State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Flying Over the Arctic, Collecting Data and Enjoying the View

At 88 degrees latitude, one can literally watch the dawn creep across the surface of the earth while still being in darkness. Compared to 500 mph in the temperate latitudes, the front travels less than 40 mph this far north.

By Brian Moses

This past week, Operation IceBridge undertook a detailed survey of the ICEX camp, situated on the ice sheet north of Alaska. This complex 3 day mission involves a transit to Fairbanks, AK over the top of the world, refueling in Fairbanks and flying the survey on day two, and a low-altitude nighttime flight back to Thule.
The transit flight took off at 10 AM on Tuesday, 30 hours delayed due to a storm that had all of Thule in lockdown. The flight included a short survey period and carried the NASA P3 within 180 miles of the North Pole, with some impressive visuals. After more than 8 hours in the air, we land at 1pm Fairbanks time…time is a fickle thing, when you’re flying over the top of the world! Arriving in Fairbanks from Thule Air Force Base, it was hard not to chuckle at the commonplace “Welcome to the Arctic!” sentiments seen around Fairbanks, as we found it hard to get over how warm it is outside!

Hello America we’ve missed you! The 126 million year old Brooks range in northern Alaska forms the divide between the Pacific drainage basin and the Arctic ocean drainage basin. (Photo Brian Moses)

ICEX (short for Ice Exercise) 2011 – is an operation of the U.S. Navy, part of a series of submarine operations they run in the challenging Arctic environment. As part of ICEX 2011 a camp the size of a small village has been constructed just north of Prudhoe Alaska, and is being operated for ICEX by the Applied Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington, and members of the U.S., Canadian, and British navies. Since the camp is built on Arctic ice it is drifting and collecting tracking data on ice flow as well as other parameters.

The black dots show the shifting location of the ICEX camp over the past two weeks.The 4 dots in the uppermost right show the camp drifting northward overnight (After we took off, the camp drift changed direction to the east and accelerated) The four colored lines (blue purple red and green) show the in-flight adjustments to the line made on the basis of visual observations of the ice drift from the P3. (Courtesy of NASA)

The IceBridge ICEX2011 camp survey lines were extremely complex from an organizational point as well as an operational point. Organizationally it involved numerous meetings with the several agencies involved to facilitate timing and location of data collection and ultimately integrating this data with the suite of measurement being collected by these other agencies, both from the ground and from a twin otter aircraft. These pieces all merged will be a benchmark data set for sea ice research. Operationally it involved a series of flight passes completed at several elevations. A flight ‘course’ of sorts was marked out in a grid on the ground for IceBridge to follow in their data collection. Flying the survey was a challenge because of the camp’s location on the floating ice sheet. The ice under the station was drifting to the north prior to the P3 take off, but once in the air it shifted to an eastern drift and began to be accelerate, causing mid air recalculations and adjustments based on visual observations.

(For a bit of history, drifting Arctic stations have long been a part of Arctic research, and have a similarly long connection to Lamont. 1937 saw the first Soviet floating station established to collect data on the Arctic basin, but the presence of these stations in the Arctic really accelerated during the International Geophysical Year (1957-58). It was during this time that the US ran several floating Arctic stations, the first of which was ‘Station Alpha’, where Lamont research scientist Ken Hunkins was stationed to collect data. Hunkins expanded our understanding of the Arctic throughout his career.)

Aurora Borealis as seen in a five second exposure over the port wing of the NASA P3. Also visible is the 22° ATM laser track at the bottom of the image. (Photo Brian Moses)

The return trip to Thule took off at 1am, flying through the Aurora Borealis and at low altitude across the sea ice. It was incredible to see the aurora out the windows of the plane, and the terrain mapping laser on the ice below, while the pilots followed the survey line at 2500 feet. The coloring of the airplane wing is because all vessels (water and air) have a red navigation light on the port side and a green light on the starboard side. This blinking light combined with the long exposure photo provide the red glow.

Large vee shaped lead north of Alert, Canada (note the freshly frozen first-year ice in the middle of the crack) Photo Brian Moses

It was an uneventful day, flying into the sun for eight hours and landing at Thule to a treat – the first day above zero degrees Fahrenheit!

Note: Brian Moses is part of the Lamont Polar Research team and is part of the IceBridge deployment to Greenland 2011.

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