After decades of using drills to unearth answers to our climate history, scientists are using drones to look up, into our climate future.
The goal is to help answer a question with serious existential implications: how much of the East Greenland ice sheet is expected to escape into the atmosphere instead of melting or calving into the sea? A sea, which depending on how much melted ice it takes on, will be rising at least 20 feet in the next century.
Since the 1960s, scientists have been drilling into glaciers to study the layers of ice that make them up, which represent thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of years worth of climate history. But Bruce Vaughn and Jim White have tinkered their way into a new mission, using a drone to collect samples aloft.
“You might wonder why you want to measure things in the air above the ice sheet,” said Bruce Vaughn, chief tinkerer and lead scientist on the project. “Understanding the interaction between the atmosphere and the ice sheet is gonna lead us to a great understanding of, for example, how much sublimation there is from the ice sheet directly into the atmosphere.”
Basically, by capturing air above the ice and analyzing its water vapor, they hope to learn how the water cycle works in the Arctic climate of the East Greenland ice sheet, known by scientists as EGRIP. By learning how water molecules move from the ice sheet into the atmosphere, and visa versa, they can better predict how the ice sheet will change over time.
“So if we can understand how these big ice sheets grow and shrink, we can do a better job of informing society just how much shit trouble they’re in for the next several hundred years. And they’re in a lot of trouble,” said James White, co-founder of the Stable Isotope Lab and current Dean of arts and sciences at CU Boulder.
White and Vaughn founded the lab together in 1989 to study atmospheric CO2 and human impact on climate using the measurement of stable isotopes. An isotope is a set of atoms with different weights but the same number of protons. So they have the same chemical properties, but can be separately identified by their distinct atomic weights.
For instance, the methane released from a cow fart has a different isotopic signature, thus a different atomic weight, than methane released from the fracking of fossil fuels. Therefore by measuring the methane isotopes in the air around Boulder, Vaughn was able to identify how much of the greenhouse gas was coming from farming versus fracking. (Hint: fracking is the biggest methane contributor in the Front Range.)
When it comes to studying isotopes in ice cores, researchers can use them to determine the age of an ice sample or to determine the local climate at the time the air was trapped.
“So isotopes are both a core measurement in the ice core business,” said White.
“Pun intended,” Vaughn interjected.
“They’re also something of a roadmap,” finished White, smirking off the pun.
The duo has a storied history together, shivering around the world’s Arctic and Antarctic regions to study what ice can tell us about the roadmap of our climate history. They are part of a small global cohort of scientists who grin and bear the harsh work of deep ice core drilling.
At the EGRIP camp, which pops-up in late April and is taken down in July when the climate becomes too inhospitable, a population of around 30 scientists gather in a three story geodesic dome for everything from chow time to open mic. According to the field plan for the site, which outlines the goals and logistics for the five-year ice core drill as organized by the Danish team at the University of Copenhagen, camp residents are asked to bring their favorite instrument and a dress or necktie.
“It’s kind of like an old family, with all its functions and dysfunctions,” said Vaughn.
After long hours of work and a large meal to finish the day, the “grey hairs,” as Vaughn calls the older segment of the population, head to bed while the grad students stay up to enjoy the endless light of an Arctic night.
“We’re all kept young to some degree, because grad students are a major part of the camp, and they change, and they come and go,” said White.
“And they bring new music,” said Vaughn.
For deep ice coring, which the EGRIP site was established to do, a large cave is cut into the ice sheet where the drilling takes place. This allows the samples to stay nice and cold, negative 30 degrees or so, to keep them from melting when they emerge from the bore hole and get handled by workers.
So, how does an innovative research project emerge from two great minds who participate in some of the most important climate research of our time?
“We sat down one afternoon and we were like, ‘you know what, it would be really cool if we could go fly drones’,” said White.
He was only half-joking.
Flying a drone across the barren white landscape of an ice sheet may be fun, but in subzero temperatures near a magnetic pole the operation comes with a host of challenges, all of which Vaughn and his team had to experience in Greenland last summer during proof-of-concept.
If you’ve ever used anything battery-operated outside in frigid weather you’ll know that batteries don’t have much endurance in those conditions. Same goes for batteries in a drone, which is a concern when you need to collect air 5000 feet up. To keep the battery warm, they wrapped air-activated hand warmers around it and stored the drone in a warm room until the last minute before flight.
Another challenge flying a drone so far north is the navigation interference of a nearby magnetic pole combined with the loss of sightline from satellites, which makes triangulation difficult. Vaughn said the drone’s compass mistook the geomagnetic pole as a disturbance and became uncontrollable.
“When the drone was stationary, we tended to lose control and the drone would erratically fly away or circle the area,” said Tyler Jones, a research associate working on the project who will be heading to EGRIP in July.
Once the samples are collected by the drone and analyzed on site, the team will be able to show the daily interactions between the air and the ice. This data will compliment the information learned from the ice core down below, which researchers are hoping will tell them about the movement of the ice sheet. This is the key reason for the specific location of the site, which is on the fastest-moving body of ice ever drilled into.
“It’s high risk, high reward,” said Vaughn, whose work is mostly funded by grants from the National Science Foundation.
As the ice coring season turns on in East Greenland, the bright light of science will shine a spotlight on yet more pockets of knowledge. And to those who roll their eyes at what the data reveals about our future, Jim White has something to say.
“That’s bogus,” he said. “We’re getting closer and closer to answering the questions we need to answer.”