Two New Satellites Set to Study One of Earth’s Most Critically Changing Regions

In 2018, NASA is dispatching two new satellite missions whose observations will include Earth’s most critically changing regions – the poles. They’re NASA’s first new missions in 15 years that will measure how Earth’s massive ice sheets are changing. Previously thought to be slow-moving and stable, the ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica have rapidly lost ice over the last several decades. As a result, scientists predict global sea level could be 1 to 4 feet higher by 2100. This kind of significant change could increase the rate of warming already in progress and affect global weather patterns. But ice sheets aren’t Earth’s only frozen spots experiencing critical change. Ice sheets, sea ice, glaciers, permafrost, and snow cover are all showing signs of transformation. Collectively known as the “cryosphere”, these frozen zones help sustain stable conditions for life on Earth. However, rising temperatures worldwide are resulting in ice loss, global sea level rise, thawing permafrost, and more. This spring, NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) will launch GRACE-FO, continuing the revolutionary gravity measurements of its predecessor, GRACE. Designed to observe global surface mass changes, including land ice, sea level, and water on land, GRACE was the first satellite to confirm the shrinking of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. In September, ICESat-2 will launch and use its advanced laser to measure the thickness of sea ice and the changing elevation of glaciers and ice sheets. The mission will provide scientists with a view of how the height of the ice sheets are changing, to within less than an inch. GRACE-FO and ICESat-2 will be NASA’s newest “eyes in the sky” while an extensive field team of researchers collect complementary airborne and ground data about ice, snow, permafrost and the role the ocean plays in Earth’s frozen regions. Working together, these new missions and campaigns will help NASA predict how the cryosphere is changing and how those changes will impact the way we live.


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