UK Science Leads Europe's Ice Mission

Press Release From: British National Space Centre
Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2004

CryoSat satellite to prove link between climate change and vanishing Polar ice

UK scientists are leading a new European space mission to determine whether the Earth's ice sheets are thinning due to global warming.

The European Space Agency's (ESA) CryoSat satellite is due to be launched at the end of 2004 -- the first in ESA's Living Planet Programme.

Led by Professor Duncan Wingham, of University College London, the mission is a response to the current debate on climate change and the effect this may be having on the Earth's large polar ice masses.

Prof Wingham today told a press conference at the Farnborough International Airshow: "Unlike its Antarctic cousin, the Arctic ice sheet is fragile. It is a thin layer, just a few feet thick, and computer models predict its almost complete destruction over the next 100 years. Today, however, we have no reliable method of testing experimentally these predictions.

"CryoSat will provide the first authoritative measurements of how the ice thickness is changing throughout the Arctic, and allow us to unravel changes due to the wind from those due to melting. The schedule and budget constraints of the Opportunity missions have made CryoSat a challenging mission to design and build; however, we are confident that its data will remain a landmark in understanding climate change for many years to come."

The mission's overall cost is about £87 million (Euro 130 million). Britain, through the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), contributes £27 million annually towards ESA's Earth Observation Envelope Programme. British scientists will use the data to make accurate predictions about sea ice conditions.

NERC Director of Earth Observation, Dr Steven Wilson, said: "Sea ice thickness is one of the hottest issues in climate change. It is a huge uncertainty in climate models. The ice sheets are so vast, so inhospitable, it is impossible to gather this kind of information in any other way.

"If the Arctic sea ice is melting, it could change the circulation pattern of the north Atlantic, changing the supply of heat to western Europe."

By measuring ice thickness over a three-year period, Cryosat aims to provide conclusive evidence as to whether there is a trend towards diminishing polar ice cover and consequently improve our understanding of the relationship between ice and global climate.

Cryosat's main payload is a new generation of radar -- the SIRAL radar -- which is capable of measuring the very small difference in height between the sea ice surface and the surrounding water. The satellite will be placed in a polar orbit, to provide complete coverage of the Arctic Ocean. By maintaining the satellite in orbit over a period of years, a picture of the fluctuations in the sea ice can be built up, gradually revealing its effect on the ocean beneath.

CryoSat will measure the ice thickness from an altitude of 720 km. Because of the importance of its measurements to understanding the climate, it is vital to check that its measurements are correct. This can only be done by making 'field' measurements in the polar regions at the same time as the satellite.

CryoSat's importance has allowed scientists to bring together international resources (from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, the UK and the US) to perform experiments in April and September of 2004, 2005, and 2006 in Arctic Canada and Norway, in Greenland, in the Arctic Ocean, and, possibly, the Antarctic Weddell Sea in the (austral) winter of 2006. These measurements will involve traverses across the ice sheets, and coincident measurements using aircraft and helicopters.

Notes to Editors

1. Prof. Duncan Wingham is the 'Lead Investigator' of the CryoSat mission. CryoSat is the first ESA Earth Sciences mission selected (in 1999) through open, scientific competition. Prof. Wingham led the CryoSat proposal, which was selected ahead of 30 other proposed missions.

2. The space and ground segments for Cryosat are being constructed by ESA. Prof. Wingham is responsible for the scientific outcome of the mission, and the science data processing system is being constructed at University College London. Guy Ratier is the ESA Project Manager.

3. The satellite is being constructed by Astrium GmbH (Germany), the principle payload, SIRAL, by Alcatel Espace (France). The satellite will be launched on a Russian SS19 from Plesetsk (near Archangel, in Russia). Prof Wingham is also coordinating the 'field' experiments of 2004, 2005 and 2006. The experiments will be performed by scientific teams from a number of countries, including teams from the Scott Polar Research Institute, in Cambridge, the Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen, and the Scottish Association of Marine Sciences (Oban). They also rely on the polar research institutes Alfred Wegener Institute (Germany), KMS (Denmark) and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) for logistic support (as well as science teams).

4. BNSC is a partnership of Government Departments and Research Councils with an interest in the development or exploitation of space technologies. BNSC is the UK Government body responsible for UK civil space policy, to help gain the best possible scientific, economic and social benefits from putting space to work.

5. NERC funds and carries out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the environment. NERC funds the Centre for Polar Observation and Monitoring, a research centre that studies the polar atmosphere, sea level changes, ocean circulation and climate change. More information: http://www.cpom.organd

6. ESA's Living Planet Programme is part of ESA's wider Earth Observation Envelope Programme.

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