A Tour of the Cryosphere

  • Released Sunday, December 4th, 2005
  • Updated Wednesday, May 3rd, 2023 at 1:56PM
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The cryosphere consists of those parts of the Earth's surface where water is found in solid form, including areas of snow, sea ice, glaciers, permafrost, ice sheets, and icebergs. In these regions, surface temperatures remain below freezing for a portion of each year. Since ice and snow exist relatively close to their melting point, they frequently change from solid to liquid and back again due to fluctuations in surface temperature. Although direct measurements of the cryosphere can be difficult to obtain due to the remote locations of many of these areas, using satellite observations scientists monitor changes in the global and regional climate by observing how regions of the Earth's cryosphere shrink and expand.

This animation portrays fluctuations in the cryosphere through observations collected from a variety of satellite-based sensors. The animation begins in Antarctica, showing ice thickness ranging from 2.7 to 4.8 kilometers thick along with swaths of polar stratospheric clouds. In a tour of this frozen continent, the animation shows some unique features of the Antarctic landscape found nowhere else on earth. Ice shelves, ice streams, glaciers, and the formation of massive icebergs can be seen. A time series shows the movement of iceberg B15A, an iceberg 295 kilometers in length which broke off of the Ross Ice Shelf in 2000. Moving farther along the coastline, a time series of the Larsen ice shelf shows the collapse of over 3,200 square kilometers ice since January 2002. As we depart from the Antarctic, we see the seasonal change of sea ice and how it nearly doubles the size of the continent during the winter.

From Antarctica, the animation travels over South America showing areas of permafrost over this mostly tropical continent. We then move further north to observe daily changes in snow cover over the North American continent. The clouds show winter storms moving across the United States and Canada, leaving trails of snow cover behind. In a close-up view of the western US, we compare the difference in land cover between two years: 2003 when the region received a normal amount of snow and 2002 when little snow was accumulated. The difference in the surrounding vegetation due to the lack of spring melt water from the mountain snow pack is evident.

As the animation moves from the western US to the Arctic region, the areas effected by permafrost are visible. In December, we see how the incoming solar radiation primarily heats the Southern Hemisphere. As time marches forward from December to June, the daily snow and sea ice recede as the incoming solar radiation moves northward to warm the Northern Hemisphere.

Using satellite swaths that wrap the globe, the animation shows three types of instantaneous measurements of solar radiation observed on June 20, 2003: shortwave (reflected) radiation, longwave (thermal) radiation and net flux (showing areas of heating and cooling). Correlation between reflected radiation and clouds are evident. When the animation fades to show the monthly global average net flux, we see that the polar regions serve to cool the global climate by radiating solar energy back into space throughout the year.

The animation shows a one-year cycle of the monthly average Arctic sea ice concentration followed by the mean September minimum sea ice for each year from 1979 through 2004. A red outline indicates the mean sea ice extent for September over 22 years, from 1979 to 2002. The minimum Arctic sea ice animation clearly shows how over the last 5 years the quantity of polar ice has decreased by 10 - 14% from the 22 year average.

While moving from the Arctic to Greenland, the animation shows the constant motion of the Arctic polar ice using daily measures of sea ice activity. Sea ice flows from the Arctic into Baffin Bay as the seasonal ice expands southward. As we draw close to the Greenland coast, the animation shows the recent changes in the Jakobshavn glacier. Although Jakobshavn receded only slightly from 1042 to 2001, the animation shows significant recession over the past three years, from 2002 through 2004.

This animation shows a wealth of data collected from satellite observations of the cryosphere and the impact that recent cryospheric changes are making on our planet.

For more information on the data sets used in this visualization, visit NASA's EOS DAAC website.

This image of the Earth highlights Antarctica and its surrounding sea ice in the southern hemisphere.

This image of the Earth highlights Antarctica and its surrounding sea ice in the southern hemisphere.

This image derived from AVHRR data shows the frozen continent of Antarctica and its surrounding sea ice.

This image derived from AVHRR data shows the frozen continent of Antarctica and its surrounding sea ice.

This image shows two tracks (in red) of ICESat elevation data over Antarctica taken on 9/30/2004 and 10/1/2004.  NOTE: Elevation data is exaggerated 20 times.

This image shows two tracks (in red) of ICESat elevation data over Antarctica taken on 9/30/2004 and 10/1/2004. NOTE: Elevation data is exaggerated 20 times.

