The world is closer to understanding how fast the Earth’s Arctic sea ice will melt, thanks to two researchers with the Finnish Meteorological Institute who combined 21st-century science with some good old-fashioned math to fly a data-collecting drone at the top of the planet.
Roberta Pirazzini and Henna-Reetta Hannula spent many months learning to fly their drone at the institute, where they both work, writes Bloomberg Green. The preparation was well needed, as the scientists knew the harsh Arctic environment would demand much of their little machine, even though its navigation system had been purpose-built to withstand extreme weather.
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The drone was sent out to collect data that will be critical in the effort to understand how surface albedo—that is, the measurement of sunlight reflected off ice—is involved in the tricky calculation of “how much solar radiation is absorbed by the Earth and how much is reflected back into the atmosphere,” explains Bloomberg. That question, the news agency adds, is “one of the scientific puzzles that can help predict how fast sea ice will melt.”
Because not all ice is equal in its reflective power, the scientists are working particularly hard to “figure out just how much solar radiation is being absorbed by ice sitting below shallow melt waters that have been spreading as temperatures stay warmer.”
Bloomberg notes that the “Earth’s northern ice cap is heating about three times faster than the rest of the planet,” and that the Arctic sea ice “is currently at the lowest level for this time of the year since satellite monitoring began in 1979—37% below the historical average.”
Upon joining their scientist peers on the Polarstern icebreaker and stepping out onto the ice with their drone, however, Pirazzini and Hannula “ran into the same problems that have beset Arctic explorers for two centuries: treacherous navigation conditions and technology that buckles in the deep cold.”
Like helicopters, “drones have trouble near the North Pole because global positioning satellites suffer small uncertainties at extreme northern latitudes,” Bloomberg explains. Those uncertainties get bigger the closer one gets to the pole, and the Finnish drone “would be operating closer than any before.”
Sure enough, the specially designed navigation system wasn’t up to the task, leaving Pirazzini and Hannula “to manually calculate distances, direction, altitude, and wind speed.” They also needed to figure out how to manually operate the extremely delicate controls without freezing their fingers.
Despite the added rigours of keeping the drone’s blades de-iced and avoiding the slightest breath of wind (“gusts stronger than eight metres per hour would ground the drone,” notes Bloomberg), the two drone captains “managed to conduct 18 flights over three weeks” to capture albedo measurements. The data “will now be analyzed as part of multinational effort to understand how warming temperatures are affecting the Arctic—a scientific race against climate change itself,” writes Bloomberg.