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NASA in Alaska 2014: Charting MABEL’s course

August 1st, 2014 by Kate Ramsayer

For more than 65 hours this month, NASA’s high-altitude ER-2 aircraft flew from Fairbanks over melting sea ice, glaciers, forests, permafrost, lakes, volcanoes and more. It zigged and zagged over the Beaufort Sea, and soared straight over the Bagley Ice Field.

The goal: to use a laser altimeter called MABEL to take elevation measurements over specific points and paths of land, sea and ice. To hit these marks, scientists and pilots painstakingly designed and refined flight routes. And then they adjusted those routes again to capture cloud-free views – a tricky proposition in a giant state with mountains creating complex weather systems.

A camera on the MABEL instrument captured shots of cracked sea ice, dotted with melt ponds, during a flight to the North Pole. (Credit: NASA)

A camera on the MABEL instrument captured pictures of cracked sea ice, dotted with melt ponds, during a flight to the North Pole. (Credit: NASA)

“We have targets to the north, targets to the south, and mountain ranges blocking both,” said Kelly Brunt, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who was MABEL’s science flight planner.

Scientists studying forests, glaciers, water and more are using MABEL data to develop software programs for the upcoming ICESat-2 satellite mission, and sent Brunt lists of what they would like to be included in the Alaska campaign.

“We get everybody’s input, and start to put it on a map,” she said. She drafts routes with targets in similar weather patterns, so that if one is clear the others are likely to be as well. However, often targets are removed from a route, based on the weather assessment from the morning of the flight. During the deployment, routes are also constructed to target specific sites that were missed during previous flights for either weather or aircraft reasons. Lots of the work goes into straightening the flight line, Brunt said, since when the aircraft banks at 65,000 feet, the laser instruments swivel off their ground track and the scientists can lose miles worth of measurements.

The MABEL campaign's July 24 flight route covered glaciers, ice fields, forests, the Gulf of Alaska and more. (Credit: NASA)

The MABEL campaign’s July 24 flight route covered glaciers, ice fields, forests, the Gulf of Alaska and more. (Credit: NASA)

One flight to measure sea ice was pretty direct – it took the pilot straight to the North Pole over one longitude line, circled around and came back on another. A second route involved a zig-zag pattern over the Arctic. But both routes were designed to capture a range of summer ice conditions, including melt ponds, large stretches of open water, and small openings in the sea ice, known as leads.

Flights over Alaska itself were often mapped to pass over glaciers, lakes, ocean moorings or even tide gauges that others have measured before, to compare with the data MABEL collected. Students from the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP) assisted MABEL researchers by providing ground-based GPS validation for a mission that flew over the upper Taku Glacier, close to a JIRP camp. And the MABEL team collaborated with NASA Goddard scientists flying a different instrument, called Goddard’s LiDAR, Hyperspectral and Thermal (G-LiHT) Airborne Imager – the two campaigns flew some of the same paths over interior Alaskan forests.

NASA ER-2 pilot Denis Steele, in a pressurized flight suit, before a July 16 flight over Alaska's glaciers. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

NASA ER-2 pilot Denis Steele, in a pressurized flight suit, before a July 16 flight over Alaska’s glaciers. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

From Fairbanks, Brunt worked with the campaign’s two pilots, Tim Williams and Denis Steele, to ensure the routes would work with the ER-2’s capabilities; and with weather forecasters to determine where to best focus efforts the following day.

In all, the campaign flew 7 flights out of Fairbanks. And today, the ER-2 – with MABEL aboard – flies back to California, collecting even more data about the elevation of the landscape along the way.

NASA in Alaska 2014: MABEL readied to snap photos from above

July 15th, 2014 by Kate Ramsayer

Clouds blanketed much of MABEL’s potential flight routes over the Alaskan Arctic or southern glaciers on Monday, so the ER-2 aircraft stayed in the hangar at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska.

But the MABEL team was busy. They took advantage of a day on the ground by improving the instrument’s new camera. The goal is to take more images like the one below, to help scientists interpret the data from the airborne lidar instrument.