This image shows cloud data taken by ICESat over Antarctica on 9/30/2004 to 10/1/2004.  Both the cloud heights and terrain are exaggerated by 20x.

This image shows cloud data taken by ICESat over Antarctica on 9/30/2004 to 10/1/2004. Both the cloud heights and terrain are exaggerated by 20x.

This image shows Radarsat SAR imagery of Antarctica's South Pole Station from a bird's eye perspective.

This image shows Radarsat SAR imagery of Antarctica's South Pole Station from a bird's eye perspective.

This image shows Radarsat SAR imagery of several glaciers leading out on to the Ross Ice Shelf with no terrain exaggeration.

This image shows Radarsat SAR imagery of several glaciers leading out on to the Ross Ice Shelf with no terrain exaggeration.

This image shows Radarsat SAR imagery of another view of glaciers emptying out on to the Ross Ice Shelf with no terrain exaggeration.

This image shows Radarsat SAR imagery of another view of glaciers emptying out on to the Ross Ice Shelf with no terrain exaggeration.

This image shows Radarsat SAR Imagery of glaciers leading out to the Ross Ice Shelf.  The large glacier that crosses the image horizontally is Byrd Glacier.  This image has no terrain exaggeration.

This image shows Radarsat SAR Imagery of glaciers leading out to the Ross Ice Shelf. The large glacier that crosses the image horizontally is Byrd Glacier. This image has no terrain exaggeration.

This image from MODIS shows some of the island formations in the middle of the Ross Ice Shelf.  The largest mountain in the image is Ross Island, home of McMurdo Station.  No terrain exaggeration.

This image from MODIS shows some of the island formations in the middle of the Ross Ice Shelf. The largest mountain in the image is Ross Island, home of McMurdo Station. No terrain exaggeration.

This image from MODIS shows the b15a iceberg and its proximity to Ross Island on 11/9/2004.  No terrain exaggeration.

This image from MODIS shows the b15a iceberg and its proximity to Ross Island on 11/9/2004. No terrain exaggeration.

This image shows Radarsat SAR Imagery of the coast of Lesser Antarctica with no terrain exaggeration.

This image shows Radarsat SAR Imagery of the coast of Lesser Antarctica with no terrain exaggeration.

This image, taken by MODIS on 1/31/02, shows meltwater starting to form on the Larsen Iceshelf prior to its collapse.

This image, taken by MODIS on 1/31/02, shows meltwater starting to form on the Larsen Iceshelf prior to its collapse.

This image shows the aftermath of the Larsen Iceshelf collapse as seen by MODIS on 3/7/2002.

This image shows the aftermath of the Larsen Iceshelf collapse as seen by MODIS on 3/7/2002.

This image shows the sea ice around Antarctica on 9/27/2004 as measured by QuikSCAT.

This image shows the sea ice around Antarctica on 9/27/2004 as measured by QuikSCAT.

This image from QuikSCAT data shows large icebergs drifting long distances off Antarctica in the Southern Ocean.

This image from QuikSCAT data shows large icebergs drifting long distances off Antarctica in the Southern Ocean.

This image shows glaciers from the NSIDC World Glacier Inventory (in orange) that occur in mountainous regions, even in the tropical regions of South America.

This image shows glaciers from the NSIDC World Glacier Inventory (in orange) that occur in mountainous regions, even in the tropical regions of South America.

This image shows MODIS Daily Snow Cover and GOES cloud cover on 12/25/2002. The storm of December 23-25, 2002 spread snow across the Mid-west US and into the Northeast.

This image shows MODIS Daily Snow Cover and GOES cloud cover on 12/25/2002. The storm of December 23-25, 2002 spread snow across the Mid-west US and into the Northeast.

This image shows MODIS Daily Snow Cover and MODIS Landcover over the Western United States on 2/24/2003.

This image shows MODIS Daily Snow Cover and MODIS Landcover over the Western United States on 2/24/2003.

This image shows a comparison of MODIS Landcover over Colorado in mid-May between 2003 (left) and 2002 (right).  The winter of 2002-2003 had an average amount of snowfall in the region, while  the snowfall in the winter of 2001-2002 was below-average. Purple regions, derived from SEDAC's GPW, indicate populated areas.

