NASA scientist talks Earth Day, climate change and sea ice

18 Apr 2013

Dr Claire Parkinson, scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA climate scientist Dr Claire Parkinson has been working at the space agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center since 1978. She speaks to Carmel Doyle about Earth Day and her research into polar sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic regions using NASA’s satellite data.

Next Monday will see Earth Day being celebrated all over the world. The day has been marked each year on 22 April since 1970 to raise awareness about climate change and the environment.

And Parkinson will be engaging with students from Ireland on Earth Day via a real-time internet link-up under NASA’s Digital Learning Network programme.

In all, 40 students from around Cork will be tuning in to Parkinson, who will be explaining how scientists are studying the planet using data from NASA space satellites and instruments.

The Cork students who will be in situ at the CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory will be joining five other schools from around the globe for the NASA link-up.

One of these schools will be Ormondale Elementary from the San Francisco Bay Area in California. Just this March, Blackrock Castle Observatory forged an alliance with Ormondale Elementary to give students from Ireland and the US access to a robotic astronomical telescope that will be sited in Portolo Valley, California.

During Monday’s link-up, Parkinson will be showing students sea ice data from NASA’s earth-observing satellite Aqua.

Polar sea ice expertise

Based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, since 1978, Parkinson’s main area of research is sea ice in the Arctic and the Antarctic regions.

In addition to this, she is also project scientist for the Aqua mission – the aforementioned satellite that has been in orbit around the Earth since 2002 to collect data for studies of the atmosphere, the oceans, land cover, vegetation, sea and land ice and temperatures.

When Parkinson started researching sea ice back in 1978 she says the aim was simply to try to figure out what satellite data could reveal to scientists about sea ice cover.

“Satellites were still pretty new at that time and we were trying to get a feel for what variables in the Earth’s climate system we could see well from space.”

In the early years, she says it was about figuring out how one could best monitor the sea ice from satellites. “That was an exciting period because we were finding out that satellites could provide us with this great opportunity to get a large-scale picture of lots of global things, such as sea ice.”

Arctic and Antarctic ice cover

After that, the next step was to look at the changes in sea ice that the satellite data was revealing.

According to Parkinson, the Arctic sea ice has been decreasing overall since studies of it began in 1978.

“That seems to be connected with warming. It’s quite well established that the Arctic has been warming and the sea ice cover from the satellite data shows that it has been decreasing to quite an extent.”

However, turn to the Antarctic region on the other side of the planet and the opposite appears to be happening.

“We use the same satellite data for both the Antarctic and the Arctic. The Antarctic case hasn’t been so straightforward because we have actually gotten some increases in sea ice,” she explains.

“The wonderful aspect is the satellite data is revealing the trends, no matter what they are. Neither of these trends would be anywhere as well understood if we didn’t have the satellite data because it gets you the global picture.”

Parkinson says that the changes in the Arctic have been much larger in magnitude than the changes in the Antarctic over the period of these satellite data sets.

The changes in Arctic sea ice cover also has a greater impact because people live in that region, she explains, whereas it is only researchers who spend time in the Antarctic region during expeditions.

The ice covering the Bellingshausen Sea, off the coast of Antarctica, as seen from a NASA Operation IceBridge flight in October 2012. Credit: NASA/Michael Studinger

The ice covering the Bellingshausen Sea, off the coast of Antarctica, as seen from a NASA Operation IceBridge flight in October 2012.
Photo via NASA/Michael Studinger

Changes in sea-ice cover

So has NASA been able to pinpoint definitive sea ice changes in both polar regions since its studies began in 1978?

“There has been a 51,000 sq kilometre per year decrease in the aerial extent of the Arctic ice cover. In the Antarctic, there has been an increase of about 17,000 sq kilometres per year,” explains Parkinson.

As to why the Antarctic has been gaining ice, she says the Earth’s system is very complicated and scientists expect regional differences, so that part is not surprising.

However, Parkinson points to how one portion of the Antarctic is losing ice. This particular region is around the Antarctic peninsula that juts up towards South America.

“That area is similar to the Arctic as there has been a warming and a decrease in the sea ice cover,” adds Parkinson, who has carried out field work in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

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Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic