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Mapping Earth's ice from Space

By Louise Murray - 29 Nov 2010 15:50:0 GMT
Mapping Earth's ice from Space

It may look like a flying shed roofed with solar panels, but CryoSat-2 is a European Space Agency satellite which will deliver vital information about the ice at the poles. The satellite's job is to focus on the polar regions to assess the effects of climate change on ice thickness in the ice caps and floating sea ice.

What is happening at the poles is important to all of us on many fronts. In the Arctic an area of sea ice the size of Europe melts and refreezes annually. We know that ice cover has been shrinking by 2.7% every decade since 1978 so CryoSat's mission is to use a satellite altimeter to measure both the area and the exact height and thickness of the ice.

This is important because the polar ice caps reflect about 80% of arriving sunlight back into space. Less ice means more heat arriving, faster melting and greater impact on the global climate and sea levels.

Particularly important is information on what is happening at the fringes of the ice caps where icebergs are calved. This will help scientists understand whether ice is on the move deep inside the ice caps.

CryoSat will also determine the thickness of floating sea ice by measuring the freeboard of ice floes - the height by which the ice extends above the water surface. CryoSat will be able to cover unusually high latitudes, almost to the poles at 88 degrees north and south.

The satellite is about to start delivering data to the scientific community having been through extensive ground-truthing in the Arctic and Antarctic. This involves teams on the ice surface itself making direct measurements of its thickness, NASA teams in a DC-8 overflying the ice caps, simultaneously with a CryoSat orbit, 700km above the earth. The sets of data are compared to ensure centimetre level accuracy. The mission is expected to last 3 years.

CryoSat is the third of a family of Earth Explorer satellites to be launched, all aimed at providing vital data about the planet, the others are investigating climate change and the water cycle and gravity and ocean currents.

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Topics: Space / Climate / Arctic / Antarctic