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Geography professor teams up with Canadian Space Agency to measure ice loss of glaciers

Brian Moorman looking to discover impact of dry calving process on rising sea levels

The process of dry calving is seen here in the broken off ice chunks at the base of this glacier. University of Calgary geographer Brian Moorman is working with the Canadian Space Agency to study the effects of dry calving on rising sea levels. Photo courtesy Brian Moorman

By Heath McCoy
September 7, 2016

University of Calgary geography professor Brian Moorman is working with the Canadian Space Agency on a new project using satellite imagery to try to measure the ice loss of glaciers in the Canadian Arctic due to the process known as dry calving.

Dry calving is a natural process wherein the front of glaciers breaks off and crumbles to the ground at the base of the glacier. This process develops as a function of how the ice is flowing and sliding over the ground beneath it. It has been observed that these smaller chunks of ice at the base of the glacier melt more rapidly than the main part of the glacier.

Seeking a working model to measure ice loss 

Given modern concerns over global warming, glaciers have increasingly become a concern because, when they melt, the water flows into the ocean, contributing to rising sea levels. Today scientists have the technology to determine how fast the glaciers are melting and how sea levels will be impacted by the runoff. So far, scientists do not have a working model to measure the ice loss from dry calving.

“Our goal with this project is to figure out how much of this ice is breaking off from the glaciers due to dry calving,” says Moorman. “Secondly, we need to develop methods to figure out how big of an impact this ice calved off glaciers has on rising sea levels when it melts.” 

Working with the Canadian Space Agency and data collected from a radar satellite (RADARSAT II), Moorman hopes to determine whether or not satellite imagery will be able to measure the dry calving process and its contribution to rising sea levels.

“The satellite sends out a beam of radar towards the earth,” explains Moorman. “That beam reflects off the earth and goes back to the satellite. We refer to it as an active satellite because it’s actively emitting energy. It operates night and day and it is not dependent on sunlight, which is important in the Canadian Arctic where it’s dark for much of the year.”

Radar satellite helps scientists collect detailed measurements

This radar satellite enables scientists to collect very detailed measurements that a simple visible light satellite never could. For example, when oil spills occur in the ocean, the radar satellite can determine how heavy the spillage has been by measuring changes in the waves due to the oil in the water. It is hoped that this same intricate imaging can be used to measure dry calving process.

The importance of being able to measure all the contributors to sea level rise can’t be underestimated, Moorman says.

“If sea levels rise over the next 1,000 or so years, it’s not a big problem,” Moorman explains. “Cities like London and New York will gradually move to higher ground. But if those same rises occur over the next 30 years then there could be trouble, and that’s what we’re starting to see. We had predicted a certain amount of sea level rise and now we’re exceeding that. Most of Miami is now, technically, below sea level.”

“So we need to figure out where all this extra water volume is coming from.”