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OMG: NASA Observes Oceans Melting Greenland at Thule

NASA’s Gulfstream III plane measuring glacial melt and ocean temperatures

NASA studies the melting glaciers of the Greenland ice sheet from Thule Air Base as part of a five-year project that started in 2016. Oceans Melting Greenland is a mission that collects data of the glacier size using a Glacier and Ice Surface Topography Interferometer radar and ocean temperature and salinity using airborne expendable conductivity temperature depth probes. (NASA courtesy graphic)

THULE AIR BASE, Greenland --

With arctic air and oceans getting warmer, NASA has been observing Greenland’s ice sheet to see how much of the glacier melt is caused by warming oceans as part of the Oceans Melting Greenland mission.

Since 2016, Thule Air Base has provided NASA with a temporary base of operations due to its location and accessibility.

“[Many] of the most important glaciers in Greenland are just south of Thule, in a place called Melville Bay,” said Josh Willis, OMG principal investigator. “There's a huge number of really big glaciers there, and they are all reacting to what the ocean is doing.”

“Every year, and sometimes twice per year, we've done survey flights of the oceans and ice from Thule,” continued Willis. “There's a lot of [Greenland] that you just can't reach from anywhere else. Thule has been a great hub for us to bring in equipment and swap out crews.”

The OMG mission works in two parts: ice surveillance and ocean surveillance. The ice survey takes place in the spring and is done by flying NASA’s Gulfstream III plane over 80 locations around the entire coast of Greenland while using a Glacier and Ice Surface Topography Interferometer, or a GLISTEN-A radar. The Ka-band radar measures glacier heights and finds the edges of the glaciers. This allows the OMG scientists to see how the thickness of the glaciers are changing over the years.

The ocean survey takes place in the summer and is done by dropping 250 airborne expendable conductivity temperature depth probes a year. The probes measure the temperature and the saltiness of the water. To accomplish this, the planes must fly low to assure the probes do not fall onto the ice or the local wildlife.

As of right now, Greenland’s ice sheet area is approximately 684,000 square miles or roughly 80 percent of Greenland, second only to the Antarctic ice mass. If it all melted, the world’s sea level would rise 25 feet, so the OMG observation mission is studying environmental information that is of worldwide importance.

“The science we do on OMG affects practically everyone across the globe,” said Willis. “Sea level rise is one of the biggest potential impacts of our warming world, and if we can't predict it accurately, hundreds of millions of lives will be directly affected and trillions of dollars of infrastructure is at risk.” 

Since the beginning, the Airmen from Thule have supported OMG’s mission success.

“Thule has assisted NASA with their OMG mission on a couple different issues. First, we received a shipment of 130 probes to resupply their OMG aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Iavarone, 821st Air Base Group deputy commander. “The OMG contracted aircraft came to Thule for two nights to re-supply probes, fuel, and to launch and drop probes into the waters surrounding the Northwest part of Greenland.”

“The Airmen of Thule are critical to the success of OMG,” Ian McCubbin, OMG Project Manager, exclaimed. “The Thule team has been incredibly supportive of the OMG mission, and NASA missions as a whole. We thank everyone for the hospitality during our campaigns over all of these years.”

With five years of data collecting soon to be completed in 2021, members of the team look to the future with hopes of spreading awareness.

“I've really gained a huge appreciation for just how big an impact people can have on the Earth and its climate,” Willis admitted. “It's one thing to know that Greenland is melting, but it's quite another to fly for hours and hours of this giant sheet of ice that's two miles thick and see that it's melting, and that the sea level everywhere in the world is rising because of it. It's my hope that OMG helps a few other people realize this, too.”

In 2020, with COVID-19 becoming a worldwide pandemic, the OMG team ran into difficulties to continue the project, but were able to continue with the support of Thule AB.

“[This year] created roadblocks for the project, and thanks to Thule AB and the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen we were able to pull off the impossible,” said McCubbin. “We started planning the OMG mission in January, and when the COVID shutdown hit in March we found support and guidance on how to make OMG happen.”

“It has been a great experience to host our NASA guests and provide support for a very worthwhile project that will ultimately benefit mankind,” said Iavarone.

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