Watch two decades of changes in Helheim Glacier in NASA airborne surveys

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Helheim Glacier is the fastest flowing glacier along the eastern edge of Greenland Ice Sheet and one of the island’s largest ocean-terminating rivers of ice.

Helheim is about 4 miles wide on average, but IceBridge only collects data along an 820-foot swath in the center of the glacier.

It’s named after the Vikings’ world of the dead, Helheim has kept scientists on their toes for the past two decades. Between 2000 and 2005, Helheim quickly increased the rate at which it dumped ice to the sea, while also rapidly retreating inland- a behavior also seen in other glaciers around Greenland. Since then, the ice loss has slowed down and the glacier’s front has partially recovered, readvancing by about 2 miles of the more than 4 miles it had initially ­retreated.

NASA has compiled a time series of airborne observations of Helheim’s changes into a new visualization that illustrates the complexity of studying Earth’s changing ice sheets. NASA uses satellites and airborne sensors to track variations in polar ice year after year to figure out what’s driving these changes and what impact they will have in the future on global concerns like sea level rise.

Since 1997, NASA has collected data over Helheim Glacier almost every year during annual airborne surveys of the Greenland Ice Sheet using an airborne laser altimeter called the Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM).

Since 2009 these surveys have continued as part of Operation IceBridge, NASA’s ongoing airborne survey of polar ice and its longest-running airborne mission. ATM measures the elevation of the glacier along a swath as the plane files along the middle of the glacier.

By comparing the changes in the height of the glacier surface from year to year, scientists estimate how much ice the glacier has lost.

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