NASA finds history in ice - Press-Republican: Local News

NASA finds history in ice

Font Size:
Default font size
Larger font size

Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 2:28 am

LAKE PLACID — Scientists from NASA were in the Adirondacks for a week, but they weren’t launching rockets.

They were researching “the History of Winter” — a timeline hidden in crystal layers of snow and ice.

They were searching for all types of frozen water, be it manmade, dangling from rocky cliffs or stacked in tiny crystalline layers on Adirondack lakes.

The data will inform their much larger view from space of the Earth’s snowy cover.


They took samples from the Cascade Lakes and from Tupper Lake, among other sites, and from ice-climbing sheets at Pitchoff Mountain. 

As part of the History of Winter (HOW) project, NASA scientists also work with a group of teachers from around the country, providing access to research techniques that can then be brought back to science classrooms.

Dr. Lora Koenig, a physical scientist in the Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said they are researching snow crystals.

The microscopic details will help NASA understand the cryosphere — that part of the Earth’s surface covered in glaciers, snow and sea ice.

“By looking at these samples, we see when melt can form. We really have to understand what’s going on with the snow in small detail. That’s actually what we do here,” Koenig said.

“Do you think something as small as snow crystals can be detected from space? Yes, they can.

“With passive microwave, we always look at grain size and density of snow.”


NASA’s Cryospheric Laboratory, which has been around for decades, monitors the ice sheets, sea ice and snowfall over land.

These are the same scientists who create NASA’s moving images of melting sea ice and chronicle ice trends on the polar caps.

“In our branch of NASA, ICESat and a second satellite about to launch, ICESat2, use laser altimeters to monitor the cryosphere,” Koenig said.

In the Adirondacks, they will break ice crystals, searching for fragments of color.

The History of Winter project partnered with the Cryospheric Science Lab and with the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab this year.

“Dr. Zoe Courville is here from (Cold Regions), giving lectures on how snow crystals change when they fall, and how we can tell what the atmosphere was like when they fell and then what metamorphism (change in crystals over time) tells about the air temperatures.”


These scientists know cold stuff cold.

That is why they come to the frozen Adirondacks every February in a research/outreach program started in 2001.

Koenig spent more than a year in the Arctic and Antarctic, verifying measurements recorded by microwave satellite sensors. 

Courville is also a seasoned polar-region engineer.

The scientists research precision methods to spot melt layers in the snow, freeze layers, thaw layers and to reconstruct what happened in the weather. 

“All of that is very important for avalanche studies and things like that,” Koenig said.

But the primary data relates back to the images captured from space, connecting dots between snowmelt and atmosphere.

NASA’s education resources online explain how snowcover is important — it reflects light, which affects how energy and moisture is exchanged between the Earth’s surface and atmosphere.

“Understanding the extent and duration of snowcover is critical,” the science mission statement explains.


The History of Winter excursion is hosted by Northwood School, a private high school in Lake Placid.

“Northwood allows us to bring 10 to 15 teachers here. We teach the teachers how to be scientists. They learn about the different physics of snow and ice,” Koenig said.

Since 2001, History of Winter has worked with more than 200 teachers. None this year are local.

But they have a busy agenda.

The NASA team successfully climbed the ice-covered cliffs for samples in the Cascade Pass and took core samples from the frozen Lower Cascade Lake.

It was blowing and blustery that day, making the open-air classroom less than hospitable but not quite polar.

With Koenig and Courville, Dr. Thorsten Markus, head of NASA Goddard’s Cryospheric Sciences Lab and the project scientist in charge of the ICESat-2 mission, was here leading the History of Winter team.


Two scientists gave lectures to the research community during the week. 

The first looked to “The Color of Ice” in a presentation by retired NASA astrophysicist Peter Wasilewski; the second lecture was delivered by world-renowned glaciologist Tony Gow, who discussed the climate record contained in ice cores.

Their trip was to end with a visit to the (human-made) Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Palace and a snowshoe hike at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake.

Success comes in translation.

“We hope it gives students a chance to learn about the physics of snow and ice,” Koenig said.

Email Kim Smith Dedam: