Monitoring World Ice Movements

One of the most critical scientific questions of the day is “what is happening to the ice?” Many lines of research indicated that sea ice is retreating in the arctic, glaciers are retreating rapidly in many parts of the world, and the ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica may be melting at an accelerating rate. In the latter case, glaciers that flow into the ocean may be accelerating, adding fossil ice into the liquid ocean.

If all this ice melts in the next few decades, the mean sea level will rise by many meters, with massive impact on land dwellers such as H. sapiens.  Whether you believe global warming is real or not, you will notice when the ocean rises by 10 meters.

For this reason, we really need to know what is happening with the ice all over Earth. These areas of ice are large and remote, so it isn’t trivial to measure them in situ, or even by air, so we have had only patchy data until recently.

One development is has been the launch satellites that are capable of measuring the surface of ice with reasonable resolution (10-15m) and sampling nearly every day. It is now possible to continuously monitor large areas of ice.

Mark Fahnestock and colleagues report this fall on their efforts to create an automated system that acquires data from the new Landsat 8, applies algorithms to detect and characterize the surface of the ice, and track movement of glaciers [1]. This work builds on decades of developments, incorporating algorithms for identifying ice, extracting information about the texture of the surface, finding and tracking features such as large cracks. (See [1] for details.)

The automated system is fast enough that it possible to process data continuously for the whole Earth, providing total coverage in real time—as soon as the data comes down, it can be reflected in the system. Combined with older data, we are now building an archive that documents what has been and is currently happening.

This process has been organized into a Global Land Ice Velocity Extraction project (GoLIVE), which will enable real time studies of the whole planet. It will also be combined with other data from in situ measurements of various kinds, and also be used as data for simulation studies.

Very cool!

  1. Mark Fahnestock, Ted Scambos, Twila Moon, Alex Gardner, Terry Haran, and Marin Klinger, Rapid large-area mapping of ice flow using Landsat 8. Remote Sensing of Environment, 185:84-94, 11// 2016.


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