Global Impact: Leaving Earth To Understand Its Melting Ice


What does NASA’s billion-dollar satellite mean for the state of environmental research and future society?

Isn’t it strange how sometimes, in order to properly assess a situation, you just have to leave it? How, in dire times, things are so much more intelligible when looked at from the outside inwards, rather than the opposite? As of last week, this relatively cliché piece of matronly knowledge has found new conceptual standing even within the futuristic setting of NASA’s headquarters. As a matter of fact, a new satellite launched into orbit on Sept. 15 promises the world a new, wholesome, external assessment of our home planet’s transient environmental panorama.

IceSAT2, short for Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite 2, which successfully took to the air fifteen days ago, has since been deploying and testing its various systems, preparing to become fully operational within the next handful of days. Its primary function will be to measure the thickness of ice sheets in both the Arctic and Antarctica. That is, it will measure how the ice in both the North and South pole changes over time to a record high degree of accuracy. What that means for an environmental scientist is a more precise understanding of the pace at which ice sheets are melting, and of its consequential impact on the sea level’s rise. As a matter of fact, if not from space, ice depth’s mutations through time are a practically unobtainable measure. A satellite, however, can employ the necessary technology to measure the depth of ice not only accurately and quickly, but also constantly, providing a perfect stop motion of how our planet’s ice changes through time – a holy grail for an environmental scientist.

Ultimately, what allows for these new levels of innovation is a curated arsenal of new and powerful technologies attached to IceSAT2’s slender body. From its orbit, it will shoot an array of six lasers towards the surface beneath. It’ll wait for them to bounce back and, based on how quickly and how powerfully they return to the craft, it will derive a live measurement of the underlying ice’s depth. Now, an environmental scientist who reads this may argue that this type of calculation is not novel. As a matter of fact, IceSAT1 employed very similar technology. However, the firstborn satellite only employed only one, infinitely slower laser beam, which, as pictured in the contrast between IceSAT1 and IceSAT2 below, was unsuccessful in extensively covering the ground below, especially through time.


This caused higher uncertainty in depth measurements, and an ability to only take measurements every couple hundred meters. Aboard the IceSAT2, however, the six laser beams’ trip earth, and back, only takes about 3.3 milliseconds. With that speed, since each “laser shot” is recorded and time-stamped, NASA’s youngest jewel can constantly record as it glides above the earth, actively covering the vast majority of the surface that lies in its path. What that translates to, is the ability to take measurements every 2.3 feet along the satellite’s ground path, providing an immensely more comprehensive understanding of how ice changes in both time and space, as illustrated in NASA’s demo video below.

In a warming, unstable climate, a quantifiable understanding of why and how such a crucial ecosystem changes holds massive weight far beyond the walls of laboratories and universities. Two years ago, a report produced by the world’s top environmental academics, and published in Science, warned the world of the newly understood possibility of an ice-free period in the Arctic by 2050. That is to say, in a few decades’ time, the Arctic will boast completely ice-free summers, something scientists don’t think our planet has ever seen. As it returns home, IceSAT2’s data will allow scientists to understand this phenomenon’s timeframe to a much greater extent. Not only that, but it will also be able to provide a constantly updated understanding of exactly what environmental phenomena cause what changes in the earth’s icy areas. From here, scientists can, with new ease and precision, translate how much ice is lost to how much liquid water will join the ocean’s body. In turn, we’ll be able to constantly understand where, why, and how, new water joins the ocean’s massive body, in short arriving at a quantifiable, reliable way of predicting the rise of sea levels.

What that will mean for society, in turn, goes beyond a shift in the global warming debate. NASA scientists and environmentalists alike hope that the billion-dollar endeavor will not only steer society towards climate change awareness but provide an entirely new sense of global accountability. If IceSAT2 provides the environmental intelligibility NASA hopes for, the constant tracking of melting ice should provide bases enough to one day indicate the most harmful environmental, quantify their effects, and follow them on a path of readjustment. By default, then, as the direct consequences of different actions become immediately available for analysis, a constantly updating record of our changing planet (and of our impact with it), promises a hopefully inescapable degree of responsibility for individuals, governments, and industries alike.

Another singularity of the mission, however, lies within its immediacy. Most environmental studies are completed over extremely long periods of time, and usually attempt to quantify consequences that are immensely distant from the present reality. IceSAT2 seems to break the spell. This constantly updated, intelligible record of our changing ice, offers us novel ways to adapt to the present. For example, an effort lead by Sabrina Arias promises to adopt the satellite’s data to constantly remap naval routes surrounding the two poles. Naval explorers and shippers alike, then, will be able to know, with immense mapping precision, the optimal routes to take and their predicted changes. Another effort, from a team lead by Molly Brown, will adopt the same data to monitor and improve water management at a policy level. The regulatory side of water management, shining through dams and regulated canals, is hence promised a total revolution, with the possibility of constantly updating schedules and directions to utterly optimize conservation and treatment. It is evident, then, that this absolutely novel category of immediate, present data adds given NASA’s mission an edge that even climate change skeptics will find impossible to ignore. Its versatility, profitability and immediacy make the satellite immensely useful in the present, immensely elevating the relevance of the insights it might provide for the future.

As such, the project dances brilliantly through the dimensions of space and time. In quantifying the present, it renders the future understandable. By looking at our earthly space from beyond its bounds, it offers us an entirely wholesome understanding. It renders facets of the icy space which it glides over analyzable and manipulable across time. In essence, then, it brings together the two dimensions that had been separated too long. As if inspired by that old piece of matronly advice, IceSAT2 then becomes humanity’s noble way of understanding its environmental situation from a new empowering, reinvigorated standpoint.