This image shows a comparison of MODIS Landcover over Colorado in mid-May between 2003 (left) and 2002 (right). The winter of 2002-2003 had an average amount of snowfall in the region, while the snowfall in the winter of 2001-2002 was below-average. Purple regions, derived from SEDAC's GPW, indicate populated areas.

This image shows MODIS Landcover over Colorado on 5/19/2003, following a winter with an average amount of mountain snow.  Purple regions, derived from SEDAC's GPW, indicate populated areas.

This image shows MODIS Landcover over Colorado on 5/19/2003, following a winter with an average amount of mountain snow. Purple regions, derived from SEDAC's GPW, indicate populated areas.

This image shows MODIS Landcover over Colorado on 5/19/2002, following a winter with where the amount of snow was below average. Purple regions, derived from SEDAC's GPW, indicate populated areas.

This image shows MODIS Landcover over Colorado on 5/19/2002, following a winter with where the amount of snow was below average. Purple regions, derived from SEDAC's GPW, indicate populated areas.

This image shows Circum-Arctic permafrost, MODIS Daily Snow Cover and Sea Ice Surface Temperature over the Arctic region on 5/19/2003.

This image shows Circum-Arctic permafrost, MODIS Daily Snow Cover and Sea Ice Surface Temperature over the Arctic region on 5/19/2003.

 This image shows the SMMR/SSMI average sea ice concentration for the month of January, derived from years 1980 through 2002.

This image shows the SMMR/SSMI average sea ice concentration for the month of January, derived from years 1980 through 2002.

 This image shows the SMMR/SSMI average sea ice concentration for the month of March, derived from years 1980 through 2002.

This image shows the SMMR/SSMI average sea ice concentration for the month of March, derived from years 1980 through 2002.

 This image shows the SMMR/SSMI average sea ice concentration for the month of September, derived from years 1979 through 2001.

This image shows the SMMR/SSMI average sea ice concentration for the month of September, derived from years 1979 through 2001.

This image shows the SSMI September minimum sea ice concentration for September, 2004.  The red line indicates the average September minimum sea ice extent derived from the average of monthly data between 10/1978 and 9/2002.

This image shows the SSMI September minimum sea ice concentration for September, 2004. The red line indicates the average September minimum sea ice extent derived from the average of monthly data between 10/1978 and 9/2002.

This image shows a satellite swath of instantaneous reflected solar radiation measured by CERES on
6/20/2003.  Areas with clouds, snow and ice reflect more solar radiation back into space (shown in yellow and orange in this image).  Darker regions, such as oceans, absorb much of the solar radiation (shown as dark brown in this image).

This image shows a satellite swath of instantaneous reflected solar radiation measured by CERES on 6/20/2003. Areas with clouds, snow and ice reflect more solar radiation back into space (shown in yellow and orange in this image). Darker regions, such as oceans, absorb much of the solar radiation (shown as dark brown in this image).

This image shows a satellite swath of instantaneous thermal radiation measured by CERES on 6/20/2003. Dark regions of the planet, particularly the ocean waters, absorb more of the Sun's heat and are warm (shown orange in this image).   Light regions of the planet such as clouds reflect solar energy and remain cool (shown dark red in this image).

This image shows a satellite swath of instantaneous thermal radiation measured by CERES on 6/20/2003. Dark regions of the planet, particularly the ocean waters, absorb more of the Sun's heat and are warm (shown orange in this image). Light regions of the planet such as clouds reflect solar energy and remain cool (shown dark red in this image).

This image shows a satellite swath of instantaneous net flux measured by CERES on 6/20/2003.  Regions in daylight are warming (orange/red) while regions in darkness are cooling (blue).

This image shows a satellite swath of instantaneous net flux measured by CERES on 6/20/2003. Regions in daylight are warming (orange/red) while regions in darkness are cooling (blue).

This image shows the total average net flux measured by CERES between March and April, 2004.  The blue region indicates net cooling while the red indicates net warming.

This image shows the total average net flux measured by CERES between March and April, 2004. The blue region indicates net cooling while the red indicates net warming.

This image showing the sea ice over the Arctic on 10/21/2002 was derived from AMSR-E Sea Ice Brightness Temperature and AMSR-E Sea Ice Concentration.

This image showing the sea ice over the Arctic on 10/21/2002 was derived from AMSR-E Sea Ice Brightness Temperature and AMSR-E Sea Ice Concentration.

