Operation IceBridge

  • Released Tuesday, August 20th, 2019
  • Updated Thursday, December 12th, 2019 at 12:00AM


Operation IceBridge was a NASA field campaign that was the largest airborne survey of Earth's polar ice ever flown. Spanning 11 years, IceBridge produced an unprecedented three-dimensional view of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice. Dozens of flights every year provided regular, multi-instrument insights into the behavior of Earth’s rapidly changing cryosphere.

Data collected by IceBridge helped scientists bridge the gap in polar observations of ice height between NASA's Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), which launched in 2003, and ICESat-2, which launched on September 15, 2018. ICESat stopped collecting science data in 2009, making IceBridge critical for ensuring a continuous series of observations. IceBridge surveyed the Arctic and Antarctic areas once a year, typically in the springtime before summer melting began. The first Operation IceBridge flights were conducted in March/May 2009 over Greenland and in October/November 2009 over Antarctica. Other smaller airborne surveys around the world, in particular Alaska, were also part of the IceBridge mission.

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The extensive data IceBridge has gathered over the Greenland ice sheet during its operations have provided an improved picture of the surface, the bed and the internal structures of Greenland’s ice sheet and allowed scientists to create more accurate models of glacier contribution to sea level rise. As for sea ice, IceBridge’s measurements of the thickness of sea ice and its snow cover have assisted in improving forecasts for summertime melt, enhanced the understanding of variations in ice thickness distribution from year to year, and updated the climatology of the snow depth over sea ice.


IceBridge conducted missions over Antarctica from a base of operations either in Punta Arenas, Chile, Ushuaia, Argentina, Hobart, Tasmania, or New Zealand.

The surveys were conducted from NASA’s DC-8 airborne science laboratory and periodically NASA's GV, or P3-Orion aircraft. The DC-8, managed by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, carried IceBridge’s full instrument suite.


In Alaska, 5 percent of the land is covered by glaciers that are losing a lot of ice and contributing to sea level rise. To monitor these changes, a small team of NASA-funded researchers has been flying scientific instruments on a bright red, single-engine plane since spring 2009.
While scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center managed the two larger yearly field campaigns in the Arctic and Antarctica, monitoring Alaskan glaciers fell on a smaller team based at the University of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Data Visualizations

Throughout the mission, NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio worked closely with mission scientists to create a suite of visualizations, animations, and images in order to promote a greater understanding of data gathered during OIB campaigns.