As the ER-2 aircraft traveled from Palmdale, California, to Fairbanks, Alaska, the camera on MABEL took this shot of wind turbines near Bakersfield, California. (Credit: NASA)

As the ER-2 aircraft traveled from Palmdale, California, to Fairbanks, Alaska, the camera on MABEL took this shot of wind turbines near Bakersfield, California. (Credit: NASA)

It’s the first week of the summer 2014 campaign for MABEL, or the Multiple Altimeter Beam Experimental Lidar, the ICESat-2 satellite’s airborne test instrument. MABEL measures the height of Earth below using lasers and photon-counting devices. This year, the team is using a new camera system to take snapshots of the land, ice and water in parallel with MABEL’s measurements.

The MABEL instrument is nestled snug in the nose cone of the high-altitude ER-2, which has a circular window in the base where the laser and the camera view the ground. To get access to MABEL and the camera, the crew propped up the nose and wheeled it away from the aircraft.

The ER-2 crew rolls the aircraft's nose -- containing MABEL -- away from its body, so engineers could work on the instrument. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer)

The ER-2 crew rolls the aircraft’s nose — containing MABEL — away from its body, so engineers could work on the instrument. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

The team then carefully slid the instrument out onto a cart, so that MABEL’s on-site engineer and programmer – Eugenia DeMarco and Dan Reed – could work on the camera and ensure the connections were sound.

MABEL engineer Eugenia DeMarco and programmer Dan Reed work on improving the new camera system for the instrument. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

MABEL engineer Eugenia DeMarco and programmer Dan Reed work on improving the new camera system for the instrument. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

When the camera was set to document the terrain from 65,000 feet, the team slid MABEL back to its spot and wheeled the aircraft’s nose back to the rest of its body. They connected the instrument to the plane’s electronics, sealed the plane back up, and are ready to go whenever the weather cooperates.

Luis Rios, with NASA's ER-2 crew, checks the connections between the MABEL instrument and the aircraft. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

Luis Rios, with NASA’s ER-2 crew, checks the connections between the MABEL instrument and the aircraft. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

 

NASA in Alaska 2014: MABEL: Welcome to Fairbanks!

July 14th, 2014 by Kate Ramsayer

Very few people get to fly 65,000 feet above Alaska’s glaciers. And even fewer get to fly over ones they share a name with. But on Friday, as pilot Denis Steele flew NASA’s ER-2 aircraft from Palmdale, California, to Fairbanks, Alaska, he snapped a picture of the scenery below – including Steele Glacier in the southwestern corner of Canada’s Yukon territory.

From NASA's ER-2 aircraft, pilot Denis Steele saw glaciers in southern Alaska and Canada -- including the Steele Glacier, in the center of the image, and the Donjek Glacier (lower right). (Credit: Denis Steele)

From NASA’s ER-2 aircraft, pilot Denis Steele saw glaciers in southern Alaska and Canada — including the Steele Glacier, the horizontal feature in the center of the image, and the Donjek Glacier (lower right). (Credit: Denis Steele)

Steele and the ER-2 team, along with NASA scientists, engineers and others, are here in Fairbanks to fly a laser altimeter – MABEL, or Multiple Altimeter Beam Experimental Lidar – over melting summer sea ice, glaciers and more. It’s a campaign to see what these polar regions will look like with data from ICESat-2, once the satellite launches and starts collecting data about the height of Earth below. Gathering information now allows scientists to get a head start in developing the computer programs scientists will need to analyze ICESat-2’s raw data.

MABEL and other lidar instruments are flying on the ER-2, which provides a high-altitude perspective. In the next three weeks, the plan is to cover melting sea ice, glaciers, vegetation, lakes, and more.

Steele wasn’t the only one looking out of the plane windows on flights north. Kelly Brunt, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, spotted a wildfire in Eastern Washington. The fire, burning in steep terrain, resembled an erupting volcano.

