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Satellite images of Arctic declassified

The CCGS Des Groseilliers drifted in the Arctic ice for a year. Scientists studied the atmosphere, ocean and ice from the icebreaker.   

August 3, 1999
Web posted at: 12:34 p.m. EDT (1634 GMT)


(ENN) -- Scientists studying global warming now have access to 59 previously classified satellite images of the Arctic Ocean, Vice President Gore said Monday. The National Imagery and Mapping Agency at the request of the National Science Foundation approved release of the high-resolution images of the Arctic Ocean.

Two images, taken by U.S. intelligence satellites, are available online at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

"The images will be made broadly available and posted on the Web. Their release was just authorized so I imagine it will take a while," said Elliot Diringer, of the Council on Environmental Quality in Washington, D.C. The NSIDC expects the images will be available in the fall.

"No place on Earth is more sensitive to global warming than the Arctic, and these satellite images provide scientists with valuable data for understanding how climate change affects this complex region," said Gore. "By making these satellite images available to the scientific community, we take another important step toward meeting the challenge of global warming."

NSF is the key United States sponsor of the Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean Project, or SHEBA, an international expedition to the Arctic that documented changes in the ice pack consistent with changes expected as a result of global warming.

The governments of the U.S., Canada and Japan jointly sponsor the SHEBA project. As part of the project, a Canadian icebreaker was deliberately trapped in Arctic ice for a full year in 1997 and 1998 allowing more than 50 scientists to take measurements of the atmosphere, ocean and ice. The ship drifted 1,500 miles with the shifting ice over the course of the year.

The ship, CCGS Des Groseilliers, is located in the black area in the middle of the satellite image, which shows much of the ice is covered by dark melt ponds.   

Preliminary findings from SHEBA show that the Arctic ice sheet is about five percent smaller, and one meter thinner, than in the 1970s. Scientists believe that the on-going disappearance of the ice pack could accelerate global warming because ice reflects more incoming solar radiation than the ocean does.

The declassified satellite images show the area around the trapped icebreaker over several months. SHEBA scientists will use the images, with data collected on the ice, to develop a better understanding of changes in the ice surface and reflectivity or, more simply, the interaction between polar ice caps and global warming.

The high resolution of the images will allow scientists to study what is happening on the surface with the wide area coverage needed to understand how the ice reacts on a larger scale.

MEDEA, a group of scientists who work closely with the intelligence community to use national security data for scientific research, facilitated declassification of the images. MEDEA was established in 1991 by discussions initiated by then-Sen. Gore.

"By working in partnership, our intelligence and scientific communities are advancing vital research that will help us understand, and meet, critical challenges like global warming," said Gore.

Gore also asked Congress to fully fund the President's Climate Change Technology Initiative and to drop legislative riders that could potentially hinder the administration's efforts to address global warming.

The administration, which secured a record $1 billion this year for clean energy research and development, is asking for an increase to $1.37 billion in fiscal year 2000. To date, Congress has not appropriated all of the proposed increase. And, several appropriations bills include language that could end ongoing initiatives, including voluntary programs with industry that reduce energy waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

"The evidence of global warming grows stronger every day, yet Congress is trying to strangle common-sense programs that save energy, save consumers money, and reduce global warming pollution," said Gore.

Gore announced the release of the satellite images at the National Geographic Society, where he led a discussion on climate change with a group of children attending the Better World Science Camp. Bill Nye, the host of Disney's Bill Nye the Science Guy, joined the vice president to help teach the campers about the study of ice cores.

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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National Snow and Ice Data Center
Office of the Vice-President
Council on Environmental Quality
National Imagery and Mapping Agency
National Science Foundation
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