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Earth Sciences

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In recent years, many NASA missions have recorded the loss of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. By conducting research on ice sheets, glaciers, spring thaw patterns, and mass balance of the sea ice covers, researchers are getting a clearer picture of the cryosphere.

'Scientists in the cryospheric sciences focus on understanding the role of the polar regions in global climate and sea level. Researchers have made use of GRACE, QuikSCAT, Synthetic Aperture Radar, ICESAT, and new modeling techniques to track changes in the cryosphere.

Selected Research Topics

Sea Ice

JPL’s QuikSCAT data -- combined with modeling software – has helped scientists track the loss of sea ice. In fact, they found a 23% loss in the extent of the Arctic’s sea ice cover in 2006 and 2007. More efforts in this field of study are focused on:

  • Remote sensing observations (laser altimetry, passive microwave, scatterometry, radar interferometry)
  • Seasonal and interannual changes in sea ice coverage and ice classes
  • Heat, energy, and momentum exchanges at the surface
  • Ice mechanics and dynamics
  • Freshwater balance and impact on ocean circulation
  • Numerically model sea ice propagation, fracture, and interaction with ocean
  • Mass balance of the Arctic and Southern Ocean sea ice covers
Sea Ice Loss
QuikScat interannual observations of sea ice over the Arctic have enabled the detection of recent drastic reduction in the extent of perennial ice and its depletion from the eastern Arctic Ocean.

Ice Sheet and Glaciers

Ice sheet and glacier movements, and changes in the timing of high-latitude thaw over land, are very important indicators of climate change. Our specialty is to detect them from space, and correctly interpret the changes. Scientists at JPL also use a variety of other techniques to monitor many ice and glacial parameters:

software recognizes sea ice loss
On the left, Resolute Bay seen by the Hyperion instrument aboard Earth Observing-1. On the right, a visual representation of the analysis done by JPL's new software.
  • Remote sensing observations of continental ice (radar interferometery, gravity, GPS, altimetry, microwave and optical)
  • Contributions to sea level change from glacier ice
  • Ice rheology
  • Subglacial and englacial processes
  • Ice-shelves/ocean interactions and impact on ocean circulation
  • Numerical modeling of ice sheet evolution using data assimilation/control methods

Spring Thaw Monitoring

The Space Technology 6 Autonomous Scientific Experiment tracked changes in the Spring Thaw using new onboard software developed by JPL engineers, software which distinguishes among water, ice, and snow. Such studies continue a tradition of studies at JPL that found evidence for earlier regional thawing, at a rate of almost one day per year since 1988.


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