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As Arctic Sea Ice Shows Record Decline, Scientists Prepare to Go Blind

Due to congressional budget cuts, the 38-year continuous U.S. Arctic satellite monitoring program is about to end, leaving researchers blind to ongoing Arctic sea ice losses.

Written by Gloria Dickie Published on Read time Approx. 10 minutes
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An artist’s rendering of a DMSP satellite used to measure sea ice extent continuously since 1979. Failure of the last DMSP satellites in orbit could shortly blind us to major changes in the Arctic.Image Courtesy of the US Air Force

In March 2017, when Arctic sea ice is typically at its maximum winter extent, circling U.S. satellites recorded an extent of just 5.57 million square miles (14.42m sq km) – the lowest maximum in the record’s 38-year history, breaking the previous record set two years earlier and falling nearly half a million square miles below the 1981-2010 long-term average.

That Arctic sea ice has been seriously declining since around 2005 is a well-known fact, thanks to a series of U.S. Department of Defense satellites that have continuously recorded the region with passive microwave instrumentation since 1979. These satellites have provided scientists, citizens and government with a thorough record of the changing Arctic – informing climate research and policymaking, mid-latitude weather predictions, and geopolitical analyses useful to international shipping and natural gas exploration companies as the Arctic melts and opens up for exploitation.

But that’s about to change.

The U.S. satellites currently in orbit are already past their expiry date, with some already cutting out. When these satellites fail completely, Arctic researchers warn, the ongoing scientific recordkeeping will come to an abrupt end, with no funding and no time left to replace the aging infrastructure.

“It is unfortunate and disturbing that right at the time we’re seeing sea ice cover in rapid transition, we’re in danger of losing some of our key capabilities to observe what’s happening and understand it,” says Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

For all intents and purposes, Arctic scientists – and the world – could very soon be blind to the tumultuous changes happening in the Arctic until 2022 or 2023, with no viable international systems coming on board in time to completely fill in the coverage gap.

The fault for the failure lies with a U.S. Congress hostile to funding climate change research. Major cuts were made to the DMSP satellites when Obama was in office, and the situation is unlikely to improve under the Trump administration. In his proposed “skinny” budget released in March, and again in his more detailed proposed budget this week, President Trump called for cuts to NASA satellite missions, including NOAA’s next two polar orbiting satellites.

Arctic sea ice record minimum extent set in September 2012. The average sea ice minimum extent for the years 1979-2010 is shown by the yellow outline. The Arctic has exhibited severe instability over the last year, leaving experts concerned that this September could see a new record minimum, which could have major impacts on global weather. (Graphic Courtesy of NASA)

Congress at Heart of Problem

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) constructed eight “F-series” microwave radiometer satellites, in bulk, each with the intended lifespan of three to five years. When one satellite started to fail, the Department of Defense (DoD) would simply launch another, ensuring the record was continuous and that there were always two to three satellites in orbit.

But last year, things began to go awry. The DoD, NASA and National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) were relying on F-17, when it began breaking down. Scientists immediately turned to F-19 for data, the latest in the series, but F-19 went caput shortly thereafter, leading to a coverage gap spanning several months last spring. Now, scientists are relying solely upon F-18, which is well past its lifespan, and F-17, which continues to glitch out.

“The odds of those two satellites making it to 2020 are very slim,” says David Gallaher, a scientist at the NSIDC who oversees information technology, including satellite system development.

Until last year, the DoD, NASA and NSIDC, weren’t too concerned – after all, there was another satellite waiting in the wings to take over. F-20 was the last of the original batch the DoD constructed in the 1980s. It was intended to go up in 2020 and get us to the next stage of satellite launches, ensuring optimal coverage.

But under Obama, Congress, which scientists say has been hostile to the DMSP since the mid-2000s, began targeting the last remaining satellite, calling for its destruction due to high storage costs.

By building F-13 through F-20 in bulk, the DoD was able to slash the cost per satellite between $250 million and $450 million. But storage costs for the whole series totaled roughly $500 million, making it a target for budget cuts.

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on acquisition reform in January 2016, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., a climate change denier who chairs the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee, which oversees military satellites, called the program a waste of money, citing the Air Force’s alleged mismanagement of the space weather program.

“We could have saved the Air Force and Congress a lot of aggravation if we put half a billion dollars in a parking lot and burned it,” he asserted, citing the Air Force’s prior indecision on when to launch F-20, leading to greater storage costs.

