Washington, October 8 (ANI): A giant NASA DC-8 aircraft loaded with geophysical instruments and scientists is all set to fly at low level over the coasts of West Antarctica, in order to understand the rapid Antarctic melting.
The flights, dubbed 'Operation Ice Bridge', are an effort by NASA in cooperation with university researchers to image what is happening on, and under, the ice, in order to estimate future sea-level rises that might result.
Since 2003, laser measurements of ice surfaces from NASA's ICESat satellite have shown that vast ice masses in Greenland and West Antarctica are thinning and flowing quickly seaward.
Last month, a report in the journal Nature based on the satellite's measurements showed that some parts of the Antarctic area to be surveyed have been sinking 9 meters (27) feet a year.
In 2002, one great glacial ice shelf jutting from land over the ocean on the Antarctic Peninsula simply disintegrated and floated away within days.
NASA's satellite reaches the end of its life this year, and another will not go up until 2015.
In the interim, Operation Ice Bridge flights will continue and expand upon the satellite mission.
In addition to lasers, the plane will carry penetrating radars to measure snow cover and the thickness of ice to bedrock, and a gravity-measuring system run by Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory that will, for the first time, plot the geometry and depth of ocean waters under the ice shelves.
The gravity study is seen as key because many scientists believe warm ocean currents may be the main force pulling the ice sheets seaward, melting the undersides of ice shelves and thus removing the buttresses that hold back the far greater masses of ice on land.
"What our colleagues see from modeling of these glaciers is that warm ocean water is providing the thermal energy to melt the ice," said Lamont geophysicist Michael Studinger, a co-leader of the gravity team who will be on some of the flights.
"To really understand how the glaciers are going to behave, we need the firsthand measurements of water shape and depth," he added.
"A remarkable change is happening on Earth, truly one of the biggest changes in environmental conditions since the end of the ice age," said Tom Wagner, cryosphere program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington.
"It's not an easy thing to observe, let alone predict what might happen next. Studies like this one are key," he added. (ANI)