A grant of around $1.4 million by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has been awarded to create a wireless network of sensors that will reveal the flow of glaciers at the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet.
The project, which is led by a multidisciplinary research team at Swansea University in collaboration with the School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Newcastle University and commercial partner Thales Research & Technology, brings together expertise in glaciology, Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) technology and processing, wireless networks and the commercial know-how of electronics and ICT providers.
The aim of the project is to improve understanding of how the outlet glaciers at the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet, thought to be particularly sensitive to changes in air and ocean temperatures, react to climate change. The processes leading to iceberg formation or ‘calving’ are particularly important, because they control mass loss from the ice sheet, but are poorly understood.
Half of the mass lost from the ice sheet is calved as icebergs these processes are vital to include in glacier models. To discover more about calving at the margins of tidewater glaciers, the researchers need to establish what the primary mechanisms are.
Then the relevant processes can be represented in computer models of the ice sheet and its outlet glaciers, allowing us to improve our predictions of how they will respond to climate change and the ice sheet’s contribution to sea-level rise.
Detailed observations of iceberg calving events have until now proved elusive due to the difficulty of positioning instrumentation on the heavily-crevassed ice surface and because sensors would be lost during iceberg calving. To combat this problem, researchers at Swansea and Newcastle Universities have joined forces to create a network of expendable GNSS receivers.
The sensor network consisting of Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receivers and wireless relaying nodes will be installed on Helheim Glacier, an important calving glacier in south-east Greenland, and will measure changes in the distribution of glacier motion and geometry.
Software developed in Newcastle will allow the GNSS receivers to provide measurements accurate to a few centimetres.
The sensors will be connected to each other and to a base station via a network of expendable, low-power wireless transceivers and deployed on the Helheim Glacier. A proportion of the network’s nodes are expected to be lost during each calving event. However, the novel ‘self-organising” design of the network ensures that data can still be collected from the nodes that remain operational.
Calving front of Helheim Glacier in south-east Greenland, where thisresearch will be undertaken. Ice flow from left to right. The lineacross centre is the calving front of the glacier, and to the right thefjord is full of broken bits of ice from previous calving events. Acalving event is occurring across most of the calving front. One of thecameras which will be used in the experiment can be seen on the left ofthe image.
The innovative nature of the network and its components make it economically and logistically possible to deploy a large number of sensors by helicopter in the heavily crevassed calving region of the glacier. In addition, the use of wireless networks in an extreme environment will assist in the development of the next generation of wireless networks such as mobile phone networks.
The research project will be undertaken during two summer field seasons in 2012 and 2013.