Mapping glaciers with NASA in a Cold War-era plane

Facing a fear of flying — in a converted submarine seeker now used by scientists to track climate change

Despite my adoration of travel, I must confess I'm not the most relaxed of fliers. I'm that person who needs a window seat so I can watch the wings change formation. During turbulence, I have been known to clutch the hand of the stranger sitting next to me.

Then I was asked to report for “TechKnow” aboard a Cold War–era, propeller-driven aircraft called the P-3. The assignment was to map glaciers with NASA over Greenland. This worthy mission uses cutting-edge instrumentation on board, and the aircraft itself is an engineer’s delight.

Yet as a mechanical engineer — specifically, a computational fluid dynamicist — in the back of my mind all I could do was build simulations of the likely scenarios of the air spaces over Greenland. CFD simulations allow engineers to visualize the invisible. And once you start seeing the invisible, it’s near impossible to stop.

CFD converts the characteristics of air, such as temperature, speed and pressure, into colors and arrows (or vectors). So for example, “cold” is blue and “hot” is red; big arrows are “fast,” and small arrows are “slow.” It's an ideal tool for engineers to picture how air flows around Formula 1 cars, Olympic cyclists or aircraft wings in order to improve their design. You've probably seen CFD today, too, if you've looked at a weather map.

A view from the cockpit of the plane during NASA's Operation IceBridge.

So, of course, my world is vibrantly colored and full of vectors, which was why I expected that flying around Greenland in a P-3 would be so thrilling, and likely terrifying, for me. The air-flow patterns are massively complex over the country’s monumental topology. Turbulence is created by excessively mixed air-flow patterns.

In Greenland, weather often collides with the physiography. Rising winds blowing northward of a mountain face could be forcefully sucked downward over peaks, then pulled and pushed through narrowing and widening corridors of mountainous ranges. The P-3 was perfectly designed to power through these forces of nature — but it was unlikely to be a gentle ride.

Each night at 6, the NASA team congregates to review the next day’s flight mission and to analyze the weather data and satellite pictures. It is this information that determines exactly where the P-3 will safely take them and how.

Our crew had the good fortune to join the expedition to the southeastern glaciers of Greenland, which was hailed as one of the most picturesque of all the planned courses. The weather was calculated to be fair over that area, despite having been highly unsteady in previous missions because of the rugged geology. A scientist I talked to after the weather briefing described the inside of the plane after traversing this route last year as looking as if a tornado had ripped through the fuselage.

That was my concern. Typically, commercial airliners climb through unsettled air spaces to cruising altitudes well above the effects of weather, between 25,000 and 35,000 feet. The P-3 aircraft, however, would be flying extremely close to the ground, at about 1,500 feet — the height at which commercial jets tend to release their wheels when coming in to land.

The data collected on this mission would reveal how much the ice sheet has shrunk, help to extrapolate how rapidly it will continue to melt and, in turn, help predict how high sea levels are likely to rise.

But my anxieties were soon overridden by my fascination with the brawn and infallibility of the P-3. This 45-plus-year-old aircraft was originally designed to fly at remarkably low altitudes over oceans to hunt down submarines. Machines built to similar design specs in the 1960s proved to be so robust that they were purposely flown into hurricanes to further understand them.  

Mapping glaciers over Greenland seemed less strenuous than either a wartime flight or a storm chase, so long as the weather was kind. But it was a crucial assignment nonetheless. The data collected on this mission would reveal how much the ice sheet has shrunk, help to extrapolate how rapidly it will continue to melt and, in turn, help predict how high sea levels are likely to rise.

After takeoff, I had the privilege of sitting in the cockpit while the flight crew retraced routes they had mapped years before. It was paramount that they flew over the exact same GPS points in order to make accurate comparisons of any changes. They did this with the utmost focus and attention — yet they still displayed childlike enthusiasm when we flew over polar bear tracks.

While the pilots were busy at the front of the plane, the scientific crew watched their instruments like devoted fathers, some of them having built them from scratch with their bare hands. The aircraft was packed with innovative gadgetry, and the plane's interior had been completely stripped back to make space for them. The scientists were well experienced in removing foam ceiling panels and floor slats to tweak the apparatus that lay behind them. Their “office” really was just a large metal tube, which on this particular eight-hour flight remained largely unshaken. For the nervous fliers on board, luck was on our side.

Airborne topographical mapper James Yungel, on board Operation IceBridge's plane.

Temperatures on earth are warming up. Our planet is constantly exposed to solar radiation, and the first law of thermodynamics states that energy is always conserved. But ever since we humans started burning fossil fuels and generating other greenhouse gases, we have increased the rate at which the earth absorbs the sun’s energy.

As the ice sheet over Greenland thins, its mirroring effect becomes less effective. There is no doubt that the ice sheet is disappearing — the crew can see it with their own eyes every year they return, and the data captured by NASA confirms it. But what is to become of all this information? Why is it so important to have this knowledge? Can we reverse the damage we humans have done? I asked all the scientists these questions, and their answers were consistent.

The data collected on this mission will help formulate a strategy to protect coastal dwellers who are most in danger from rising sea levels. Exactly what form this protection will take remains undetermined — but time is running out quicker than we thought.

For now, flying with NASA certainly cured my fear of flying. I have taken a few other flights since then. When I'm airborne, my mind is still in overdrive, visualizing the invisible. But after experiencing how gracefully the P-3 glided through Greenland’s enigmatic air spaces, I’ve been left with a heightened appreciation and sense of wonder about all the technology, both old and new, involved in understanding how exactly our climate is changing.

 

Watch “TechKnow” Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.

 

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