NASA keeps watch of shrinking Arctic ice

The future of monitoring Arctic ice begins in space.

NASA scientist Thomas Wagner said to think of the IceSat-2 like a giant laser pointer.

Rather than entertaining your cat, these lasers can measure the height of ice above the water. A total of six of them will be beamed down to Earth.

“The point being that we’re going to get our most accurate maps ever of the thickness of the Arctic sea ice,” Wagner said. “And that’s one of the most important things that we put into our models.”

Those models could influence conservation and planning decisions in the Arctic, Wagner said.

NASA launched a prototype of IceSat in the early 2000s, but it was decommissioned in 2010.

This new and improved satellite — along with additional measurements collected by NASA — will help determine what the future could look like in the Arctic.

And it’s happening at an important time.

“A lot of ice experts, including myself, thought we were headed for a record year minimum,” said Hajo Eicken, a professor at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Arctic sea ice is important because it acts like a giant air conditioner for our planet, he said.

This year, a combination of events, such as a major ice retreat near Russia, left scientists wondering if the summer would beat a previous low. The last recorded minimum in the Arctic was in 2012.

But wind patterns offset the loss of sea ice and things cooled down a little.

“So now it looks like we’ll have well below normal ice extent, but we won’t have that record minimum,” Eicken said.

Still, Eicken said scientists are trying to figure out how the blob — a large pool of warm water in the Pacific Ocean — could be affecting the Arctic.

Sunlight is the most effective way to melt ice.

“However, the heat that comes up from below, some of it actually survives the winter,” Eicken said. “So in part, what we’re seeing now is that we have years where some of the heat that’s put into the ocean, upper ocean, from the sun and the atmosphere in the summer survives well into the winter.”

That could mean melt episodes even in the colder months.

Eicken is excited about the NASA satellite, which can help document these changes.

Even though what it finds might appear alarming, Wagner said people should be concerned, not afraid.

Look, I have kids, too, and I’m not hopeless at all,” Wagner said. “All the time I see things that are going on in society that make me think that we are generating the social will to deal with this. And I think we’re getting a better handle on the challenges that we face today, and I think we are going to be able to deal with them.”

IceSat-2 is set to launch in 2018.

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