MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The Antarctic ice sheet covers an area larger than Europe. In places, it is miles thick. If it ever melts, sea levels would rise by dozens of feet. So, NASA is spending six weeks using an airplane to take a close-up look at what's happening to the continent. Until now, Antarctica had been studied mostly by satellites.
As NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, the flights are revealing a dynamic and complex world beneath the ice.
JON HAMILTON: The NASA DC-8 now flying over Antarctica is equipped with technology that lets scientists see right through the ice.
Mr. WILLIAM KRABILL (Glaciologist, National Aeronautics and Space Administration): As we fly along with our laser system, measuring the surface height, we can take along an ice-penetrating radar that will tell us the bottom topography.
HAMILTON: NASA's Bill Krabill says that in some parts of the continent, that topography includes volcanoes and mountains.
The NASA plane also carries an instrument that detects tiny changes in gravity fields to reveal liquid water beneath the ice. Krabill says the flights are letting scientists burrow down through the layers to see rivers and lakes.
Mr. KRABILL: It's analogous to peeling an onion.
Dr. THOMAS WAGNER (Cryosphere Program Scientist, National Aeronautics and Space Administration): It's going to be a really amazing thing, and it's going to change the way that we look at Antarctica and change the way we look at the poles overall.
HAMILTON: Thomas Wagner is program scientist for NASA's Cryosphere Program, which studies the frozen parts of the Earth. He says once you get beneath the surface of a glacier, you can find some really surprising stuff happening inside the ice.
Dr. WAGNER: There are these lakes that form, and they literally seem to pop and deflate, and then another lake will flow downstream and fill up another one, and we just learned about this literally in the last couple of years, and we're finding new ones all the time.
HAMILTON: If the water in those lakes gets under the ice, it could act as a lubricant and speed up a glacier's movement toward the ocean, and that could speed up sea-level rise.
For the same reason, Wagner says, scientists are even more curious about something going on at the place where glacial ice is carving a channel through dirt and rock.
Dr. WAGNER: One of the most important unknowns right now is what is the shape of the bed under the ice, and it turns out you need to know that in a very, very precise way to make models that accurately reproduce ice flow even as we see it today.
HAMILTON: The NASA flights are part of a larger effort to use airplanes in place of a dying satellite that was a major source of data on polar ice. Planes can't entirely replace a satellite tracking changes in the ice over many years, but they offer a scientific bonus in the form of all these new details about what's beneath the ice.
Chris Allen from the University of Kansas is in charge of several radars on the NASA flights. He says that once the plane gets over a designated patch of ice, his radars start to produce images in vivid colors on his laptop.
Professor CHRIS ALLEN (Electrical Engineering, University of Kansas): Just a first pass, we can get what the bed looks like in many instances, and the scientists on board are kind of keen on that. So they're gathering around a monitor and seeing what it looks like.
HAMILTON: The radar data will be refined in the coming months. Then it will be combined with information from the lasers and the gravity meter to create a more complete picture of an Antarctica that's been hidden for millions of years.
Michael Studinger from Columbia University helps run the gravity meter.
Dr. MICHAEL STUDINGER (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University): We are looking at structures like you see along the coast of Norway, these kinds of deep fjords. And right now, these fjords are filled with ice in Antarctica. In Norway, where the glaciers have retreated, you can actually walk in these fjords and see the place that has been occupied by a glacier tens of thousands of years ago.
HAMILTON: The question is: Will there be a day when people can walk through the fjords of Antarctica too?
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.