ITTC Project

A Radar Sounder for Measuring Sea Ice Thickness: A Feasibility Study

Project Award Date: 03-01-2002


Sea level has been rising during the last century. Although the immediate impact of sea level rise may be less severe than other effects of global climate change, the long-term consequences can be much more devastating, since nearly 60% of the worlds population lives in coastal regions. Scientists have postulated that excess water is being released from polar ice sheets due to long-term, global climate change; but there are insufficient data to confirm these theories. The inability to gather quality measurements of ice thickness levels has hampered researchers efforts.

The thinning sea ice in polar regions serves as an important indicator of global climate change. The inability to gather precise and detailed information on sea ice impedes researchers investigation of rising sea levels. However, recent results from the Greenland ice sheet have shown new promise in obtaining ice sheet data through radar sounders, which detect both shallow, near-surface accumulation layers in ice sheets and ice lenses in permafrost. This in turn will help improve scientists ability to obtain data on sea ice.

Current radar sounders can gather and record data on the overall depths of ice sheets. Researchers will now modify the radar to obtain the same high-quality measurements from sea ice.

Sea ice is thinner than ice sheets, with a mean thickness ranging from 1 to 5 meters with ridges of up to 10 to 20 meters in overall height (above and below the ocean surface). In addition, the radar must be able to cope with the sea ices lossy state, which is a tendency to attenuate or weaken radar signals.

Prasad Gogineni, Deane E. Ackers Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering, and his team will create a wide-band radar that operates over a frequency range of 10-230 MHz. This will allow the radar to tell the difference between thicker ice caps and sea ice. It will be tested on the sea ice off the Alaska coast. Researchers will develop an instrument that is capable of direct measurements of ice thickness and can be put on an airplane to minimize environmental impact. The radar would have extensive mapping capabilities and could replace limited submarine and satellite sonar.

Scientists have used sonar instruments mounted on submarines to determine that there has been significant thinning of the Arctic sea. However, these sonar instruments are limited in their ability to gather data. The upward looking sonar does not have the necessary precision when obtaining data in smaller areas.

Satellite observations fail to provide the necessary data as well. They use an array of indicators, such as microwave brightness temperature, surface temperature from near-infrared and thermal imagers, and radar backscatter from synthetic aperture radar and scatterometers, to provide estimates. While these measurements provide estimates of thinning, scientists would like to have more accurate data.

Recently, a unique estimate of seasonal (first-year) ice growth has been developed that makes use of the Lagrangian tracking of SAR images to record ice openings and closings. Electromagnetic sounding and laser altimeter techniques have been used on aircraft to estimate ice thickness but have significant limitations. The project described here aims to provide the data that have eluded these other methods.


Faculty Investigator(s): Sivaprasad Gogineni (PI)

Student Investigator(s): Hossein Saiedian, Saikiran Namburi, Vijaya Ramasami, Krishna Kumar Gurumoorthy

Project Sponsors

Primary Sponsor(s): California Institute of Technology

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