ large with fossil fueled and manufactured technology, for all humanity!

December 16, 2019 10:35 am

Interesting how they usually use turbo-props in the polar regions.

Reply to  beng135
December 16, 2019 12:32 pm

I don’t think he actually proposed that the ice ages were controlled by plate tectonics; he did open the door a bit by suggesting there might be a link between the solar cycles and subsequent plate movement. That part is speculative. I did however like to see his Enso model tested with Argo Floats.
It should be relatively easy to see hot/warm water
coming up from great depth.
My main reason for linking this theory was however the tourism in active volcanos in Antarctica, with the pictures of people in swimsuits and obviously hot water..

Reply to  beng135
December 16, 2019 12:49 pm

The first photo shows a Lockheed Electra (or P-3) turboprop. The second photo is from the window of a turbo-fan. Caption says it is a DC-8. And I fear that Michael Moon (above) would be surprised at how old the planes in which he flies are (assuming that he flies). If properly maintained ( a big iff), planes can operate for a very long time.

Reply to  Retired_Engineer_Jim
December 17, 2019 8:01 am

Lockheed Electra (or P-3) turboprop

Beautiful plane….

Steve Z
December 16, 2019 12:31 pm

It’s not surprising that turbo-prop planes are used in polar regions. Turbo-props can fly more slowly than jet-powered planes (while still having enough lift to stay airborne), allowing more time to gather data, and can also land and take off on a shorter “runway”, if they need to land to obtain ground-based data.

It’s very possible that data obtained from low-flying planes could be more accurate than that obtained from satellites. A satellite in polar orbit has a velocity (relative to the Earth) of over 26,000 km/hr, and spends most of its time over the tropics or temperate latitudes, and maybe 10 to 15 minutes per orbit over polar ice, and any measurements must take into account the high velocity of the satellite. Plus, each successive orbit flies over a different meridian as the Earth rotates under the satellite’s orbit, so that the data need to be massaged to account for the location of the satellite on each orbit, and during months near one of the solstices, one of the poles will be in complete darkness, making meaningful measurements impossible.

Using turbo-prop planes which can fly at speeds as low as 300 km/hr allows much more time for data-gathering per flight, flights can be scheduled for daylight hours only, and spaced to avoid storms, and if an interesting trend is noticed, repeated flights can be scheduled over the same route. Photos from a few km of altitude can also reveal details which would be missed by a satellite orbiting 200 km above the surface.

Reply to  Steve Z
December 17, 2019 7:59 am

Steve Z, thanks for the info.

Reply to  Steve Z
December 18, 2019 10:38 am

additionally it is good to have a variety of measurement types to calibrate and confirm the satillite measurements. I am comforted, scientifically-speaking, to know that temp measurements are made by directs thermometer measurements at surface, in the oceans, and by balloons that may be compared and contrasted with the satellite temp measurements, for example.

December 16, 2019 12:47 pm

So 11 years of costly data collection, and the conclusion is that further work is required?

December 16, 2019 1:00 pm

“We asked, ‘How will this look in 2030 or a hundred years from now?’” Studinger said.

Not a believer.

December 16, 2019 1:30 pm

“A grounding line that is higher than rock that the ice behind it is resting on increases the possibility of future unstable retreat.”


Reply to  icisil
December 17, 2019 5:14 am

Because, under some rather special circumstances, the ice front can float and lift from the underlying rock, which hastens calving.

Reply to  tty
December 17, 2019 8:36 am

But wouldn’t the calving ice front eventually recede to a point where it no longer floats and then acts as a bulwark against the ice cliff to prevent further collapse?

old construction worker
December 16, 2019 3:31 pm
old construction worker
December 16, 2019 3:43 pm

Or, maybe this map. The Piri Reis world map, 1513. Artist: Piri Reis (1470-1553) (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images).

Mark Hansford
December 17, 2019 5:24 am

I am quite sure all that data can be manipulated to show that Antarctica will be ice free by 2100

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