This image showing the sea ice over the Arctic on 2/9/2003 was derived from AMSR-E Sea Ice Brightness Temperature and AMSR-E Sea Ice Concentration.

This image showing the sea ice over the Arctic on 2/9/2003 was derived from AMSR-E Sea Ice Brightness Temperature and AMSR-E Sea Ice Concentration.

This image, showing the flow of glacial ice toward the ocean, was derived from ERS SAR measurements.  The flow rate of the Jakobshavn Glacier more than doubled over the period from 1997 to 2003.

This image, showing the flow of glacial ice toward the ocean, was derived from ERS SAR measurements. The flow rate of the Jakobshavn Glacier more than doubled over the period from 1997 to 2003.

This image shows the retreat of the calving front of the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland.  The blue line indicates the calving front in 1942, followed by the subsequent recession in 2001 (orange), 2002 (yellow) and 2003 (red).

This image shows the retreat of the calving front of the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland. The blue line indicates the calving front in 1942, followed by the subsequent recession in 2001 (orange), 2002 (yellow) and 2003 (red).

This image shows the retreat of the calving front of the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland. The blue line indicates the calving front in 1942, followed by the subsequent recession in 2001 (orange), 2002 (yellow), 2003 (red), and 2004 (purple).

This image shows the retreat of the calving front of the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland. The blue line indicates the calving front in 1942, followed by the subsequent recession in 2001 (orange), 2002 (yellow), 2003 (red), and 2004 (purple).

This global image highlights the Arctic  region on 4/23/2003 with AMSR-E Sea Ice Brightness Temperature shown in light blue and MODIS Daily Snow Cover shown in white.

This global image highlights the Arctic region on 4/23/2003 with AMSR-E Sea Ice Brightness Temperature shown in light blue and MODIS Daily Snow Cover shown in white.



Credits

Please give credit for this visualization to:
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio Designed by EOSDIS Outreach Team ESDIS Science Operations Office NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Carol Boquist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Jennifer Farnham-Brennan, Global Science and Technology, Inc. Dr. Brian Krupp, Global Science and Technology, Inc. Directed and Edited by Dr. Horace Mitchell, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center DVD Design by Stuart A. Snodgrass, Global Science and Technology, Inc. Written by Jarrett Cohen, Global Science and Technology, Inc. Michael Starobin, Honeywell Technology Solutions, Inc. Narrated by Michael Starobin, Honeywell Technology Solutions, Inc. Audio Engineering by Mike Velle, Honeywell Technology Solutions, Inc. Music by Michael Starobin, Honeywell Technology Solutions, Inc. MODIS Snow and Ice data courtesy of Dr. Dorothy Hall, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Dr. Vince Salomonson, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Dr. George Riggs, Science Systems and Applications, Inc. Arctic Sea Ice data courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences University of Colorado ICESat GLAS data courtesy of Dr. Christopher Shuman, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Steve Palm, Science Systems and Applications, Inc. MODIS Imagery courtesy of the MODIS Land Rapid Response Project NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Maryland Jacques Descloitres, Science Systems and Applications, Inc. Jeffrey E. Schmaltz, Science Systems and Applications, Inc. Blue Marble MODIS data composite courtesy of the MODIS Science Team NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the NASA Earth Observatory Reto Stockli, Science Systems and Applications, Inc. RADARSAT data courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency Jakobshavn Ice Velocity data courtesy of Dr. Ian Joughin, University of Washington QuikSCAT Seawinds data courtesy of the BYU Center for Remote Sensing Dr. David Long, Brigham Young University Permafrost data courtesy of the United States Geological Survey and the International Permafrost Association City Lights data courtesy of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Topography data courtesy of the United States Geological Survey Cloud data courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Population data courtesy of the Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center SeaWiFS data courtesy of the SeaWiFS Project and GeoEye NOTE: All SeaWiFS images and data presented on this web site are for research and educational use only. All commercial use of SeaWiFS data must be coordinated with GeoEye (NOTE: In January 2013, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye combined to become DigitalGlobe). All other data courtesy of NASA NASA EOSDIS and other EOS data distributed by NASA's Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs) http://nasadaacs.eos.nasa.gov


Series

This visualization can be found in the following series:

Datasets used in this visualization

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