Langley Scientists Study Atmosphere at Bottom of the World
HAMPTON, Va. -- A team of NASA Langley Research Center scientists and engineers are joining a major NASA campaign to study changes to Antarctica's sea ice, glaciers, ice sheets and atmosphere.
The effort, called Operation Ice Bridge, is the largest airborne survey ever made of ice at one of Earth's poles. Langley is hitching a ride to study carbon dioxide in the Antarctic atmosphere and other trace gases to see how the "fingerprints" of human activities are affecting this remote region.
Researchers are making flights over Antarctica on NASA's DC-8, a flying laboratory equipped with laser mapping instruments, ice-penetrating radar and atmospheric-sensing instruments. Two instruments on the DC-8 were developed at Langley.
For Langley, Operation Ice Bridge is a rare opportunity to observe the make-up of the atmosphere of the southern hemisphere, and to lay down a historical benchmark to see how Antarctica changes in the coming years and decades. Most importantly, the team is measuring concentrations of heat-trapping carbon dioxide over Antarctica. Langley's atmospheric measurements will paint a fuller picture of the carbon cycle in that part of the world and help identify sources of carbon dioxide found in the southern hemisphere.
"Antarctica is considered one of the most pristine regions in the world," said Stephanie Vay, a Langley scientist who helped develop the carbon dioxide-measuring instrument for the campaign. "It's important, from a historical perspective, to take baseline measurements of the atmosphere there in order to assess any changes in the future."
Glenn Diskin, who is helping lead the Langley effort, said the carbon dioxide measurements taken from the plane are important to validate that satellites readings of the region are accurate.
Langley scientists, with scientists from University of California at Irvine, will also be measuring more than 60 gases in the Antarctic atmosphere, and from that data can determine the sources of the industrial pollutants that find their way to the South Pole.
Data collected from the other aspects of the campaign will help scientists better predict how changes to the massive Antarctic ice sheet will contribute to future sea level rise around the world.
The plane crew and scientists departed Oct. 12 from NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., and flew to Punta Arenas, Chile. They will be based there until mid-November. Seelye Martin of the University of Washington in Seattle leads the mission, with nearly 50 scientists and support personnel involved, including 10 from Langley. The team is planning 17 flights over some of the fastest-changing areas in western Antarctica and its ice-covered coastal waters.
The Antarctic flights follow the first Operation Ice Bridge airborne campaign earlier this year over Greenland and the Arctic Ocean. The mission will map key areas in each polar region once a year. Arctic flights resume in spring 2010.
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