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USNA Polar Science and Technology Program (PS&TP)/NASA Operation IceBridge Experiment, Thule Air Base, Greenland

  POSTED ON: Thursday, March 30, 2017 11:09 AM by MIDN 2/C James Murphy, MIDN 3/C Madison Evans, Alexander Davies, CDR Shawn Gallaher, LCDR Jack Ryan, and Dr. Joseph P. Smith

From 09-17 March 2017, 9 USNA Midshipmen and 4 USNA faculty from the Oceanography (Dr. Joseph P. Smith, Project Lead; CDR Shawn Gallaher; MIDN 1/C Colton Byers, MIDN 2/C Patrick Francis; MIDN 3/C Jacob Drogowski), Aerospace Engineering (Scott Davids (Col., USMC (Ret.)); CDR Scott Drayton, MIDN 1/C Jonathan Daus, MIDN 1/C Courtney Mason, MIDN 1/C Matt Nason), and English Departments (MIDN 2/C James Murphy, MIDN 3/C Madison Evans) traveled to Thule Air Base (AB), Greenland to participate in the USNA Polar Science & Technology Program (PS&TP) joint ice experiment (ICEX) with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Operation IceBridge (OIB). The overall goal of the USNA-PS&TP/NASA-OIB ICEX-2017 was to collect measurements of snow-ice properties and perform other services to support the NASA OIB remote sensing mission.  

The project lead, Dr. Joseph P. Smith, of the USNA Oceanography Department has experience conducting research in both the Arctic and Antarctica; in March 2016 Dr. Smith led a USNA PS&TP Team with MIDN 1/C Byers and MIDN 2/C Ma to conduct an Ice Experiment in Barrow, AK. Alaska.  CDR Shawn Gallaher, also of the USNA Oceanography Department, earned his PhD from the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA studying upper ocean heat fluxes in the Arctic Ocean as part of the Office of Naval Research (ONR 32), Arctic & Global Prediction Program, Marginal Ice Zone Departmental Research Initiative.  But, for most participants, the USNA-PS&TP/NASA-OIB ICEX-2017 was their first exposure to a polar environment.  Fortunately the team was also joined by several experienced arctic scientists including: Dr. Andreas Muenchow, College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, University of Delaware; Dr. Thomas Douglas, U.S. Army, Engineer Research and Development Center - Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), Alaska Programs Office; Dr. Ludovic Brucker of NASA, and Mr. Sonny Jacobsen, a Danish employee of Thule AB.  These collaborators brought a wealth of Arctic experience to the team.  

The team left USNA on the evening of 08 March and flew to Greenland on an early morning Air Mobility Command (AMC) flight out of Baltimore-Washington Airport.  The team wasted no time and started work as soon as they landed.  They spent the first day locating equipment, learning about the threats posed by polar bears and frost bite, familiarizing themselves with the Artic gear, test-driving snow machines, and getting acclimated to the harsh Arctic environment well above the arctic circle (76.5 °N).  By the first afternoon, the team was already working on the sea ice off Thule, testing out equipment and marking the survey line for the NASA OIB customized P-3.  This aircraft (pictured above with the ICEX Team) is equipped with a host of sensors and instrumentation to map and survey sea ice and snow.  The Team had a couple of close calls with frost-nip on Day 1 which served as a reminder to the group of the challenges of working in temperatures below -20 °F with wind chills near -40 °F.

By Day 2, the Team was busy executing the science plan which began each day with a mission and weather brief.  Over the course of the next week of ICEX, the team broke up into sub-groups for ice surveys, snow surveys, and unmanned aerial system (UASs) testing.  They pushed through the cold; weathered a category Charlie storm (second highest storm category) for 12 hours, and survived a visit from a hungry Arctic fox that tried to eat a grounded test-UAS.  The Team also had to overcome equipment casualties to the snow machines, trucks, and equipment, three UAS and quadcopter crashes, VHF communication difficulties, and recover trucks stuck in deep snow.  Despite the challenges, by the end of the USNA-PS&TP/NASA-OIB ICEX-2017, the Team had successfully surveyed a 7 km long line over the sea ice using ice-augers and an EM-31 Mark II conductivity boom.  Extending 10 km on the terrestrial side of the survey line, over 10,000 snow depth measurements were collected using a GPS-enabled Magna Probe snow depth meter.  Along with these measurements, snow-water equivalence samples were collected at 100 m intervals by Dr. Douglas and midshipmen.  MIDN 1/C Byers completed 4 aerial surveys of ice surface features using a DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter for his Oceanography Department Independent Research project.  And the Aeronautical Engineering Team completed a week of engineering testing in the unforgiving conditions at Thule as part of their Capstone Engineering Design Project to develop an Arctic-capable UAS.  

In the process of completing their work, the Team also managed to find time to hike near the Greenland ice-sheet, sled ride down a glacier, explore a former US Nike missile site, and tour a US Air Force Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) site.  Although Thule is remote, the food was excellent thanks to the Danish contractors operating the Dundas Café.  Near the end of the trip, MIDN 2/C Murphy and MIDN 3/C Evans of the USNA English Department led the team in giving a presentation to the Danish contractors and air force airmen of Thule AB.  During this presentation, the midshipmen provided an overview of the USNA-PS&TP/NASA-OIB ICEX-2017 experiment and thanked the entire Thule community for their hospitality.  The Team ended USNA-PS&TP/NASA-OIB ICEX-2017 with a celebration dinner at the Top of the World Club where participating Midshipman were presented with their “Blue Nose” certificates and new nicknames.  

Overall the USNA/NASA ICEX over Spring Break 2017 was a great success. Pictures and video from the ICEX can be found on the USNA PS&TP Facebook page (embedded below). The trip was an excellent opportunity to expose USNA Midshipmen to Arctic research and give the next generation of future Navy and Marine Corps Officers experience operating in extreme environments and enhanced their operational understanding of the Arctic region - a region where they may have to operate in the future.  Data and results from the ICEX will be compiled and presented to NASA OIB to compare to their remote sensing measurements to ground truth collected by the USNA Team.  This will also form the basis for current and future Independent Research and Capstone Engineering Design Project along with follow-on Summer Internship experiences at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.  The trip would not have been possible without support from the ONR 32 Arctic & Global Prediction Program and the NASA OIB Program.  The Team thanks everyone at Thule AB, McGuire AFB, and the faculty and staff at USNA who helped ensure the success of USNA-PS&TP/NASA-OIB ICEX-2017.    

Category: General Interest

Press Contact

Dr. Joseph P. Smith
USNA Oceanography Department