A Technical Seminar presented by the Washington/Northern Virginia Chapter

of the IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society


Understanding the West Antarctic Ice Sheet from Space: Beyond dogsleds and frozen toes


Dr. Robert Bindschadler

Chief Scientist

Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory

Code 614

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Greenbelt, MD  20771




Abstract:  The West Antarctic ice sheet continues to be a climatic wild card in scientists' attempts to predict the future of the planet. The mystery rests as much on what we do know about ice sheets as what we don't know. The West Antarctic ice sheet rests on a bed below sea level where ice-free periods have layered a bed of thick marine ooze. Ice can, and does, slide rapidly on this slippery material.  All other ice sheets of this type have slid back into the ocean, raising sea level over 100 meters. Will the West Antarctic ice sheet be the last to go?  If it happens as rapidly as its icy kin disappeared, a potential 5-meter increase in sea level around the globe could occur fast enough to cause widespread economic and ecological damage. Others have argued that the West Antarctic ice sheet is uniquely stable pointing to its persistence in our warm climate.


The study of the peculiar case of West Antarctica has been full of fascinating discoveries. These have come through a combination of wearying field work in a hostile environment, intense scrutiny from a vast stable of satellite sensors and complex numerical models. Remote sensing data are used for everything from making better maps of field areas, to quantifying surface elevations and velocities. Detailed imagery also allows us to detect surface features that record past flow directions. Twenty-five years of concentrated research have revealed a multifaceted dynamic system that responds to what falls on it, what it rests on and what it must push against. The ice sheet is changing constantly and is a collage of different basins all behaving with a high degree of independence.  But what of its future?