Spring's not all about pretty flowers and greening trees. For some scientists it means watching Arctic ice. Scientists and engineers with NASA's Operation IceBridge are already at it, surveying glaciers in Greenland, Alaska and northern Canada. The flight part of the largest aerial survey of Earth's polar ice ever flown – a six-year mission over both poles aimed at producing a three-dimensional view of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, ice shelves and their sea ice.
Here, NASA's P-3B sits on the tarmac of the Kangerlussuaq Airport. The plane is equipped with a suite of instruments that gather data as the plane flies over the ice. It also carries scientists and teachers, some of whom took the following images.
The glacial Alaskan mountains are seen from high altitude aboard the P-3B during the IceBridge flight from Thule, Greenland, to Fairbanks, Alaska, on March 21, 2013.
A true river of ice, or glacier, on Greenland's Geikie Peninsula.
Tongue-shaped moraines appear to lick at the Penny Ice Cap on Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. These moraines are debris that was plowed up and left behind by past glaciers
Another moraine left by a small glacier on Penny Ice Cap on Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada.
This year's aerial survey of the Penny Ice Cap glacier follows previous radar surveys done in 1995, 2000 and 2005 using the Airborne Topographic Mapper and CReSIS radar instrument.
Near Thule Air Base, sled dogs rest on the sea ice in North Star Bay. Behind them is the 700-foot-high Mount Dundas. Cities in Greenland are connected by ship and air, but shorter distances are crossed by snowmobile or dogsleds.
No, not another glacier, but an ice-covered fjord on Baffin Island near Davis Strait, which is in the distance. Baffin Island is the fifth largest island in the world.
This is a mosaic image of sea ice in the Beaufort Sea. The darkest zone is open water. Light blue zones are thick sea ice, while dark blue zones are thinner ice. The image was created by the Digital Mapping System (DMS) instrument aboard the IceBridge P-3B.
Icebergs crowd the sea ice of Jakobshavn Fjord, seen from NASA’s P-3B aircraft on the Apr. 4, 2013, IceBridge survey. Jakobshavn Glacier produces one in ten Greenland icebergs and is one of the fastest moving ice streams in the world.
NASA / DMS
Another view of the cracked Beaufort Sea ice by the Digital Mapping System (DMS) instrument aboard the IceBridge P-3B. The DMS uses a camera that points down through a window in the underside of the plane. It snaps a frame each second which are combined into a mosaic.
On April 8, 2013, science teacher Mark Buesing of Libertyville High School in Libertyville, Ill., shoots Greenland glaciers through the window of NASA's P-3B.
Eastern Greenland's Helheim Fjord is surveyed on April 5, 2013, from the NASA P-3B. Helheim is one of the largest in Greenland.
The P-3B sees its shadow on April 9, 2013, on the sea ice southeast of Greenland. Flying low altitude is all part of gathering detailed ice data.
Danish high school science teacher Jette Rygaard Poulsen watches the Greenland ice roll by from a window of the P-3B airborne laboratory on Apr. 8, 2013.
Not everything is icy in Greenland. Even as early as April 8, southwestern Greenland has ice free fjords.
An actively calving glacier front on the ocean in southwestern Greenland on April 8.
In two plots of topographic data from the Jakobshavn Glacier warmer colors are higher ice elevation. The calving front is at the transition from warm to cool colors. The difference between the two dates of survey reveal a loss of about 200 meters of ice.
It doesn't affect the ice, but there are some other interesting sights in Greenland this spring, like the aurora borealis over Kangerlussuaq.
In a few weeks, NASA's Operation IceBridge will take to the skies for another busy season of monitoring ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice from above. This year, the mission will be stationed in Antarctica for the first time, enabling scientists to conduct longer flights, and explore areas of the icy continent that were previously out of reach.
NASA's modified P-3B aircraft is scheduled to depart NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va., on Nov. 11, and touch down at McMurdo Station in Antarctica later that week, Christy Hansen, IceBridge project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., told reporters in a news briefing today (Oct. 29).
Previously, Operation IceBridge research flights took off from Punta Arenas in southern Chile, but this season, the mission will operate directly out of Antarctica. (Images: NASA's IceBridge in Action Over Antarctica)
"Once we start getting into science data collection, we'll be able to collect more science data than when we were based in Chile," Hansen said.
Being stationed in Antarctica will also allow researchers to plan science flights that last up to eight hours, which means the aircraft will be able to cover more ground — in some cases, enabling scientists to survey parts of Antarctica not visited on previous IceBridge missions.
Operation IceBridge was one of several Antarctic missions threatened by the recent shutdown of the U.S. federal government, which lasted from Oct. 1 through Oct. 16. During that time, about 800,000 federal employees were furloughed, including Michael Studinger, IceBridge's lead scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center.
As a result, the status of the IceBridge mission was in limbo for some time, and despite weathering the political storm, Studinger said the government shutdown is expected to limit the amount of research that will be conducted this season.
"It put our preparations on hold for more than two weeks, and added some other headaches that we had to resolve," Studinger said. "We'll collect considerably less science data than we had planned for."
Chad Naughton, project manager for the National Science Foundation's (NSF) U.S. Antarctic Program in Centennial, Colo., said overcoming the effects of the shutdown was challenging, but he expects federally funded research in Antarctica to bounce back.
"We're all systems go for a lot of the good science that's coming down," Naughton said. "It seems annually there's always something that pops up that's a challenge … that affects a lot of science and a lot of the logistics. This was a big one, but I think we got through it, and I think a lot of the science that NSF funds on an annual basis is going to continue."
Operation IceBridge is a six-year campaign to study how glaciers, sea ice and ice sheets at both poles change over time. The P-3B aircraft is outfitted with a suite of instruments that measure changes in ice elevation and thickness, and probe the shape of bedrock and water cavities beneath the continent's icy armor.
"The main purpose is to measure the change in ice surface elevation over time — from year to year," Studinger said. "And this allows us to estimate how much ice an ice sheet is gaining or losing, [which is] important because we want to understand how much this melting ice is contributing to sea level rise."
NASA's IceBridge mission is designed to provide critical measurements to bridge the gap between the defunct ICESat satellite and the planned ICESat-2, which is scheduled to launch in 2016.
In 2011, IceBridge scientists discovered a huge crack in the Pine Island Glacier's floating ice shelf. Earlier this year, the ice shelf calved, dropping an iceberg larger than the city of Chicago into the Amundsen Sea.
Follow Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.
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