A wildfire burns in Washington, just east of the Cascades. (Credit: Kelly Brunt)

A wildfire burns in Washington, just east of the Cascades. (Credit: Kelly Brunt)

Over the weekend, the team settled into Fairbanks and a hangar at the U.S. Army’s Fort Wainwright, downloading data from the transit flight and ensuring the instruments are ready to fly when the weather allows. Cloudy skies over key sites means the ER-2 won’t fly today (Monday), but the team will check the weather tonight and see if it clears enough to fly the first science flight on Tuesday.

Want to follow MABEL and the ER-2? Check back here, and also check NASA’s flight tracker: http://airbornescience.nasa.gov/tracker/

Yep, we're in Alaska! A moose along a road east of Fairbanks. I'll call her Mabel. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer)

Yep, we’re in Alaska! A moose along a road east of Fairbanks. I’ll call her Mabel. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer)

Greenland Aquifer Expedition: What about a round-trip cargo flight?

April 1st, 2014 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Ludovic Brucker

Kulusuk, 29 March 2014 — For our deployment to the field, we need two flights to bring our scientific equipment and camping gear. As mentioned in our previous post, we decided to avoid being on the ice sheet while the third storm system of the week affects the area. However, thanks to Air Greenland and its helicopter B-212’s crew, we were able to have a first cargo flight to the ice sheet on Thursday afternoon. This will allow us to be fully operational as soon the second flight brings our tents, food, more science gear, and us to the ice sheet!

Thursday morning, we went to the airport to meet with the pilot and hear his point of view about a possible cargo flight that same day. While snow-removing activities of the runway were underway, he shared with us his concern that our cargo (if left on the ice sheet with the current weather system developing offshore) may be blown away or heavily buried in snow. Since we did not have a single item fly away in Antarctica during our SEAT 2011-2012 traverse and its Christmas storm, we will make sure this does not happen in Greenland! Regarding buried items; it’s fine as long as the shovels aren’t buried themselves.

Machinery removing snow  at the Kulusuk airport. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

Machinery removing snow at the Kulusuk airport. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

A snow plow removes snow from the second storm of the week at the Kulusuk airport . (credit: Clément Miège.)

A snow plow removes snow from the second storm of the week at the Kulusuk airport . (credit: Clément Miège.)

In the afternoon, Clem and I took off with the cargo flight to unload it from the helo, and to build the cargo line. The sky was scattered with clouds, sometimes low, but it cleared up as we were approaching the ice sheet.

Transit from Kulusuk to our ice sheet location, near the settlement of Tinitequilâq. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

Transit from Kulusuk to our ice sheet location, near the settlement of Tinitequilâq. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

Approaching the ice sheet's edge with the B-212 helicopter. (Credit: Clement Miège.)

Approaching the ice sheet’s edge with the B-212 helicopter. (Credit: Clement Miège.)

Approaching the ice sheet's edge with the B-212 helicopter. (Credit: Clement Miège.)

Approaching the ice sheet’s edge with the B-212 helicopter. (Credit: Clement Miège.)

Flying over the Greenland ice sheet. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

Flying over the Greenland ice sheet. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

We landed in the vicinity of our temperature probe system and its Argos antenna, which has been sending temperature measurements every day for almost a year now. With the help of the helicopter’s crew, it did not take long to organize a cargo line along the dominant wind direction to minimize snow drift.

Our cargo line on the ice sheet, near the temperature probe and Argos antenna we left behind in 2013. I'm finishing up by deploying a second cargo strap across the line and through the boxes handles. (Credit: Clément Miège)

Our cargo line on the ice sheet, near the temperature probe and Argos antenna we left behind in 2013. I’m finishing up by deploying a second cargo strap across the line and through the boxes handles. (Credit: Clément Miège)

Our objective was accomplished, the cargo was on the ice sheet. Step 1: Done! Done? Well, of course not. We still had to fly back… But in spite of everyone’s effort, we were not able to fly back to Kulusuk that day. The night was coming quickly and the pilot is not allowed to fly after twilight. Thus, we landed in Tasiilaq 3 minutes after twilight on Thursday. Tasiilaq is on the other side of the bay from Kulusuk, a 15-minute helicopter ride away. Tasiilaq is the largest city on the East coast of Greenland, with about 3,000 inhabitants, and it’s home for the B-212. We landed accurately on the B-212’s kart in front of its hangar so that it could be moved inside quickly. Suddenly, Clem and I were facing a situation for which we were not prepared.

