The Australian Antarctic Program’s research season kicks off this week with NASA launching its Operation IceBridge mission from Hobart – for the first time – to map ice along East Antarctica’s coastline.

NASA’s Operation IceBridge is the largest survey of Earth’s changing ice ever undertaken, combining data collected by satellites, aircraft and ground teams to paint a more complete picture of the state of the polar regions.

IceBridge is mapping the ice sheet and sea ice of East Antarctica from a low-flying Gulfstream V aircraft packed with sophisticated instruments.

Dr Linette Boisvert, Deputy Project Scientist for Operation IceBridge, said that airborne instruments included two laser altimeters that measure ice elevation to a precision of less than five centimetres.

The aircraft also houses radar sounders, temperature sensors, a gravimeter and multiple cameras to survey a range of snow and ice properties.

“The primary aim of our research is to collect the data needed to improve projections of future sea level change caused by a changing climate and making more accurate forecasts of annual sea ice extent,” said Dr Boisvert.

Dr Petra Heil, a sea ice physicist with the Australian Antarctic Division, is organising a team at Casey research station to work in parallel with the flights as well as NASA’s ICESat-2 satellite.

The ground team also includes two NASA scientists and will move along the same travel path of the aircraft and the polar-orbiting satellite, collecting ice cores and measuring snow cover to ‘ground truth’ what is recorded from above.

“With NASA’s Operation IceBridge flying for more than a month and our ground team on the ice at the same time, in terms of fieldwork this is the biggest coup we’ve had in our research for a while,” said Dr Heil.

Director of the Australian Antarctic Division, Kim Ellis, said that collaboration with international partners like NASA provides invaluable benefits for our science.

“Just as Hobart is the premier gateway to East Antarctica, the Australian Antarctic Program is a leading scientific and logistical partner for polar research,” he said.

“On Wednesday 23 October, the first of 10 A319 flights for the season is scheduled to depart Hobart for our ice runway at Wilkins Aerodrome, near Casey research station.”

“Italian, French and Chinese expeditioners will also be flying south with us.”

In addition, six flights are planned using the Royal Australian Air Force’s C-17A to transport heavy equipment south.

“This summer, we are undertaking five sea voyages to our three continental stations and Macquarie Island. The first voyage of the season leaves later this week on Friday 25 October,” Mr Ellis said.

Around 550 expeditioners will travel south as part of the Australian Antarctic Program in 2019/20.