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Spring 2001 Vol. 1 No. 1



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Ross Sea, Antarctica, photo by Michael Van Woert, NOAA Watching the Ice Melt

A Helping Hand from NASA


A team of British researchers recently determined that a glacier in western Antarctica has been thinning by up to 1.6 meters per year since 1992. If this Antarctic ice sheet were to melt completely, scientists predict that it would discharge enough water to raise global sea levels by 5 meters.

These scholars didn't make their discovery by spending years trekking across the frozen icecap with measuring instruments in tow. Instead, they looked in what are known as distributed active archive centers -- where information from NASA satellites is compiled into polar geophysical data sets -- and watched the Antarctic water slowly change from solid to liquid.

A new report from the National Research Council recommends ways NASA can improve the information going into these data sets and make the archive centers more useful to scientists. Understanding the polar climate has become more important in recent years since the effects of global warming often are detected there first.

After surveying more than 100 scientists who use polar geophysical data in their day-to-day research, the committee that wrote the report identified gaps between the data needed and what is available, and made specific recommendations for air, water, and land measurements that NASA should take to enhance the information already on hand. It urged the agency to consider also using aircraft, automated underwater vehicles, and some ground-based technologies in data-collection endeavors.

NASA also needs to do a better job of letting scientists know what is available in the archives and make them as user-friendly as possible, especially since they contain data from as far back as 20 years that are still proving very useful to researchers today.   -- Bill Kearney


Enhancing NASA's Contributions to Polar Science: A Review of Polar Geophysical Data Sets. Committee to Review NASA's Polar Geophysical Data Sets, Polar Research Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2001, 138 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07401-0; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $31.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by John E. Walsh, professor of meteorology, University of Illinois, Urbana. The study was funded by NASA.



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Copyright 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences