Chile acts as launch point for NASA research into climate change

Punta Arenas is NASA’s base for Operation IceBridge, a mission imperative to our understanding of climate change, the polar regions and rising sea levels.

This October, Chile’s Punta Arenas, capital city of Chile’s southernmost region, Magallanes and Antartica Chilena, will welcome NASA scientists as they conduct crucial research into the ever changing face of Antarctica. Using sophisticated measuring equipment and high-tech planes, the data collected during Operation IceBridge will increase our understanding of the effects of climate change on our planet.
Operation IceBridge’s Antarctic mission is in its third year, and receives the local support of scientists from Valdivia’s Centro de Estudios Científicos (Center for Scientific Studies). The mission provides an unprecedented, three-dimensional view of polar ice sheets.
From Punta Arenas, scientists are able to access the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) by plane in just a few hours, allowing them to monitor in particular the behavior of two large glaciers that have led to both intrigue and concern in recent times.
The WAIS makes up just under 10 percent of Antarctica’s ice mass, and the Pine Island Glacier (PIG) ice stream in turn makes up a tenth of the WAIS ice mass. The PIG’s flowing speed increased a startling 73 percent between 1974 and 2007, and in 2011 IceBridge scientists discovered a massive 29km crack across the tongue of the glacier.
At its current rate of acceleration, the main body of the PIG is expected to break off from the WAIS and become a gigantic iceberg within the century. If the PIG, along with the neighboring and faster flowing Thwaites Glacier, where to melt, global sea levels could be expected to rise by between 0.9m and 1.9m.
To put this in perspective, a report from a German foundation on low-lying Nigeria predicts that a sea level rise of 20cm would displace 740,000 people in the African nation; a rise of 1m would lead to 3.7 million displaced; and a rise of 2m would leave 10 million homeless in the country.
As things stand, modern sea level rise is already occurring at a concerning rate. Average seas level rise over the last 3,000 years has been put at 0.1-0.2mm a year, whereas we are currently experiencing an average rise of 1.8mm a year, with some years seeing a rise of up to 3.3mm a year. What’s more, in 2007, geophysicists in Australia analysed data going back to 1870 and confirmed for the first time a 20th century acceleration in sea level rise.
While NASA scientists have been able to use satellites to map large areas of the polar caps, such information remains largely two dimensional. The special equipment and planes launched from Punta Arenas will provide researchers with much more detailed data, allowing them to identify why the glaciers are changing so rapidly.
Speaking on satellite imaging, IceBridge project scientist Michael Studinger said, “It’s almost like you’re taking the pulse of a patient; you’re only looking at the symptoms of the illness without understanding what’s causing it.”
“In order to find out why the ice sheet is changing its surface, we need to understand what’s beneath the ice sheet because that’s what’s driving a lot of the dynamic changes. And those are datasets that you can’t collect from space, you need an airplane to go in there and get the greater picture of what’s below.”
The 2012 Antarctic expedition of Operation IceBridge is expected to run through November, and the entire mission will come to a close in 2015.