(Australian Associated Press)
Australian and American scientists will team up in a world-leading NASA research mission to shed new light on ice in east Antarctica.
Operation IceBridge combines data from satellites, aircraft and ground crews in the largest survey of the Earth’s changing ice levels.
The project will for the next month fly out of Hobart Airport – the first time the program has made a base in Australia.
“We’re exploring a part of Antarctica we haven’t really explored before,” NASA deputy project scientist Dr Linette Boisvert said.
“We want to find out which glaciers are retreating at which rate and get a better handle on Antarctic sea ice thickness.
“The biggest unknown for sea ice, in both hemispheres, is the volume of ice. We don’t know how much ice is underneath the water.”
From Thursday, NASA will fly a Gulfstream V aircraft as low as 500 metres above the frozen continent.
The plane is equipped with radar sounders, temperature sensors, a gravimeter and cameras, plus two laser altimeters that measure ice elevation to a precision of less than five centimetres.
A ground team will move along the same path as the aircraft and satellite, collect ice cores and measure snow cover to compliment what is recorded from above.
Dr Petra Heil, sea ice physicist with the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), says the project will provide crucial data which can be fed into climate models.
Dr Heil said sea ice depth data from east Antarctica is not detailed, with NASA’s satellite not aligning well with the area.
“Compared to other regions … we are very much the poor child,” she said.
“It’s very important for us. It will give us a very good stepping stone to move our science forward.”
The space agency’s IceBridge program is so called because it bridges the gap in polar observations made by NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellites (ICESat).
ICESat-1 launched in 2003 and de-orbited in 2010 while ICESat-2 remains in orbit after launching late last year.
“(This project) will become a benchmark for the sort of work we do with other nations,” AAD director Kim Ellis said.
“For small country, Australia punches well above its weight when it comes to Antarctica.”
Mr Ellis said the division was in talks with Italy about increased research co-operation.
This week also marks the start of Australia’s 2019/20 summer Antarctic research season, with the first of 10 A319 flights to depart Hobart.
Icebreaker Aurora Australis will on Friday make the first of five trips to three research stations and Macquarie Island in its final season in operation.
Around 550 expeditioners will travel south as part of Australia’s Antarctic program in 2019/20.