Descending to Tasiilaq. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

Descending to Tasiilaq. (Credit: Ludovic Brucker.)

For a less-than-2-hour round trip to the ice sheet, Clem and I were dressed in our warmest layers, and to face a variety of eventualities (including spending an unexpected night on the ice sheet) we had packed a tent, sleeping bags, food, water, extra jackets, gloves, goggles and hats, a satellite phone, two GPS, and a beacon locator. We knew that in our cargo there was more food, a cook stove, propane and white gas; these were in case for the inbound flight. For the outbound flight, we knew that the B-212 has some safety equipment too. That was all we had. But we were facing a different situation now: we were in the largest town of East Greenland, with the perspective of a storm arriving overnight, and forecasted to last several days.

Air Greenland found us a hotel and a warm dinner. Sweet, we wouldn’t be camping on the helipad. Past the first night, we woke up with the exact same landscape as in Kulusuk. I’m serious! Through the windows we could see the same white sky, land, and horizontal snowfall. Visibility? We still don’t know for sure; neither Clem nor I could tell because we had left Kulusuk with our contact lenses on and did not carry our glasses.

Past this first reality check, we headed to breakfast (dressed in our long underwear). We had a specific topic to discuss: what were we going to do during the next hours, days, week? The ideas ranged from finding a book, a toothbrush, an Internet connection, an alternative to water for our contact lenses, learning Greenlandic, finding a boat… Three hours after breakfast, we started a hunt for a set of playing cards to play cribbage. I asked the hotel manager if we could borrow cards from the hotel, or any other game that would keep us busy a few hours, days, a week. He pointed out a souvenir store where we could buy such items. Well, despite knowing that one should take his passport to the field, we did not have money. The hotel manager had a swift idea: “That’s not a problem, you can wash dishes after lunch.” Good times! So, we registered for being the little hands in the kitchen. The next 15 minutes were funny, I was trying to explain this to Clem, and to convince him that it was no joke at all. After lunch, we would be on dish wash duty, dressed in long underwear, and without glasses.

I left for a minute to go back to the room and heard Clem running toward me: “Dress up, we are leaving! The helicopter will take off within the next hour. We must go the airport right now.” Ha, ha, funny Clem, you thought I was joking with washing the dishes, and now you feel the need to make a joke too, but I ain’t a silly fool, and it’s not April 1st yet. Well, when I saw Clem dressing up, and tightening his shoes in a hurry without wasting time to comment further on his statement, let me tell you, I quickly dressed up too! I could not risk missing that flight, if it happened.

Air Greenland was able to fly us back to Kulusuk using a French-made helicopter (an Ecureuil – an Astar helicopter) flown by an Icelandic pilot. Certainly, he was used to windy conditions, and low visibility. We were reunited with Rick for lunch in Kulusuk!

We would like to thank Air Greenland for their dedication to serving our project yesterday and today.  Working with us on a flexible schedule to get the cargo flight in yesterday was a big help. Accommodating us in Tasiilaq and getting us back to Kulusuk this morning allowed us to be ready for the next opportunity to fly to the ice sheet so we can begin our experiments. A continued good relationship with Air Greenland and their pilots is important for the success of our science. We view them as team members critically needed to move forward with a successful campaign.

