NASA has launched a new satellite worth $1billion to monitor the rate at which Earth’s’ ice is melting. The satellite, ICESat-2, has a 91-day orbit and shoots laser on the earth’s surface to detect the precise measurements of the polar ice sheets.
The average car-sized satellite is capable of sending countless laser beams and accurately detects the changes in the thickness of sea ice and the height of ice sheets. It will help the researchers build their future models to better predict potential sea level rise scenarios.
“As the climate is warming, we are seeing changes in the sea level—sea level is rising,” Helen Fricker, a professor of glaciology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who worked with NASA on the ICESat-2 project, told WBUR. “But the ultimate thing that we’re trying to get to is, how much ice will we lose and how quickly will we lose it?”
According to NASA, melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica has increased the global sea level more than a millimeter per year, which is a third of the overall increase.
“In the time it takes someone to blink, sort of half a second, ICESat-2 is going to collect 5,000 measurements in each of its six beams, and it’s going to do that every hour, every day … it’s a tremendous amount of data,” Tom Neumann, NASA’s deputy project scientist, told.
Arctic sea ice, the cap of frozen seawater blanketing most of the Arctic Ocean and neighboring seas in wintertime, follows seasonal patterns of growth and decay. It thickens and spreads during the fall and winter and thins and shrinks during the spring and summer. But in the past decades, increasing temperatures have led to prominent decreases in the Arctic sea ice extents, with particularly rapid decreases in the minimum summertime extent. The shrinking of the Arctic sea ice cover can ultimately affect the planet’s weather patterns and the circulation of the oceans.
A study published in the journal Nature in June said global warming has caused over 3 trillion tons of ice to melt from Antarctica in the past quarter-century and tripled ice loss there in the past decade. An April study said if the world warms 7.2 degrees this century, the Arctic will likely have a three-month, ice-free period each summer by 2050.
“With this mission we continue humankind’s exploration of the remote polar regions of our planet and advance our understanding of how ongoing changes of Earth’s ice cover at the poles and elsewhere will affect lives around the world, now and in the future,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.