NASA’s Icebridge: imaging the abyss

The Icebridge DC-8 passing over glaciers in the transantarctic mountains

Researchers with NASA’s Icebridge campaign are completing their fourth tour of flights over the polar regions to image ice sheets and glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland. The missions were begun in 2009 to take the place of polar imaging satellite ICESat after its instrumentation failed; a new satellite is planned for launch in 2015. The six years of Icebridge missions planned to bridge the gap will compile three-dimensional imagery, monitoring changes in ice thickness and elevation in a time of rapid change in polar climate.

It’s casually mind-boggling to think about how strange it must be to work near the poles. It’s not just the extreme weather and the vagaries of polar light; time, too is warped by mid-latitudinal standards. The chart in the pilot’s hands at the image at left, which shows the course of a recent Icebridge flight, indicated the number of wedged-together time zones through which the plane’s crew will fly.

But here’s what strikes me most forcibly: looking into the glacial valley in the top image, I’m struck by what an utterly alien and forbidding place it is: fatally cold, blasted by winds, arid as the driest of deserts, and plunged into nights that last half a year. This nameless place may be imaged in three dimensions, measured with lasers and scanned with charge-coupled devices that see beyond the visible spectrum. But in fundamental ways, it remains beyond our reckoning.

[via Our Amazing Planet and NASA]

One comment

  1. This reminds me of the poignant description of Captain Cook’s attempts to discover the place from Tony Horowitz’ Blue Latitudes, how they kept trying to go south and it would get colder and icier and stormier until finally they’d have to turn around for a breather, then they’d head back again for more of the same, “bouncing off” the enviro/tech barrier of their time. Now signals from our instruments bounce. But it’s still asymptotic exploration.

    Great image of converging time zones.

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