Greenland Aquifer Expedition: The Packing Begins

March 20th, 2013 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

Hello and welcome (or hopefully, welcome back) to yet another of my field blogs! It’s a chilly day here in Greenbelt, Maryland, and I am packing away my warmest parka and sleeping bags – yes, I said bags, in plural, since I will need two to keep me warm enough during my upcoming field work. This time, my team and I are off to southeast Greenland to investigate not ice, but water we believe is trapped within the ice. During this expedition, jointly funded by both the National Science Foundation and NASA, we will be camping on the ice for a little over a week in a very remote area of the Greenland ice sheet. We will gather as much information as we can about the captive water, which we termed a perennial firn aquifer. This will be a very exciting field campaign because it is exploratory: we don’t know much at all about the aquifer, so we will attempt to determine some of its basic properties and which tools work best for exploring it.

The (tiny) red star marks the approximate location of our drill site in Greenland.

The (tiny) red star marks the approximate location of our drill site in Greenland.

Let’s start with what we do know. In 2011, during the Arctic Circle Traverse (ACT), two of our team members, Rick Forster and Clement Miege, were involved with a drilling project to investigate how much snow falls in southeast Greenland. That region has the largest amount of snowfall in all of Greenland  (for Twilight fans, think of this place as the Forks of Greenland: cold, dark and wet. And let’s add windy to the list as well.) Because southeast Greenland has such high snowfall and is relatively far way from any established camps, it’s a difficult place to work. Hence, not many ice cores have been drilled in this region. That’s why the ACT traverse went to Southeast Greenland: to collect much-needed cores . When they were drilling their last one, closest to the edge of the ice sheet and about 65 feet (20 meters) deep, and they pulled up the drill, they found water dripping out the end of the core barrel. This was quite a shock. The ACT team looked at their radar data, which can show the top of a water layer but not the depth, and were able to trace the water mass. They drilled again a few miles away and again hit water. The drill they were using was not designed to drill into water, so they had to stop. But they had discovered something new. And why does it matter there’s an aquifer buried under the ice, you might wonder? It is important because water that is released from the Greenland ice sheer can directly raise sea level. We are not sure that this water will ever be released, or if the quantity of water is large enough to matter, but anytime ice melts to water and has the possibility to leave the ice sheet, we want to know more about it.

Now Rick and Clem have invited myself and two others to go back and find out more about this water.  So here is the formal team lineup. The team is lead by Rick Forster, a professor of Geography at the University of Utah who specializes in remote sensing of the cyrosphere. Clement Miege (Clem) is a PhD student from the University of Utah who studies accumulation using radars.  Ludovic Brucker (Ludo) is a research associate for University Space Research Association at NASA Goddard Space Flight and is an expert in remote sensing of the ice sheets as well as sea ice. (You may remember Clem and Ludo from the SEAT traverse blog in Antarctica.) Jay Kyne is a driller from the University of Wisconsin’s Ice Drilling Design and Operations (IDDO) program. And then there’s me, Lora Koenig, a remote-sensing glaciologist from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

From top left, clockwise: Rick Forster, Ludo Brucker, Jay Kyne (his furry friend won't come to Greenland), Clement Miege and Lora Koenig.

From top left, clockwise: Rick Forster, Ludo Brucker, Jay Kyne (his furry friend won’t come to Greenland), Clement Miege and Lora Koenig.

We have assembled a great rough and ready team with a broad assortment of tools to learn as much as we can about the aquifer. We will all be traveling to Kulusuk, Greenland next week, which was conveniently featured by NASA’s Earth Observatory recently. From Kulusuk we will pack our gear, including ice core drills, temperatures sensors, a down-hole video camera and ground penetrating radars, into a helicopter and onto the ice sheet. We hope you will join us for this expedition. You may want to start watching the weather. Our fist put in date will be April 1, (April Fools’ Day – but this is no joke), weather permitting. Over the next few weeks, will we publish more blog posts about our science, the logistics of getting all our gear to Kulusuk, and life on the ice.

I guess there is just one last thing to do, and that is to name our team. The official title of this project is “An initial investigation of the Greenland perennial firn aquifer,” which I admit is not very exciting and I can’t seem to turn into a catchy acronym. So for now we will be the Greenland Aquifer Team. If you reader come up with a better name for our team, please post it in the comments section. We may just adopt it!

Notes from the Field