FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A NASA airplane flew west out of Fairbanks on Saturday scanning a swath of Alaska's coast to learn how the area's climate is changing.
The trip was the last in a two-week data-gathering mission for the four-engine P3 turboprop ''flying laboratory.''
''A huge fraction of the globe in the north is covered with ice that forms a very important insulating blanket over the ocean,'' said Dr. Al Gasiewski, instrument scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. ''The small changes that occur to that insulating layer are important for us to understand.''
Small changes to that blanket can have big implications, scientists said. The project, called Arctic 2003, is a partnership of NASA and NOAA along with representatives from the University of Colorado and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The project uses microwaves from a pair of scanners on the plane's underbelly to validate sea ice temperature and data collected by a new NASA satellite.
Scientists know Alaska's sea ice is slowly thinning but want to learn how much and why.
''It's not as simple as global warming is melting the sea ice,'' said Dr. Donald Cavalieri, a NASA senior research scientist, noting that some sea ice levels are increasing elsewhere. ''What we currently think is that there's certainly natural climate variability that's (causing) some of these changes, but the influence of man's actions also plays a role.''
The extent of human impact is a major question left unanswered, he said. Data from the project will be compared to information collected by NASA's Aqua satellite, launched in May 2002 with a state-of-the-art radiometer and used to study water systems.
The P3 carries equipment similar to the satellite's Japanese-developed microwave scanner but the aircraft can take a sharper ''snapshot'' of the ice because it's closer to the ground. The P3 flights have traveled over Norton Sound, St. Lawrence Island, St. Matthew Island, Point Hope and Barrow.
Ground crews traveled to some of the areas and took samples of ice and snow to aid the P3 and satellite findings.
Eventually, the Alaska data-finding flights in some form could become an annual event.
In other recent missions, researchers collected information on rainfall in Japan and snow in Colorado.
Saturday, the NASA crew left their hotel before 5 a.m. to begin preparing the aircraft. The day's flight would be one of the longer trips and the group sought to take advantage of clear weather and increasing daylight.
The flights typically carried about six crew members and five scientists and researchers.
Nine cameras allow researchers to see the swiveling, barrel-shaped scanners, the exterior of the plane and the ground below. Saturday the crew flew south of St. Matthew Island and to the Bering Sea ice edge, mapping an area about 60 miles long and 14 miles wide.
After completing seven flights out of Fairbanks, the plane will head to Colorado on Monday before returning to its home base at Wallops Island, Virginia.
On the Net:
Sea Ice Remote Sensing: http://polynya.gsfc.nasa.gov.
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