March 2, 2014

Challenges in getting the big picture

On a wall in Thailand, there is an image of six people trying to describe an elephant. This is an ancient story in Asia and has many versions. The people are either blind, have blindfolds on or are in a darkened room.

Each person touches a different part of the animal and describes what they feel but none see the whole, and thus, no agreement on what this animal actually looks like. A wise man then comes along and tells them they are all correct, and a more complete picture emerges.

In perhaps a similar fashion, this is what climate scientists face in trying to determine what is happening with the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) as our climate changes. Just like the Asian fable above, a wide variety of researchers, tools and scientific disciplines are looking at different aspects of this ice sheet trying to understand may be happening to it as our climate changes to get the big picture.

It covers roughly 800,000 square miles and contains about 10 percent of the ice in Antarctica. The size of WAIS is enormous and volume-wise contains about 574,000 cubic miles of ice, and it is just one part of the massive continent-wide Antarctic ice sheet.

This ice moves from higher points inland, flows downhill to the coast and parts continue to flow outward on the ocean bottom into water. This is a marine-based glacier, which means that its bed is well below sea level. It eventually calves icebergs into the ocean, some enormous. See

So, how does one go about trying to understand what is happening to it today and where it may be headed in the future? What and how does one measure the events and processes that are beginning to occur?

One important tool of great value is the GRACE satellite program illustrated here.

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