The Scientific Legacy of NASA’s Operation IceBridge

Joseph A. MacGregor, Linette N. Boisvert, Brooke Medley, Alek A. Petty, Jeremy P. Harbeck, Robin E. Bell, J. Bryan Blair, Edward Blanchard-Wrigglesworth, Ellen M. Buckley, Michael S. Christoffersen, James R. Cochran, Beáta M. Csathó, Eugenia L. De Marco, Rose Anne T. Dominguez, Mark A. Fahnestock, Sinéad L. Farrell, S. Prasad Gogineni, Jamin S. Greenbaum, Christy M. Hansen, Michelle A. HoftonJohn W. Holt, Kenneth C. Jezek, Lora S. Koenig, Nathan T. Kurtz, Ronald Kwok, Christopher F. Larsen, Carlton J. Leuschen, Caitlin D. Locke, Serdar S. Manizade, Seelye Martin, Thomas A. Neumann, Sophie M.J. Nowicki, John D. Paden, Jacqueline A. Richter-Menge, Eric J. Rignot, Fernando Rodríguez-Morales, Matthew R. Siegfried, Benjamin E. Smith, John G. Sonntag, Michael Studinger, Kirsty J. Tinto, Martin Truffer, Thomas P. Wagner, John E. Woods, Duncan A. Young, James K. Yungel

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s Operation IceBridge (OIB) was a 13-year (2009–2021) airborne mission to survey land and sea ice across the Arctic, Antarctic, and Alaska. Here, we review OIB’s goals, instruments, campaigns, key scientific results, and implications for future investigations of the cryosphere. OIB’s primary goal was to use airborne laser altimetry to bridge the gap in fine-resolution elevation measurements of ice from space between the conclusion of NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat; 2003–2009) and its follow-on, ICESat-2 (launched 2018). Additional scientific requirements were intended to contextualize observed elevation changes using a multisensor suite of radar sounders, gravimeters, magnetometers, and cameras. Using 15 different aircraft, OIB conducted 968 science flights, of which 42% were repeat surveys of land ice, 42% were surveys of previously unmapped terrain across the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, Arctic ice caps, and Alaskan glaciers, and 16% were surveys of sea ice. The combination of an expansive instrument suite and breadth of surveys enabled numerous fundamental advances in our understanding of the Earth’s cryosphere. For land ice, OIB dramatically improved knowledge of interannual outlet-glacier variability, ice-sheet, and outlet-glacier thicknesses, snowfall rates on ice sheets, fjord and sub-ice-shelf bathymetry, and ice-sheet hydrology. Unanticipated discoveries included a reliable method for constraining the thickness within difficult-to-sound incised troughs beneath ice sheets, the extent of the firn aquifer within the Greenland Ice Sheet, the vulnerability of many Greenland and Antarctic outlet glaciers to ocean-driven melting at their grounding zones, and the dominance of surface-melt-driven mass loss of Alaskan glaciers. For sea ice, OIB significantly advanced our understanding of spatiotemporal variability in sea ice freeboard and its snow cover, especially through combined analysis of fine-resolution altimetry, visible imagery, and snow radar measurements of the overlying snow thickness. Such analyses led to the unanticipated discovery of an interdecadal decrease in snow thickness on Arctic sea ice and numerous opportunities to validate sea ice freeboards from satellite radar altimetry. While many of its data sets have yet to be fully explored, OIB’s scientific legacy has already demonstrated the value of sustained investment in reliable airborne platforms, airborne instrument development, interagency and international collaboration, and open and rapid data access to advance our understanding of Earth’s remote polar regions and their role in the Earth system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2020RG000712
JournalReviews of Geophysics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics


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