State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Over Pine Island Glacier, West Antarctica

PUNTA ARENAS, Chile–After flying for several hours over a windswept Southern Ocean, the mission director announces that we will be slowly descending towards Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier. Just below are the Hudson Mountains, a small group of extinct volcanoes poking through the ice.

Hudson Mountains on Pine Island glacier
Hudson Mountains on Pine Island Glacier

As we approach our survey area, John Sonntag from NASA’s flight facility on Wallops Island and I watch the navigation display and admire the the pilots’ precision as they steer the giant NASA DC-8 aircraft to the start of our first survey line.

We are here to measure the glacier’s ice surface with lasers, its bottom with radar and estimate the depth of the water below it with an instrument that measures the gravity pull from above the glacier.

All systems are functioning well and we are excited about the data coming in. The computer screen mounted on University of Kansas’s radar rack is a popular in-flight gathering spot since it provides a real-time view of the radar data that allows us to “see” the bottom of the glacier while we fly over it.

The structures we see are quite amazing and we toss around ideas about what this tells us about how the glacier is responding to warming temperatures. Science can be so much fun! After crisscrossing Pine Island Glacier several times, it’s time to head home to Punta Arenas. Weather permitting we will be back tomorrow.

Calving Front of Pine Island Glacier
Calving front of Pine Island Glacier, where icebergs are born

Snow-covered crevasses near the edge of Pine Island Glacier. Small meltwater ponds are visible even though it's early in the Antarctic summer.
Snow-covered crevasses near the edge of Pine Island Glacier. Small meltwater ponds are visible even though it's early in the Antarctic summer.

Flying over the floating part of Pine Island Glacier. Winds have blown away the sea ice to create an area of open water called a polynya.
Flying over the floating part of Pine Island Glacier. Winds have blown away the sea ice to create an area of open water called a polynya.
Pine Island Glacier, heavily crevassed. Measurements are best collected from a low-flying plane or satellites because traveling over the surface is so difficult.
Pine Island Glacier, heavily crevassed. Measurements are best collected from a low-flying plane or satellites because traveling over the surface is so difficult.

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