(Photo: Tania Savayan, The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News)
PALISADES, N.Y. - The best view of the ice sheet covering Greenland won't come from inside a military plane but from a fiberglass capsule filled with $2 million in instruments hanging out of the plane's rear door.
The IcePod, which scientists at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory here have invented, is an eye in the sky for researchers focused on the world's glaciers and ice sheets.
Scientists assessing the planet's health in the face of climate change will be able to pursue secrets on top of, inside and beneath the massive ice formations, some of which are shrinking.
The pod is part of the work Lamont-Doherty scientists are tackling at both ends of the world. The 8-foot-long capsule is a means to get information faster, more often and in finer detail than what satellites orbiting the Earth can provide.
Money came from the 2009 federal economic stimulus act.
"It means we basically have a new tool to study how ice sheets are changing," polar scientist Robin Bell said. "It's like having the (National Guard) go out and do an MRI of the ice for us."
As a test, the IcePod was in the air for the first time last week over Schenectady, N.Y. It will be in the air over New York again and head to Greenland in April.
The flights are courtesy of the 109th Airlift Wing, a New York Air National Guard unit that flies LC-130s on about 400 missions a year across Greenland and Antarctica in support of National Science Foundation research projects.
An LC-130 is almost 100 feet long, has a wingspan of 132 feet and features skis instead of wheels.
Other aircraft are available to the scientists, said Lt. Col. Paul Bernasconi, in charge of the 109th's Greenland operations. "But we give them the larger lift capability to get larger pieces of cargo, more personnel, more fuel (around the region)."
Like the 109th Airlift Wing, Lamont scientists operate at the top and bottom of the globe.
While colleagues were putting the final touches on the IcePod, Mike Kaplan, an assistant research professor, headed to Antarctica. There, he will be part of a Lamont-Argentinian team looking for clues to the behavior of past ice sheets and glaciers.
The team will collect fossils, sediment samples and rocks for later lab analysis. Kaplan will spend his days on the Antarctica Peninsula, the northernmost part of the mainland, surrounded by penguins and wind-tossed seas.
"We will try to answer the question is it common for ice shelves and other glaciers to collapse into the ocean, even before the last century, even before humans affected the environment?" he said in an email. "Are ice shelves and glaciers exhibiting unusual behavior over the last few decades, or is this a normal condition when we look at long geologic time periods?"
To a large degree, glaciers and ice sheets control sea level, said Ted Scambos, a lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.
Studying their changes is a relatively new field, and Lamont's work provides important data, he said. Along with water, the formations have a wealth of information locked up in them about climate trends.
"When glaciers change, they give us an independent indication relative to weather records as to whether or not the changes in total have been in one particular direction," Scambos said.
By piggybacking on routine military flights, the IcePod can gather information more frequently than if scientists mounted expeditions across remote areas. Inside the canister are two cameras, a laser to measure ice elevation and snow texture and two types of radar. The radar will allow scientists to peek more than 2 miles into a glacier.
The invention can be installed on any LC-130 to take advantage of whatever aircraft is available, similar to plugging your iPod into a docking station, Bell said. The test flights allow scientists to make sure the IcePod doesn't interfere with a plane's aerodynamics and the instruments inside work as expected.
Then Greenland beckons.
"The data we get back is helping us understand the way the ice is changing and flowing out into the sea and how it affects sea level and weather," said Nick Frearson, the IcePod's senior engineer.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)