Flying under Europe’s CryoSat-2 satellite over Arctic Sea ice

ESA’s CryoSat-2 is designed to collect new insights into the role of ice in the Earth system. Our April 20th mission plan was to underfly the satellite over the Arctic Sea Ice.

Posted by Tim Creyts

Just under two weeks ago (April 10, 2010) Europe successfully launched their first satellite mission to study the cryosphere. ‘ESA’s CryoSat-2’ is designed to collect new insights into the role of ice in the ‘Earth system’. The international concern and focus on the polar regions gained momentum with the support and shared resources of the recent International Polar Year, and this satellite will assist in supporting and maintaining that focus. Our April 20th mission plan was to underfly the satellite over the Arctic Sea Ice, aiming to be within two hours of their passing over the same area. Although we were slowed by headwinds on our flight out to the sea ice we were less than 15 minutes behind the satellite when we arrived to collect data on the flightline. Our mission goal was to collect comparison data between the satellite and aircraft for comparison purposes, but it was also nice to make the first underflight of the new satellite!


The crew and team were glad to be back in the air. We have had a series of bad weather days that sent Thule from a Code Charlie to a Code Delta. Code Charlie weather conditions boast winds greater than 35 knots and less than 3/4 mile visibility. Code Delta winds are greater than 50 knots and visibility is less than 100 yards. I usually associate high winds with howling noises, the whistling of leaky windows, and maybe downed power lines. At Thule, the power doesn’t go out (it runs through ground-based cables), and the noise is more like the thunder of a jet airplane taking off—continuously. There is also a low rumble of the building shaking that you can feel.

For those of us not used to military life it was a bit of an adventure when the base commander authorized the use of storm rations (Meals-Ready-to-Eat: MREs) during Code Delta. We were all confined to quarters with the mess hall closed so this action was born of necessity. It was my first taste of the legendary dining experience. Everything is wrapped in a thick, sealed plastic bag. Within that bag, there are numerous smaller packed products. Mine was a beef patty meal with southwest macaroni and cheese. The patty was somewhere between a burger and a salisbury steak. Overall, for a packed food product I would rate the MREs palatable, but I wouldn’t want to eat one everyday!

It took awhile for the base to get back to normal. The high winds had not only blown snow but gravel. Both had polished the roads to a fine and slippery finish. The windblown snow was packed hard — similar to construction foam used to insulate the exterior of buildings. Behind each building was a hard packed “wave” of snow that results from the way structures shed vortices and affects the transport of snow (see image).

The DC-8 will be wrapping up and the second phase of the project will be beginning with the smaller more maneuverable P3 that will be used to fly the glaciers and fjords. Lets hope the weather holds to allow for the equipment transfers and location transition.

Images: By Tim Creyts.
Featured image: Hard packed “wave” of snow that results from the way structures shed vortices.
Lower image: Cleaning up after the storm

Tim Creyts is a glaciologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory specializing in how water flows beneath glaciers and ice sheets. Tim has spent several seasons in the field in Alaska, the Yukon, and Greenland, and most recently as leader of a team investigating how water flows at the base of Blackfoot Glacier, MT. Tim will be working as part of the ICE Bridge project.

EarthSky