The drive to create the next generation of weather models

WASHINGTON — It wasn’t Joan Gardner’s first time seeing a polar bear. Over the years, while conducting research on floating ice in the Artic, she had often spotted them wandering the outer periphery of her work site. Now it was 2016, and her team was outside the city of Barrow (Utqiaġvik), in the Alaska North Slope. Her field of vision was restricted by goggles. She was looking down while sampling the ice and taking measurements.

When she looked up, she saw a huge polar bear just 100 feet away from her research group of 20 people, which included several Naval Academy students. It was her first time seeing a polar bear that close. In that moment, she was suddenly unable to appreciate the beauty of nature.

“It was beyond terrifying,” she recalled. “Not until two or three days later, after somebody produced pictures, and I was like, ‘Oh look how cute it is.’ Right then, it was 990 pounds of cute that was hungry.”

Members of an Arctic research team in Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories of Canada. (Photo provided by Canadian Armed Forces – Joint Task Force (North) during Operation NANOOK-NUNALIVUT 2019 – Capt. Soomin Kim)

For the group, that spelled the end of their day on the ice. After they reported the incident to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency’s personnel surveyed the area and discovered the bear’s den and cubs that were just a few months old. The researchers had inadvertently disturbed their habitat. They would have to find a different work site.

Gardner has been visiting the Arctic since she joined the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in 1993, when she first began oceanographic work, studying the ocean character and sea floor character to improve navigation safety. Since 2011, she has been using data collected by satellites and aircraft to monitor the thickness and changing character of sea ice.

This year, she was again in the Arctic, this time tagging along with the Canadian military. During March, when the ice there is the thickest, they were working at an icy location outside of the town of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

As a Royal Canadian Air Force plane flew overhead, collecting data with radar, Gardner and her team were on the floating ice below, determining the ice’s thickness and hardness and measuring the depth of the snow. They were “ground-truthing” for the ICESat-2 Satellite, a NASA satellite that launched in 2018 on a mission to use laser pulses to measure elevation of ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice.

NRL marine geologist Joan Gardner takes measurements in the Arctic. (Photo provided by Canadian Armed Forces – Joint Task Force (North) during Operation NANOOK-NUNALIVUT 2019 – Capt. Soomin Kim)

Gardner’s goal that day was to collect on-the-ground data to compare to the satellite's data to gauge the accuracy of the satellite’s measurements. To determine the thickness of the ice, her team drilled holes in it. To measure snow thickness, they used a magnaprobe, essentially a ski pole with a sensor and GPS functionality.

“You have to make these measurements while the satellite passes overhead,” she explained. “It seems like simple work, but it’s a harsh environment that presents many challenges. We’re just one of many groups that do this kind of work. NASA pays people to do this.”

That year Gardner’s team was just one among the multitudes of scientists and research teams trekking to the top of the world to take measurements, deploy buoys, launch weather balloons and engage in a variety of other data-collecting efforts. Their work would inform our understanding of the Arctic, sea ice, the ocean and the Earth itself.

For the Navy and its partners, that data would be essential for ensuring safety of navigation for vessels and improved environmental forecast modeling. In particular, the Arctic is important in extended sub-seasonal to seasonal forecasts such as those produced by the Earth System Prediction Capability (ESPC), NRL’s cutting edge Earth systems model that is scheduled to reach final operating capability in fiscal year 2022.

About the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

NRL is a scientific and engineering command dedicated to research that drives innovative advances for the Navy and Marine Corps from the seafloor to space and in the information domain. NRL headquarters is located in Washington, D.C., with major field sites in Stennis Space Center, Mississippi, Key West, Florida, and Monterey, California, and employs approximately 2,500 civilian scientists, engineers and support personnel.

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