Polar bears provide the classic image for endangered Arctic megafauna. However, far more is at stake if satellite monitoring of sea ice extent ceases to happen. Arctic sea ice monitoring is vital as part of the world’s climate change early warning system. (Image Courtesy Mario Hoppmann/NASA)

Congress provided no funding for DMSP in its 2016 fiscal year omnibus spending bill, and also denied the $120 million needed to launch F-20 around 2018, effectively ending the program. According to Gallaher, no one in the U.S. legislature came to the program’s aid.

“We spent $500 million that could have been used to support national security. Instead, [the satellite is] going in the trash. I presume it’s going to be made into razor blades,” Rogers underlined.

Last November, the government began dismantling the $518 million satellite and wrapped up at the end of March – ironically at the same time Arctic sea ice extent was hitting a record low.

“I can’t think of anything stupider,” says Gallaher. “And now, NASA has a new contract to build a new $700 million satellite when we already had one in the box and ready to go.”

Mike Rogers’ office could not be reached for further comment.

Unworkable Alternatives

With an inevitable U.S. satellite gap looming, it seems reasonable to assume that international programs could take over as the planet’s ongoing eye in the sky. But according to Serreze, it’s not that easy or simple.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency has a satellite program known as Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer (AMSR). From 2002 to 2011, NASA and the Japanese had a joint mission, known as AMSR-E, but when that ended, the Japanese launched AMSR-2 in 2012, with AMSR-3 slated to go up in 2022. But the Japanese satellites use different microwave frequencies and different spatial resolution than the DMSP F-series.

“You can’t suddenly piece on the record from AMSR-2 to the F-series,” explains Serreze. The two systems aren’t interchangeable.

Walt Meier, a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory, has been relying on satellite data from the DMSP for more than two decades for his remote sensing research analyzing changes in Arctic sea ice cover and sea ice climate data records. “Every satellite will be slightly different,” he says. “There’s a manufacturing difference, orbits are slightly different, and calibrations on board are slightly different. Even with the F-series, little adjustments are made to essentially keep the sea ice data as consistent as possible, often using an overlap between sensors.”

But AMSR, he says, is a lot different. “It would take some effort to adjust for that. It’s like if you’ve got a nice camera and you’re doing a long series of time-lapses, then suddenly after a few years into the study you switch to a different lens, different aperture, different exposure. The pictures don’t line up. It renders [the data] useless. That’s what we’re dealing with.”

Meier also worries about the age of the AMSR-2, which reaches its five-year expiry date this year.

Meanwhile, the Chinese and Russians also have satellite programs, but scientists cite problems with data quality and access to make their use feasible, questioning whether or not such information would be “trustworthy” and timely.

Large delays would erode one of the key pillars of programs such as NSIDC’s Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis, which provides daily updates.

Put bluntly, the gap in the satellite record would likely never be able to be filled, making scientific analysis of future climate-change-induced sea ice trends and forecasts more uncertain.

“There’s no good way out of this,” says Gallaher. “The sea ice record is absolutely at risk. NASA was caught with their pants down on this – NASA knew they had F-19 and F-20. But it takes 10 years to get a satellite up from inception. There’s no way NASA can react fast enough to fix the problem.”

Measuring Sea Ice Thickness

The DoD satellites already described record sea ice extent – the square miles covered by ice.

However, sea ice extent, while important, isn’t the only critical measure of sea ice health. Scientists also use satellites and airplanes to monitor ice thickness to determine the degree to which the Arctic icecap is growing or shrinking, which has vast implications for global climate.

Thicker sea ice (known as “multiyear ice”), takes years to build up, is more resilient to storms, and also to heat from below and above. Severe reductions in ice thickness can alter seawater salinity and temperature, especially in the North Atlantic, potentially impacting atmospheric and oceanic circulation systems worldwide. Eventually, scientists theorize, extreme changes could trigger a rerouting of the Gulf Stream, bringing unprecedented cold to Europe and maybe the U.S. Northeast, even as the rest of the planet continues to warm.

Detailed observations of rapidly thinning ice could signal the collapse of the Arctic icecap in advance, giving us warning of approaching abrupt shifts in climate.

