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CU researchers develop tool to monitor ice sheets

Columbia researchers are going beyond just the tip of the iceberg.

Researchers at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory are developing a tool that will help scientists better understand how polar ice sheets are shifting.

The IcePod, an eight-foot-long fiberglass capsule that houses a suite of sensors, is about a year away from being deployed to Antarctica and Greenland for full use, said Lamont-Doherty senior researcher Robin Bell, one of the lead scientists behind the project.

The IcePod sets itself apart from other tools used to study ice sheets primarily because it can collect data without requiring researchers to be in the field. It is designed to hang off of the rear door of a Lockheed LC-130 military aircraft so that, as the plane flies over polar regions, the pod’s sensors can gather data about the structure, composition, and temperature of ice sheets. 

Last week, the IcePod project team met with the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing in Schenectady, N.Y. to test the pod in the air for just the second time.

“It’s been very exciting to finally see it in the air,” Bell said. “We’ve been talking about it so long it had kind of become, ‘Is this ever going to happen?’”

Now that the IcePod has been tested in the air twice on a small scale, the team of scientists and the 109th Airlift Wing will travel with the pod to Greenland twice: first in April for 10 days of testing, and again in July to review any remaining issues.

The team may also travel to Antarctica for a final round of testing near the end of this year, although that trip is not yet set. Either way, the project is on track to be ready for real data collection next year, the researchers said.

“It’s fantastically satisfying. Since Robin and I put the proposal together, it’s been about three years,” Nick Frearson, the project’s lead engineer and a senior research associate at Lamont-Doherty, said. “We’re very pleased to see it start coming together, and the University has a reasonable stake in it, so it’s nice to see it come out.”

Bell and Frearson came up with the original concept for the IcePod more than three years ago after taking part in another study of ice sheets, Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Province Project.

Since receiving a grant for more than $4 million from the National Science Foundation in May 2010—to which the University added about another $2 million—the team of researchers has worked to turn its innovative design into a reality.

“By looking at the slopes that the ice is flowing over, you can understand how much ice is going to move from the land into the sea,” Frearson said. “The outcome of our work will partially be used to contribute to the study of the sea level rise and getting a handle on how fast that is happening.”

Frearson said that the data collected is then analyzed and used to produce three-dimensional computer models of the ice sheets and bedrock underneath and to make predictions about how changes in the ice sheets will affect other environmental issues.

The system is designed so that the Air National Guard can operate the IcePod without the assistance of scientists during standard missions to the Arctic and Antarctic. Major Joshua Hicks, the 109th Airlift Wing’s program manager for IcePod, said that the device can be attached to any of the Guard’s LC-130s as it flies missions over the polar ice sheets. That means the IcePod research can piggyback on other projects, Frearson said.

“The aircrew would essentially need to install the pod and, in an opportune mission, just press the start button and allow the sensors to collect data,” Hicks said. “There’s nothing else that’s in the Air National Guard that allows for this roll-on, roll-off capability.”

The IcePod contains several instruments, including a scanning laser, a high-resolution visual camera, an infrared camera, and two types of radar. Data from these instruments is intended to give scientists new insights into the external and internal structure of ice sheets.

“Temperature surface mapping of glaciers has virtually not been done, so that’s going to be a huge new body of data,” Scott Brown, a senior research associate on the project, said.

Beyond the actual gathering of data, the IcePod project is also focused on informing the Columbia community about the issue of climate change and how science, technology, engineering, and math are vital to understanding the environment.

“We have projects that range from just general engaging the community and making the polar regions a little bit more accessible to them on down to developing actual curriculum pieces around some of the geophysical data sets we’ll be collecting,” Margie Turrin, the project’s education coordinator, said.

steven.lau@columbiaspectator.com | @unoslau

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