Nav: Home

NASA's ICESat-2 measures arctic ocean's sea ice thickness, snow cover

May 14, 2020

Arctic sea ice helps keep Earth cool, as its bright surface reflects the Sun's energy back into space. Each year scientists use multiple satellites and data sets to track how much of the Arctic Ocean is covered in sea ice, but its thickness is harder to gauge. Initial results from NASA's new Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) suggest that the sea ice has thinned by as much as 20% since the end of the first ICESat mission (2003-2009), contrary to existing studies that find sea ice thickness has remained relatively constant in the last decade.

Arctic sea ice thickness dropped drastically in the first decade of the 21st Century, as measured by the first ICESat mission from 2003 to 2009 and other methods. The European Space Agency's CryoSat-2, launched in 2010, has measured a relatively consistent thickness in Arctic sea ice since then. With the launch of ICESat-2 in 2018, researchers looked to this new way of measuring sea ice thickness to advance the study of this data record.

"We can't get thickness just from ICESat-2 itself, but we can use other data to derive the measurement," said Petty. For example, the researchers subtract out the height of snow on top of the sea ice by using computer models that estimate snowfall. "The first results were very encouraging."

In their study, published recently in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, Petty and his colleagues generated maps of Arctic sea ice thickness from October 2018 to April 2019 and saw the ice thickening through the winter as expected.

Overall, however, calculations using ICESat-2 found that the ice was thinner during that time period than what researchers have found using CryoSat-2 data. Petty's group also found that small but significant 20% decline in sea ice thickness by comparing February/March 2019 ICESat-2 measurements with those calculated using ICESat in February/March 2008 - a decline that the CryoSat-2 researchers don't see in their data.

These are two very different approaches to measuring sea ice, Petty said, each with its own limitations and benefits. CryoSat-2 carries a radar to measure height, as opposed to ICESat-2's lidar, and radar mostly passes through snow to measure the top of the ice. Radar measurements like the ones from CryoSat-2 could be thrown off by seawater flooding the ice, he noted. In addition, ICESat-2 is still a young mission and the computer algorithms are still being refined, he said, which could ultimately change the thickness findings.

"I think we're going to learn a lot from having these two approaches to measuring ice thickness. They might be giving us an upper and lower bound on the sea ice thickness, and the right answer is probably somewhere in between," Petty said. "There are reasons why ICESat-2 estimates could be low, and reasons why CryoSat-2 could be high, and we need to do more work to understand and bring these measurements in line with each other."

ICESat-2 has a laser altimeter, which uses pulses of light to precisely measure height down to about an inch. Each second, the instrument sends out 10,000 pulses of light that bounce off the surface of Earth and return to the satellite and records the length of time it takes to make that round trip. The light reflects off the first substance it hits, whether that's open water, bare sea ice or snow that has accumulated on top of the ice, so scientists use a combination of ICESat-2 measurements and other data to calculate sea ice thickness.

By comparing ICESat-2 data with measurements from another satellite, researchers have also created the first satellite-based maps of the amount of snow that has accumulated on top of Arctic sea ice, tracking this insulating material.

"The Arctic sea ice pack has changed dramatically since monitoring from satellites began more than four decades ago," said Nathan Kurtz, ICESat-2 deputy project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "The extraordinary accuracy and year-round measurement capability of ICESat-2 provides an exciting new tool to allow us to better understand the mechanisms leading to these changes, and what this means for the future."

With ICESat-2 and CryoSat-2 using two different methods to measure ice thickness - one measuring the top of the snow, the other the boundary between the bottom of the snow layer and the top of the ice layer - but researchers realized they could combine the two to calculate the snow depth.

"This is the first time ever that we can get snow depth across the entire Arctic Ocean's sea ice cover," said Ron Kwok, a sea ice scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and author of another study in JGR Oceans. "The Arctic region is a desert - but what snow we do get is very important in terms of the climate and insulating sea ice."