Using NASA’s ICESat records and submarine records, researchers have determined that Arctic sea ice thickness declined by about 1.75 meters (6ft) between 1980 and 2008. Other monitoring programs showed that sea ice volume declined by 4,291 cubic kilometers (1029 cubic miles) at the end of summer and 1,479 cubic kilometers (355 cubic miles) at the end of winter between 2003 and 2012. At present, sea ice volume is the lowest ever for this time of year since recordkeeping began, which could presage a new record low in sea ice extent this September.

As it stands, satellite programs that monitor sea ice thickness will continue – and expand. The European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 mission uses radar wavelengths, bouncing a pulse off the ice surface to gather data on its thickness. And while NASA’s ICESat program ended in 2009, Operation IceBridge has been gathering data on sea ice thickness via a series of aerial surveys flown over polar ice.

“The data is very valuable, but it’s just an airborne mission,” explains Nathan Kurtz, IceBridge’s project scientist and principal investigator, responsible for the production of IceBridge’s sea ice data products. This winter, Operation IceBridge expanded its coverage zone to the Arctic’s Eurasian Basin via two research flights out of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago.

“With IceBridge, we can’t get coverage over the entire Arctic, so it’s not quite [as comprehensive] like satellite, but what we can do is look at it statistically and make inferences.”

In late 2018, NASA plans to launch ICESat-2, which will continue monitoring sea ice thickness from orbit, using a laser instrument to take measurements that can detect thickness down to about one inch.

The sun hangs low on the horizon above solidified pancake ice in the Arctic Ocean. The future of the icecap is highly uncertain, and soon, when the last DMSP satellites fail, researchers will not be able to track ongoing changes there. (Photo Courtesy of Andy Mahoney / NSIDC)

Trump Satellite Cuts Ahead?

These ongoing and proposed operations offer a glimmer of hope for many climate and weather scientists currently reviewing the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget, which was released on Tuesday.

Weather satellites and climate change programs are both facing cuts under Trump, including a reduced budget for NOAA’s next two polar orbiting satellites. NASA’s PACE Satellite, scheduled for launch in 2022 and intended to monitor the oceans and atmosphere for pollution, would be terminated. So would the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3, providing measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“[These satellites] were not identified as high-priority NASA missions in the previous Earth Science Decadal Survey, which reflects the science community’s consensus views on Earth science space-borne priorities,” the 2018 budget document reads.

A program that has – thus far – been spared the Trump administration’s fiscal axe is Landsat 9, which tracks deforestation, glacial recession and other factors to show how climate change is affecting the Earth. Landsat is jointly run by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and NASA, and has been collecting images since 1972, making it the longest-running satellite imagery program in history.

“The initial guidance to NASA in the president’s [proposed skinny] budget had specific language that would impact three missions – DISCVR, PACE and CLARREO,” says Douglas Morton, a physical scientist at NASA who specializes in Earth science remote sensing. “These missions are specifically focused on air quality and climate. … At this time we are awaiting funding direction from Congress, since budget authorization may differ from the president’s suggestion.”

Because the DMSP satellites were originally constructed under the DoD as a means of observing Arctic weather systems to protect military operations – including daily analysis of aircraft flight routes and weather conditions – it is possible these uses could offer some budget protection for future monitoring programs as Trump looks to ramp up military spending, even as he slashes clearly designated climate programs housed under NASA and NOAA.

But even in a best case scenario where Congress were to suddenly allocate funds to fill in the looming sea ice coverage gap, such money still wouldn’t come fast enough to make a difference, as it takes years to construct, configure and launch satellites.

A satellite gap is inevitable, and it will leave the world blind to the monitoring of sea ice extent decline at a time when the Arctic is becoming progressively and seriously unstable. The blame for this gap in data gathering can be placed with a U.S. Congress dominated by Republican climate deniers.

“I can’t understate the value of a consistent long-term record,” says Gallaher. “This is not just some esoteric, academic exercise. This tells us how the planet is doing. If we go blind to this, if we try to calculate it from some other means, we could easily see a shift of several percent difference [in the accurate recording of sea ice cover]. If it’s now the year 2021, and we’ve reached the sea ice minimum and want to know how that compares to 2017, we won’t know. There will be no way to figure it out.”

That lack of an ongoing scientific sea ice record, at a critical moment in our global climate history, could make future Arctic and global climate change shifts more difficult to model and forecast, potentially resulting in nasty, sudden, unexpected weather and climate surprises.

This article originally appeared at Mongabay.

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