High above Greenland glaciers, NASA looks into melting ocean ice

OMG surveys Greenlandic glaciers in the winter, comparing it with the data they collect about the oceans in the summer over a five-year period, which Willis hopes will allow researchers to better predict sea-level rise.
NASA looks into melting ocean ice.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)
NASA looks into melting ocean ice.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Updated on Aug 26, 2019 11:47 AM IST
Copy Link
Greenland | ByAgence France-Presse

Skimming low over the gleaming white glaciers on Greenland’s coast in a modified 1940s plane, three NASA scientists, led by an Elvis-impersonating oceanographer, waited to drop a probe into the water beneath them.

They are part of Oceans Melting Greenland -- or OMG -- a mission that has flown around the vast island for four summers, dropping probes to collect data on how oceans contribute to the rapid melt of Greenland’s ice.

Dressed in a blue jumpsuit and with thick sideburns that give a hint of his occasional pastime impersonating Elvis, Joshua Willis, 44, is the oceanographer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory behind the project - and, along with his wife, its name.

“We’re looking at probably metres of sea level rise in the next hundred years and that’s a huge threat to hundreds of millions of people around the world, so a bit of alarm and OMG is probably warranted,” he said.

Passing over rocky fjords, dazzling glaciers and icebergs, some dozens of metres (feet) high looming out of the water, Willis and the crew took turns dropping the 1.5-metre cylindrical probes and watching as the data came in showing the ocean’s temperature and salinity.

‘Ice cube under a hair dryer’

Willis is investigating how warmer layers of water off the coast come into contact with glaciers and how this effects how quickly they melt.

“A lot of people think of the ice here as melting from the air warming, sort of like an ice cube under a hair dryer, but in fact the oceans are also eating away at the ice’s edges,” Willis said.

OMG surveys Greenlandic glaciers in the winter, comparing it with the data they collect about the oceans in the summer over a five-year period, which Willis hopes will allow researchers to better predict sea-level rise.

The island has three quarters bordering the Arctic ocean and is 85 percent covered in ice -- if this ice sheet were to disappear completely, it would raise the ocean level by seven metres (23 feet).

The Arctic region has warmed twice as fast as the global average, and Greenland, a resource-rich Danish possession, has become a focal point for climate research -- as well an object of desire for US President Donald Trump, who scrapped a trip to Denmark over its dismissal of his attempts to buy the autonomous territory.

Greenland ‘a challenge’

NASA -- best know for the moon landings and space travel -- started to study the earth’s climate in greater depth from the 1970s when its inter-planetary exploration budget was reduced, using its satellites to look at the earth.

Today it has more than a dozen satellites in orbit monitoring earth’s seas, ice, land and atmosphere, along with missions like OMG, which Willis hopes will provide data to give better predictions of sea-level rise around the globe.

At the rear of the refitted DC3, built in 1942 for the Canadian air force during World War II, project manager Ian McCubbin took his turn by a chute holding the plastic probe, waiting for the order to drop it.

Sucked out into the cold air below, the four-foot cylinder parachuted into the water and after a nervous wait, started transmitting data to the team on the plane.

With 20 years’ experience flying with the JPL, McCubbin also organises the mission’s logistics from the remote airfields it flies out of during the summer.

“Dealing with Greenland’s remoteness is a unique challenge,” McCubbin said on a break between dropping probes, a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes.

Limited communications and transport links and the island’s unpredictable weather all make keeping the mission in the air more complicated, but McCubbin said he was happy to put up with the difficulties.

“The relevance of this project makes it exciting to work on, given the importance to our society, our children, our children’s children,” he said.

‘Tough decisions ahead’

Ian Fenty, an investigator with OMG, sat in front of a laptop and a bank of electronics receiving the signals from the probes.

After each probe hit the water, data started to upload almost immediately onto the small screen on the laptop on the tray table in front of Fenty.

“The data we’re collecting are super valuable because they’re allowing us for the very first time to quantitatively relate ocean temperature changes with the melting of the ice sheet,” he said.

After two hours in the air along the coast of eastern Greenland, the plane turned and headed back to base at the remote village of Kulusuk, flying low over icebergs and pods of whales in the sea below.

After the flight, Willis, wearing Ray Bans, a leather jacket with the collar turned up and a guitar, gave a performance of his Elvis-inspired “Climate Rock” to diners and visiting journalists in the village’s hotel, explaining the difference between the weather and climate.

For Willis, the song, like his work with OMG, are all part of trying to get his message about climate change and sea-level rise across.

“I feel like as a climate scientist I have a responsibility to explain what we’re finding to the world,” he said.

“We have some tough decisions ahead of us if we want to avoid the worst parts of climate change.”

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.)

Close Story

Less time to read?

Try Quickreads

  • Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky (left), Russian President Vladimir Putin (right).

    Putin, Zelensky feature among TIME's 100 Most Influential People this year

    Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin found mentions among TIME magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the category of political leaders. Amid the ongoing war between the two countries, the addition of the two most-talked about leaders of the year so far on the list is no surprise. What's interesting about the two leaders on the list is their description.

  • In this photo released by the Abu Dhabi Police, debris covers the street after an explosion in the Khalidiya district of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Monday. 

    Abu Dhabi says 2 killed, 120 injured in gas cylinder blast

    A gas cylinder explosion in the capital of the United Arab Emirates killed two people and injured 120 others Monday, police said, hours after authorities downplayed the incident and warned the public not to share images of the aftermath. The explosion struck a restaurant just after 1 p.m. in Abu Dhabi's Khalidiya neighborhood, just a few blocks from the capital's beachfront corniche.

  •  A traffic officer is dwarfed by the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019. U.S. President Joe Biden met Monday while visiting Japan with families of citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago to show his support for their efforts to win the return of their loved ones.

    Explainer: Why were Japanese abducted by North Korea?

    US President Joe Biden met Monday with families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago to show his support for their efforts to win the return of their loved ones. Japan says North Korea abducted at least 17 Japanese citizens, possibly many more, during the 1970s and 1980s. Twelve remain missing. They include school children and others living along Japan's coast. It has promised a reinvestigation, but has never announced the results.

  • People wait in a line to buy domestic gas tanks near a distributor, amid the country's economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 23, 2022. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

    SL Prez inducts 8 more ministers to handle economic crisis: Key points

    Sri Lanka's embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Monday inducted eight more ministers in his Cabinet to handle the country's financial crisis, its worst since gaining independence from Britain's rule in 1948. The new ministers belong to the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, and its allies--the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Eelam People's Democratic Party. However, the crucial finance portfolio continues to be vacant.

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses by videolink the opening plenary session, during the 51st annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, on Monday.

    At Davos, Zelensky calls for 'maximum' sanctions against Russia

    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for “maximum” sanctions against Russia during a virtual speech Monday to corporate executives, government officials and other elites on the first day of the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos. He said sanctions need to go further to stop Russia's aggression, including an oil embargo, blocking all of its banks and cutting off trade with Russia completely. He said that it's a precedent that would work for decades to come.

Story Saved
Saved Articles
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Tuesday, May 24, 2022