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$19 Million Grant to Send KU Researchers to Antarctica

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

 [Synthetic Aperture Radar images of polar ice sheets]

A team of engineers, scientists and students from the NSF Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS), based at the University of Kansas, will leave on Dec. 1 for McMurdo Station, Antarctica. The five-member team — the first of two CReSIS teams — will take advantage of the Antarctic summer to conduct research at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) divide ice core site to collect data with advanced radar sensors developed as a part of a large Information Technology Research Project.

The National Science Foundation established CReSIS on June 1, 2005, with a $19 million grant. It is one of only two Science and Technology Centers established in 2005. The multidisciplinary, multi-institutional center is developing new sensors, methods of collecting data, communication tools and modeling to better understand the mass balance of the world's polar ice sheets and their contribution to global sea-level change. The center is led by Prasad Gogineni, Deane E. Ackers distinguished professor of electrical engineering and computer science at KU.

"The goal of the center — is to bring all the technology and tools together to really understand what is happening to the polar ice sheets and then model them," Gogineni said. Radars and other sensors developed by CReSIS engineers and scientists will be used to obtain a detailed image of the bed of the ice sheet — which is more than 3 kilometers thick — and map deep and shallow internal layers to determine flow history and snow accumulation, respectively. KU researchers successfully demonstrated they can achieve this at the summit of Greenland on surface-based platforms. The technology has to be further developed and miniaturized to fit on UAVs that can cover large-scale areas.

Currently available satellite technology is providing researchers with information, on the ice sheet surface elevation that can be used to determine the growth or shrinkage, map surface melt extent, and surface velocity with which ice flows seaward.

"The satellite observations are definitely telling us that there are rapid changes taking place in some areas, but they aren't telling us why," Gogineni said. CReSIS's mission is to help provide some answers through previously unavailable data and modeling that will help predict what will happen to the ice sheets and their impact on sea-level change.

Specialized equipment that can withstand the harsh climate, including a robotic rover built by KU engineering students, already is en route to the Antarctic destination. Once there, the rover will methodically travel along pre-determined 30-kilometer tracks of the vast ice sheet. Radars on the rover will image the bed of ice over a 10-kilometer by 30-kilometer area to determine whether the ice sheet is frozen to the bed or sliding on a film of water. A separate research team will canvass the same region, collecting ice core samples that will be used to interpret radar maps of internal layers. Summertime temperatures in this part of Antarctica range from -15 C to -35 C.

All members of the first team will stay at least until Dec. 20, at which point a second seven-member CReSIS team will arrive to help continue the study. The entire 12-member team includes faculty, staff and students from KU, a physical science technician from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a student from partner institution Elizabeth City State University.

CReSIS is headquartered at KU, and has as core partners Elizabeth City (N.C.) State University, Haskell Indian Nations University, the University of Maine, The Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University. The CReSIS team draws upon the expertise available at KU and world-renowned centers in polar research at partner institutions. In addition, a number of international universities have been drawn in to collaborate.

Researchers report a 1-meter sea level rise partly associated with melting of ice sheets could affect more than 100 million people from all economic levels and decimate coastal areas — some of the most expensive property in the world, said David Braaten, deputy director of CReSIS and associate professor of geography at KU.

Using a multidisciplinary approach, CReSIS will work to create new technologies for studying polar ice and new means of interpreting the data. The effort will center on remote sensing technology and integrate expertise in electrical engineering, information technology, aerospace engineering, glaciology and geophysics.

Experts in aerospace engineering will be called upon to develop unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, for the project, Gogineni said. These new aircraft will play a key role in the program, allowing the research team to gather more complete data from the vast geographic region represented by the ice sheets, while leaving very little human impact. The center also will work to develop sensors that acquire data within selected ice drainage basins. Researchers will look for several variables such as surface melt rates, ice thickness and internal layering, ice velocities, and ice basal characteristics (temperature, wetness and bed properties, for example). A key innovation of the center will be the ability to design field campaigns to collect a full suite of geophysical and glaciological measurements, guided by satellite measurements and ice-sheet modeling.

The long-term goals of the center are to provide predictions of the future mass balance of the large ice sheets under a range of possible climate conditions and to increase the number of students and professionals who are contributing to polar research, Gogineni said. Center researchers will analyze the data and develop models to further understanding of the effects of climate change among the broader research community, as well as policy makers and the general public. The center will develop programs to take the information to students at all educational levels.

Outreach efforts will enhance understanding of the polar regions among K-12 students and their teachers. CReSIS also will develop hands-on opportunities for the next generation of engineers and scientists at both the undergraduate and graduate student level.

The center has a stated goal of developing a highly diverse group of student participants. In addition, undergraduates will have new opportunities to conduct research projects under the guidance of some of the nation's top researchers. The center's governmental and industrial partners will provide students with internship positions. To prepare graduate researchers for academic careers, the center will enlist the assistance of the KU Center for Teaching Excellence. KU CTE will conduct workshops to help doctoral candidates become more effective teachers and educators. Four new teaching fellowships will be created by KU CTE and the KU Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. The goals of the Science and Technology Center program include developing an effective means for long-term scientific and technological research and education. The STC program encourages proposals it considers a high quality, important investigation at the interface of disciplines.

CReSIS will receive $19 million from NSF during an initial five-year period. The award will be renewed for an additional five years if the center shows adequate progress. In addition to the funding, the University of Kansas is creating four new faculty positions — two in engineering and two in the sciences — to take part in CReSIS research and educational activities. The center is also supported by The Kansas Technology Enterprise Corporation. CReSIS draws upon the talents of more than 40 faculty and staff from the partner institutions at its inception. The center is presently housed in Nichols Hall on KU's West Campus.

Learn more about the many activities of CReSIS at


Core partner institutions

Elizabeth City State University,

Haskell Indian Nations University,

The Ohio State University,

Pennsylvania State University

University of Maine

International collaborating institutions

University College of London

University of Copenhagen

Denmark Technical University

University of Tasmania

Governmental partners

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Kansas Technology Enterprise Corporation (KTEC)

Industrial partners

Sprint Corp.

Lockheed Martin Corp.

Space Computer Labs

Kansas City Plant — a National Nuclear Security Administration facility operated by Honeywell

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