NASA gets up close with Greenland’s melting ice

How is the ocean around Greenland melting its glaciers?

A close encounter with Greenland ice during a 2017 OMG field campaign
A close encounter with Greenland ice during a 2017 OMG field campaign. Credits: NASA

Using a new research plane and a new base to enhance its odds of outsmarting Atlantic hurricanes, NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) campaign takes to the sky this week for its third year of gathering data on how the sea around Greenland is melting its icy masses.

OMG Principal Investigator Josh Willis of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California said, “We’re beginning to see some surprising changes in the ocean, just since the start of OMG in 2016, that is affecting the ice. We want to see if those changes are still there after two years and if they’re spreading farther along the Greenland coast.”

Willis and Project Manager Steve Dinardo, also of JPL, are leaving for Greenland this week on an airborne campaign to do only that. For the third year consecutively, they will drop around 250 tests simply seaward all around the island, with a few drops near the fronts of ocean-terminating ice sheets.

The tests sink 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) into the seawater, recording temperature and saltiness as they go. The scientists would like to make their first trip on Aug 22 and finish the work as soon as possible, depending upon climate.

Dinardo said, “Hurricanes go up to Greenland to die. In 2016, there were days the winds were so strong we couldn’t even open the hangar doors.”

In 2017, weather struck closer to home: Hurricane Harvey sidelined the Houston-based plane and team days before the campaign was scheduled to start. Dinardo figured out how to find a reasonable elective aircraft and get the OMG group airborne within a month of the originally planned start.

A pod of narwhals, with some tusks visible as white streak
A pod of narwhals, with some tusks visible as white streaks.
Credits: University of Washington/K. Laidre

The year’s new plane and new base ought to enhance OMG’s climate odds. The plane, a Basler BT-67 worked by NASA contractual worker Airtec, can take off and arrive on a shorter runway than both of the planes OMG beforehand utilized. That enables the group to base their east drift tasks in Kulusuk, a small airport in southeastern Greenland, as opposed to a bigger air terminal in Iceland.

The lengthy “commute” from Iceland cut into the time accessible for examine on each flight, and the more extended flight way implied more places where there may be terrible climate. Once they complete the east coast drops, they will move to Thule, a U.S. air base in northwestern Greenland, for drops on the western side of the island.

The changing ocean around Greenland influences living creatures and also ice sheets. Narwhals – smallish whales with long single tusks – are interestingly adjusted to Arctic waters, moving occasionally from the open ocean to the ice sheet fronts of Greenland and Canada.

Kristin Laidre, a research scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, studies these elusive mammals and their habitats. She quickly saw the value of OMG’s observations, publishing the first peer-reviewed paper to use OMG data.

Laidre and Ian Fenty of JPL, an OMG co-principal investigator, are on the west side of Greenland from the airborne OMG team this week, on a six-day research cruise. Their team will place moorings in front of three important glaciers in northwestern Greenland, with acoustic recorders and OMG data loggers attached to the mooring chains. These instruments will log ocean temperature and conductivity (used to calculate salinity) and detections of narwhals.

Fenty said, “This intensive local dataset is likely to add new insights into OMG’s larger-scale measurements. Because the instruments will take measurements every hour for two years, we will get a totally new understanding of the changing ocean close to the ice. These data will help us interpret our OMG probe data and allow us to evaluate and improve our [computer] simulations of the ocean currents in the area.”

Laidre said, “We don’t know a lot about what’s important to narwhals — how physical oceanography influences their habitat preferences. OMG is collecting really detailed information on the physics of the system. For us, having access to those data and working with the OMG investigators can bring us a long way in studying these animals.”