NASA to study heat from North and South poles that could drive Bay Area sea level rise

ByTim Didion and Drew Tuma KGO logo
Thursday, May 30, 2024
NASA to study polar heat that could drive Bay Area sea level rise
NASA researchers are trying to understand regions that are warming even more quickly than the rest of the planet in the north and south poles.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Turns out, if you want to understand the future of Earth's climate, you need to measure it from top to bottom.

That's why NASA researchers are about to zero in on the North and South poles, trying to understand how much heat is flowing through Earth's basement and attic -- regions that are warming even more quickly than the rest of the planet.

Brian Drouin is a principal investigator with the NASA Jet-Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

"So there's a tremendous amount of ice which, when it melts, it goes into the oceans and spreads around the whole planet and causes the sea level to rise," Drouin said.

First, it helps to understand that hotter air from the tropics typically churns around the planet, with a significant portion being released into space at the polar region. But what if increasing greenhouse gasses change that pattern? To learn the answer, NASA is launching two shoebox-sized satellites in a mission called PREFIRE. They'll orbit both the Arctic and Antarctica, measuring the radiant energy being released.

"And that area where the heat is emitted, it's not well studied. And it's changing. It's changing fast due to the warming climate," Drouin said.

MORE: Watch full episode of ABC7 Originals Documentary 'Bay Area 2050' here

Bay Area 2050, explore what the region will look like as climate change raises temperatures.

And the consequences could be lasting. Researchers have already documented a decades-long pattern of global sea level rise. But fellow NASA/JPL researcher Josh Willis, Ph.D., also studies how that ocean warming is melting glaciers from underneath. And that includes massive areas from Greenland to the Thwaits, or so-called "Doomsday" glacier in Antarctica, measuring 80 miles across.

"And the glaciers in Antarctica are really the elephant in the room. They're huge. They have the potential to disappear very quickly. And they're really being driven by ocean warming," Willis said.

Having a better understanding of the changes at the poles could be key to predicting the changes we'll be facing here in the Bay Area in coming decades. Everything from erosion along our coastline, to rising sea levels threatening the shores of San Francisco Bay.

"The rise we saw in the early nineties was less than half of the rate of rise that we see now. So we're really watching the planet change in a way that's incredibly profound, and it's happening right in front of us," Willis said.

But what we can expect and how much time we have to prepare are still critical questions. Questions NASA hopes to answer in part, with the help of two shoeboxes in space collecting critical data about our planet. And just to underscore the urgency of the mission, a newly released study has provided evidence that the so-called Doomsday glacier in Antarctica is melting from underneath at a much faster rate than previously known.

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