The U.S. government shutdown is delaying a critical NASA polar ice-measuring mission

This year's Operation IceBridge flights will likely be delayed by three weeks or more — and might be canceled altogether.

By Melody Schreiber - January 25, 2019
An aircraft used to measure polar ice prepares for a scientific mission from Greenland’s Thule Air Base on April 4, 2018. (John Sonntag / NASA)

For the past 15 years, NASA has used airborne lasers to measure sea ice, glaciers, and ice sheets in both the Arctic and Antarctica. In addition to measuring annual changes in the thickness and extent of polar ice, the project assesses the effects of climate change and subsequent sea-level rise.

But this year, the partial government shutdown will delay or even cancel some of that work. And if the mission does launch, it may be too late to measure Arctic sea ice at its maximum extent and thickness.

Operation IceBridge, which involves aircraft flying over the Arctic and Antarctica to take precise measurements with a laser, is already set to be delayed because of the shutdown.

Originally scheduled to take off from Thule Air Base on March 4, the mission will now be pushed back by about three weeks or more. And the aircraft NASA will use is needed elsewhere by early summer, so the mission must end by April 30.

“We’re losing time on the front end, and not gaining it on the back end. So it seems likely the whole thing is going to be shortened,” said John Sonntag, an IceBridge scientist. Sonntag is one of the few NASA scientists on this project who can continue working through the shutdown because he’s a contractor.

He said it’s “likely” to be shortened because it’s difficult even to estimate the delay given the shutdown.

“One of the problems with the shutdown, one of the really frustrating things, is that there’s lots of people we need to talk to that we just can’t,” Sonntag said. “So, estimates of how long our delay is, are really just that: estimates.”

But he does expect that the longer the shutdown lasts, the longer the delay will be.

“If the shutdown goes on, it could conceivably cancel the whole thing,” he said.

NASA’s polar mission began in 2003 with the launch of ICESat (the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite), a satellite that took measurements of the air, land and sea from space until it stopped working in 2009.

That’s when Operation IceBridge began. Every year since 2009, NASA has outfitted a plane with a laser altimeter to measure ice and snow at both poles. IceBridge was intended to be just that — a bridge of continued aerial data collection between the end of ICESat and the beginning of its replacement, ICESat-2.

ICESat-2 launched this past September, making this year’s IceBridge mission even more critical because it was supposed to calibrate data from the new satellite.

“ICESat-2 is still a brand-new spacecraft, and we don’t fully understand the measurements it’s giving us yet,” Sonntag explained.

Measurements taken by the aircraft during Operation IceBridge would set up a baseline for understanding the satellite’s data. The aircraft would fly under the satellite and over the Arctic, measuring the same area at the same time.

But now, the eight-week deployment will likely be cut down to five weeks or less, thus limiting the amount of data the plane can collect. “And things are going to have to fall into place quickly for that [timeline] to happen,” Sonntag said.

At this time of year, he said, scientists, leaders at NASA headquarters and the people who operate the aircraft need to be working closely together every day. But now they’re unable even to talk to each other because so many employees have been furloughed.

“We can’t solve problems as they come up. We can’t even begin to integrate our instrumentation with the aircraft until the furlough’s ended. That takes many weeks to get that done, a long, careful process, and we can’t even start,” Sonntag said.

“That’s a big loss to the American taxpayer,” he said. ICESat-2 is a $1 billion investment, and it will only operate for a limited amount of time.

“The clock is ticking on ICESat-2,” he said. “Spacecraft don’t last forever. The more time we go without that spacecraft being fully calibrated, the less value we’re getting out of it.”

“We’ve been working on this for a couple of decades now, so we’re at a critical point,” he said. “And it’s quite frustrating.”

The clock is also ticking on sea ice itself. Sea ice is usually at its maximum extent and thickness in the month of March, making it the “prime time” to measure it. Even if the mission resumes soon, scientists will likely only have the last week of March to perform these calculations.

“This year, because of the shutdown, we have largely lost our ability to measure that icepack at its maximum extent,” Sonntag said. And without calibrating the satellite, they may not be able to interpret other data on sea ice that the spacecraft has collected this winter.

NASA’s work in the Arctic is particularly important right now because sea ice in the north is melting at a surprisingly fast rate and the majority of that melt has happened “really during the last several years,” he said. Data collected now can help scientists understand what these rapid changes mean for the Arctic and for the rest of the globe. Delaying or cancelling that data collection altogether could result in long-lasting gaps in their knowledge.

There are other ways to try to calibrate the satellite’s data, but the plane is the most reliable way to do it, Sonntag said, because NASA has fine-tuned its measurements over the past decade.

“IceBridge and the spacecraft are meant to work together — that was the plan all along,” he said.

This isn’t the first time a shutdown has impinged upon NASA’s work. In 2013, a mission that was supposed to last six weeks was cut down to nine days, Science reported when it broke this story. And that shutdown lasted only 16 days; the 2019 budget battle is now entering its fifth week.

It’s not just NASA researchers affected by the partial shutdown. Recently, the American Meteorological Society held its big annual meeting. No furloughed researchers, including those at NOAA and other agencies, were allowed to attend.

“To a scientist, that’s where things happen,” Sonntag said. “That’s where we exchange our ideas and our research. A lot of that just didn’t happen at AMS because of the shutdown, and that’s a real shame.”

“The knowledge like that, you can’t get back.”