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NASA Langley scientists are studying melting sea ice north of the Arctic Circle

Aerial footage from NASA Langley's flights in Greenland.
Photo courtesy of Gary Banziger/NASA
Aerial footage from NASA Langley's flights in Greenland.

WHRO caught up with one of the team’s climate scientists who’s stationed at Pituffik Space Force Base in Greenland.

A team from NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton is currently stationed 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

The group of 15 scientists and crew members are running research flights over sea ice out in Greenland’s Baffin Bay to study how and where it’s melting.

The information will help fuel knowledge about the mechanics of climate change, and teach NASA how to calibrate its own satellites in the Arctic region.

The group will return to Hampton Roads next week for a six-week break before spending another month in Greenland later this summer.

Before they do, WHRO caught up with deputy mission science leader Patrick Taylor over Zoom from Pituffik Space Force Base.

This interview has been edited for time and clarity.

WHRO: So tell me about the ARCSIX mission.

Patrick Taylor: Absolutely. So ARCSIX stands for Arctic Radiation Ice Cloud Aerosol Interaction Experiment. The objective is to track the evolution of summertime sea ice melt in the multi-year sea ice that exists north of Greenland. This multi-year sea ice is kind of the last bastion of multi-year sea ice in the Arctic, because over the last 40 years, we've lost a lot of sea ice. And the sea ice has transitioned from, dominated by multi-year sea ice, meaning sea ice that lives more than one year, to now primarily just a seasonal sea ice that grows and melts every summer, winter and summer.

So we're tracking the sea ice to understand better what the different factors are that influence its melt. In particular, (we’re) focusing on the role of clouds. Clouds over this ice, they're actually really unique. Really just in the polar regions of the planet, we find what we call mixed phase clouds. They're low clouds that have supercooled liquid in them mixed with ice crystals. And they're clouds that we don't really understand very well, because we don't have a lot of observations of them. But they have the potential to either accelerate the sea ice melt or to actually slow it down. We're here gathering data to understand in what conditions and what situations are the clouds kind of accelerating sea ice melt versus maybe slowing it down.

Patrick Taylor chats from Pituffik Space Base in Greenland.
Screenshot from Zoom
Patrick Taylor chats from Pituffik Space Base in Greenland.

WHRO: And what does that look like in terms of what you’re doing up there?

PT: The mission is focused out on the sea ice, so our transit times in the airplane are roughly about an hour and a half to get out there. We've been here for almost three weeks now and we've had so far nine research flights, eight of those with two NASA aircraft. We have two aircraft because each aircraft has a unique role. The P3 is kind of our low-flying aircraft. So it's flown anywhere from 300 feet off the sea ice surface in clear conditions — which is an amazing view of the sea ice, it was phenomenal — up to about 20,000 feet. So it flies at those different levels and measures the sea ice characteristics at high levels with a lidar, a laser beam that tells us about the roughness of the ice, the topography. And then when we're down in clouds, we're getting kind of the microphysical characteristics of clouds, which means how many droplets are inside the clouds versus how many ice crystals, and how big are their sizes. Then the G3 (plane) is treated a bit like a satellite. So it provides us with remote sensing instruments. We have an imager, essentially a fancy digital camera that provides us information of scene context.

Also before the mission started we actually were able to get some sea ice buoys out in the region of the Arctic Ocean. So we do have some ground measurements and some fieldwork and that allows us to track both the temperatures of the sea ice as well as the snow on the sea ice, the amount of sunlight is reaching the sea ice, as well as the thickness and how that's all been changing over the course of the time. So that gives us a bit of ground truth.

ARCSIX Greenland~orig.mp4

Footage from the NASA Langley's team research in Greenland. (Courtesy of Gary Banziger/NASA)

WHRO: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned or seen so far?

PT: One thing actually surprising to a lot of folks here is just how dynamic the sea ice is and how much it changes from day to day. As a sea ice researcher I know that the sea ice isn't stationary but when you actually sit down and watch it every day, it changes a lot. Changes very fast. The atmosphere up here changes very fast as well, from day to day. It's a lot of variability in the clouds. It’s maybe surprising to see the amount of drizzle inside of these clouds; you would think that there would be more ice inside these cold clouds.

And then the last thing that actually has been really surprising and eye-opening is the different types of aerosols and pollution that we've seen in the atmosphere. The Arctic really kind of collects a lot of air from other regions of the planet. We've seen some dust and some pollution from Asia and from the U.S. We've seen local dust that has been swept up off of the places around the Arctic, the mountains around the Arctic that have melted snow. And also we've seen a lot of these aerosols from the surface, particularly from marine sources which is really interesting, because we're moving towards an Arctic that's much less sea ice covered. And so that suggests that those kinds of marine emissions like sea salt and chemical components from marine life, those have the potential to impact clouds as we have less sea ice.

And also, wildlife! We had some really nice pictures of seals that are visiting us here in the bay. So that was fun to see. And we've also seen musk ox and Arctic hares. There are a lot of arctic foxes that are wandering around.

WHRO: As someone from Hampton, can you talk about the connection between what you’re studying up there, and some of our local issues like flooding?

PT: So the Arctic is a key part of our global climate system. Things that happen on one side of the planet affect folks that live on the other. And so the Arctic kind of has these ripple effects with a global reach. The changes in the Arctic have influences on the weather systems that we see in Hampton Roads, but in particular to the flooding, more sea ice melt corresponds to a more rapidly warming Arctic. A more rapidly warming Arctic corresponds to greater Greenland Ice Sheet melt and greater melt of land ice across the Arctic, which will influence sea levels and potentially raise sea levels faster in Hampton Roads, exacerbating the flooding. And so even though the Arctic feels very far away, at times, you know, we are connected to it.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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