Earth & Space Science

05
Sep

The Future of Ice Sheet Science—Star Wars Had it Right! An Interview with Dr. Lora Koenig

I had the chance recently to speak with Dr. Lora Koenig, a physical scientist in the Cryosphere Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Koenig is interested in detecting changes in the accumulation of snow over ice sheets using data from passive microwave satellite sensors that have been observing the planet’s poles for over three decades. She studies the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets from up close, using field techniques like snow pits and ice cores, and over broad scales, through airborne and space-borne sensors. Her ground-based studies have included spending a total of over 12 months in the Arctic and Antarctic to validate satellite measurements with ground observations.

Q: How did you become interested in science?

Have you ever seen the Star Wars movies? Me, I loved them — not the newer Episodes I-III, but the originals, Episodes IV-VI.  Actually, I really didn’t have much to say about the first movie, since I was just 15 days old on opening night. But The Empire Strikes Back was probably the first movie I ever saw. For those who haven’t seen it, or if it’s been a while since you last saw it, let me remind you that it opens on the icy planet Hoth. I still vividly remember the opening scene of snow blowing across the desolate icy landscape. I was fascinated by the scenery.

I suspect my enchantment with Hoth, paired with my early love of skiing, led me to my current career. I am now a NASA Earth scientist and I study the massive ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica. These vast ice sheets have been in the news a lot lately and rightfully so: As temperatures warm across the globe, the ice sheets lose mass, causing sea levels to rise. Predicting the future sea level rise from ice loss takes a large community of scientists—some study how ice flows, others how it interacts with the ocean, while others develop computer models capable of predicting future change. My research focuses on determining and monitoring snow fall over the ice sheets, which are large and desolate places where we don’t have many direct measurements of snow accumulation.

Q: What is it like working in such extreme environments?

My research is truly exciting and has led me to Antarctica three times and to Greenland four times. I have walked where no one else has walked and spent a dark polar winter in the center of Greenland, where the ice is about two miles thick, all in the name of science. When I am in the field, I gather ice cores and radar data. Both methods give me information about how snow accumulates in layers every year; it’s like counting tree rings. When I started in the field, I had to drive snowmobiles over long distances to gather enough radar and ice core data to be able to relate these ground measurements to the larger-scale satellite measurements, which would be equivalent to using snow-speeders or Tauntauns on planet Hoth. I have spent months driving across vast extensions of ice gathering data. In the past few years, though, new generations of radars mounted on aircraft have essentially replaced snowmobile traverses for radar studies. The advantage of taking radar measurements from a plane is that it allows scientists to collect more data over a much larger area, in less time.

Dr. Lora Koenig gathering ice cores in the field

Q: What will ice sheet research look like in 20 years?

I think it will look more similar to today’s Mars studies than to today’s Earth research. Many of the big questions left in my field of research require measurements below miles-thick ice or deep underwater at the front of calving glaciers. These are areas where robots will go, not humans. In the future I expect many of my current field duties will be outsourced to robots.  This is already occurring. In May we began testing a solar-powered robot called Grover, the Greenland Rover. Grover collects radar data in central Greenland, as we would have previously done on snowmobile. But since it doesn’t need to rest, it operates 24/7 and sends us e-mail updates about its progress. As for airborne research, I believe we will transition to Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) that stay aloft longer, thus gathering more data. UAS are already conducting small studies in the polar regions (check out the CASIE mission). So in the future, I believe I will pack less boxes to ship to the field and spend more time in front of a video screen, monitoring the real-time data sophisticated robots collect.

Q: What would you tell students who may be interested in studying glaciology?

Let me take you back to Hoth. In the opening scenes, Luke and Chewy had left Echo Base looking for an Imperial drone. Star Wars had it right: The best way to monitor cold and icy environment is by using drones. So, if you are cold adverse, don’t worry, you should still consider going into glaciology — there will be plenty of future opportunities of doing field work from your desktop. Or, if you are like me and love being in sub-freezing temperatures, don’t worry, either: You too will have a place in glaciology, because I am sure a drone will go astray every now and then and will need to be rescued.

 

This blog is part of NOVA’s Earth System Science Initiative. To find related resources, please visit NOVA Education’s Earth System Science Collection.

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Rachel Gesserman

    As an Education Coordinator for NOVA Education, Rachel creates online educational resources for the NOVA Education website and helps produce outreach materials for NOVA’s educator and Science Café communities. Before joining NOVA, Rachel received her B.S. in geological sciences from George Washington University and her M.A. in earth and planetary science from Washington University in St. Louis.