News from polar ice


Sometimes, by a small mistake, the development of a field of science is blocked for years. This happened, when in 2005 the russian Rockot launch vehicle plunged into the polar sea because of a software error, together with ESAs Cryosat-1. The satellites only measurement device was a high precision radar surface elevation detector that should have made possible the rather exact determination of land ice surface elevation as well as sea ice thickness. Its measurements would have closed – or at least narrowed considerably – an information gap concerning polar sea ice, namely its volume.

For polar sea ice extension exists a consistent data series based on many years of satellite surveillance – for the more important volume, for which the thickness distribution is needed, there are only relatively scarce measurements by probes, submarine sonar measurements and aircraft overflights, interpolated by complex numerical simulations yielding a somewhat hypothetical field of thickness. The currently most important of these models is PIOMAS of the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington, whose results I posted here. The graph is looking apalling and basically says, that – with a little “luck” – we can celebrate the first ice free summer in the arctic in not more than four years. (Actually, there is at least one more ice thickness model I know of, PIPS of the Naval Research Laboratory, but I didn’t find any useful results of it in the internet until now.)

Those simulations have been compared to satellite measurements, to be more specific to those of IceSat in the years 2003 to 2008, and the consistency was rather damned good. Since then, there have been no further checks. IceSat has been decommissioned in August. NASA plans to launch another one in 2015, so all we have now is PIOMAS running on a less than rich data base, on thin ice so to say.

With the consequence, that the credibility of the results isn’t as high as it should be – I mean, the plot is alarming, but none of the big media takes even notice of it.

CryoSat would have solved this credibility problem.

It is remarkable, that ESA began only four months after the desaster to build a new satellite, that is, a copy of the old one with a clutch of enhancements, and shot it into orbit April 2010. The apparatus went through a period of tests and fine-tunings called “commissioning” , the end of which I want to report here.

This means, that we have to expect the first papers on ice volume determination in some weeks, the first tests of PIOMAS calculations with CryoSat-2 data.

Let’s see, whether this will have any reverberation in the media.


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November 2010
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