The study found that snow starts building up slowly in October, when newly formed ice has an average of about 2 inches (5 centimeters) of snow on it and multiyear ice has an average of 5.5 inches (14 cm) of snow. Snowfall picks up later in the winter in December and January and reaches its maximum depth in April, when the relatively new ice has an average of 6.7 inches (17 cm) and the older ice has an average of 10.6 inches (27 cm) of snow.

When the snow melts in the spring, it can pool up on the sea ice - those melt ponds absorb heat from the Sun and can warm up the ice faster, just one of the impacts of snow on ice.
-end-


NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Related Sea Ice Articles:

Earth's glacial cycles enhanced by Antarctic sea-ice
A 784,000 year climate simulation suggests that Southern Ocean sea ice significantly reduces deep ocean ventilation to the atmosphere during glacial periods by reducing both atmospheric exposure of surface waters and vertical mixing of deep ocean waters; in a global carbon cycle model, these effects led to a 40 ppm reduction in atmospheric CO2 during glacial periods relative to pre-industrial level, suggesting how sea ice can drive carbon sequestration early within a glacial cycle.
Arctic sea ice can't 'bounce back'
Arctic sea ice cannot 'quickly bounce back' if climate change causes it to melt, new research suggests.
Cracks in Arctic sea ice turn low clouds on and off
The prevailing view has been that more leads are associated with more low-level clouds during winter.
Evidence: Antarctica's thinning ice shelves causing more ice to move from land into sea
New study provides the first evidence that thinning ice shelves around Antarctica are causing more ice to move from the land into the sea.
Low sea-ice cover in the Arctic
The sea-ice extent in the Arctic is nearing its annual minimum at the end of the melt season in September.
Study shows algae thrive under Greenland sea ice
Microscopic marine plants flourish beneath the ice that covers the Greenland Sea, according to a new study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans.
ICESat-2 reveals profile of ice sheets, sea ice, forests
With each pass of the ICESat-2 satellite, the mission is adding to datasets tracking Earth's rapidly changing ice.
Arctic cyclone limits the time-scale of precise sea-ice prediction in Northern Sea Route?
Climate change has accelerated sea-ice retreat in the Arctic Ocean, leading to new opportunities for summer commercial maritime navigation along the Northern Sea Route.
Ocean waves following sea ice loss trigger Antarctic ice shelf collapse
Storm-driven ocean swells have triggered the catastrophic disintegration of Antarctic ice shelves in recent decades, according to new research published in Nature today.
New technique more accurately reflects ponds on Arctic sea ice
This one simple mathematical trick can accurately predict the shape and melting effects of ponds on Arctic sea ice, according to new research by UChicago scientists.
More Sea Ice News and Sea Ice Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Making Amends
What makes a true apology? What does it mean to make amends for past mistakes? This hour, TED speakers explore how repairing the wrongs of the past is the first step toward healing for the future. Guests include historian and preservationist Brent Leggs, law professor Martha Minow, librarian Dawn Wacek, and playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler).
Now Playing: Science for the People

#565 The Great Wide Indoors
We're all spending a bit more time indoors this summer than we probably figured. But did you ever stop to think about why the places we live and work as designed the way they are? And how they could be designed better? We're talking with Emily Anthes about her new book "The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of how Buildings Shape our Behavior, Health and Happiness".
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Third. A TED Talk.
Jad gives a TED talk about his life as a journalist and how Radiolab has evolved over the years. Here's how TED described it:How do you end a story? Host of Radiolab Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met an unexpected teacher: Dolly Parton.Jad Nicholas Abumrad is a Lebanese-American radio host, composer and producer. He is the founder of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, which is broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide and is downloaded more than 120 million times a year as a podcast. He also created More Perfect, a podcast that tells the stories behind the Supreme Court's most famous decisions. And most recently, Dolly Parton's America, a nine-episode podcast exploring the life and times of the iconic country music star. Abumrad has received three Peabody Awards and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.