PASADENA, Calif. (KGO) -- For climate researcher Josh Willis, Ph.D., of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, flying over the glaciers of Greenland is like watching a familiar world slipping away. He's spent the better part of a decade dropping sensors around the perimeter shoreline, trying to document the effect of warming oceans on the giant ice sheets. But on his latest mission, the evidence was even visible from space.
"I had seen a very small plume in front of Helheim Glacier in a satellite photo, and it looked like a tiny green dot. And so we flew all the way across the ice sheet to see if it was there," Willis explains.
When Willis and his team flew over the location for a closer view, they found a churning plume, originating at a hole melted through the ice, part of a process that can split huge chunks off the edges of a glacier.
"When we flew over it, the water was literally roiling up from down deep and disturbing the surface," says
And disturbing may be the best description. The project is known as OMG, for Oceans Melting Greenland. Fellow Researcher Eric Rignot, Ph.D., says it's documenting the combined effect of rising surface temperatures and warming ocean waters undermining the glaciers.
"They melt very rapidly in contact with the ocean waters, and if these ocean waters get warmer, that interaction is enhanced and helps accelerate the flow of the glaciers," says Rignot.
That flow was clearly visible to the OMG team, with streams of melting ice rushing by like rivers through a canyon. At one point during the mission, temperatures had warmed so much that rain replaced snow at Greenland's summit for the first time on record.
"And the pilot remarked, 'you know, I've been flying over this ice sheet for 25 years. And I've never seen so much melting, so widespread,'" says Willis.
He says, the OMG mission is designed to generate data that can be compared year to year for a clear look at the growing threat.
And while the study is data driven, the latest images of the Greenland ice melt, provide a vivid picture of what's already becoming all too clear, with effects that will be felt globally, including here in the Bay Area, as sea level rise begins to impact our shoreline.