NASA Collaboration Uses Landsat 8 Satellite Images to Better Map the Speed of Ice

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Greenland glacier landsat-8

With imagery and data from Landsat 8, an Earth-monitoring satellite, scientists at NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are tracking the speed of glaciers’ movement and melt.  The new continuous data available will be recorded in”near real time” helping to better predict how global sea levels will be affected as glaciers steadily shrink.

This image acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8, shows a close-up of the terminus of Alaska's Hubbard Glacier
This image acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8, shows a close-up of the terminus of Alaska’s Hubbard Glacier Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

The NASA-funded Global Land Ice Velocity Extraction project, called GoLIVE, is a collaboration between scientists from the University of Colorado, the University of Alaska, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It aims to better understand how ice flow is changing worldwide – and its impact on sea level.

“We are now able to map how the skin of the ice is moving,” said Ted Scambos, senior research scientist at NSIDC and lead for the GoLIVE project. “From now on, we’re going to be able to track all of the different types of changes in glaciers. There’s so much science to extract from the data.”

Automation has been key to this ice velocity mapping effort. Landsat 8 collects images of roughly 700 sunlit parcels the planet every day; over the course of 16 days, it observes the entire land surface of Earth in multiple visible and infrared wavelengths. This means scientists can view changes in the same spot on Earth every 16 days (or 32, 48, 64, etc., as cloud cover allows).

This image acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8, shows a close-up of the terminus of Alaska's Hubbard Glacier
Mapping extent velocity takes a huge step forward with project GoLIVE

Researchers like Twila Moon, an ice scientist at the University of Bristol, is using the global maps to expand her research in Greenland. With the new database, she can study the movements of more than 240 glaciers. With the Landsat 8 making an overpass every 16 days, Moon and other scientists around the globe have an opportunity to detect seasonal changes and cyclical patterns.

“We can group these glaciers by looking at the similarities in their behavior,” Moon said. “It’s providing an opportunity to get at the underlying drivers of why they change.”

The project will allow for scientists around the world to conduct more effective field research, according to the GoLIVE team, because scientists will have better “situational awareness” of a given glacier before researching it in person.

One other important implication, Scambos said, is that the data makes it clear that the glaciers are melting.

“By presenting the data in an easy-to-understand way, it makes it obvious what’s going on in the world’s eyes, and that the world is changing and that there’s no attempt to hide it at all,” Scambos said. “It makes it plain as day that we have a changing Earth.”

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