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Sea-ice Measuring Methods

Anyone who wants to know the current state of the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice and how it changes over time needs observational data that is as up-to-date, precise and complete as possible. Researchers use a broad range of methods and technologies to gather data – though each has its own strengths and weaknesses, taken together, they offer a scientifically sound representation of the sea-ice cover, which plays a very important role in the Earth system, especially for the climate. Accordingly, observational data offers an indispensable basis for all fields of research involving sea ice – from sea-ice physics to mathematical modelling, which can yield robust projections of the future. Here we’ll introduce you to the most important methods and instruments used to gather reliable sea-ice data. They range from manual readings taken on the ice’s surface to those gathered by orbiting satellites.


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From Space

In the name of science, countless “eyes” orbit our planet, gathering valuable observational data on the sea-ice development in the polar regions. Here you’ll learn what these space-based sensors measure, and what it can tell us about the ice.

From the Air

Research aeroplanes, helicopters and drones offer effective means of rapidly and precisely surveying extensive areas of sea ice. Here you’ll learn how laser scanners, snow radar systems and the “EM-Bird” on board these aircraft provide detailed information on the sea-ice structure.

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In the Snow and Ice

For polar researchers, taking readings on the surface of the ice is one of the highlights of their day-to-day work. Once there, they not only collect samples, but also use high-precision instruments like the SnowMicroPen, which measures the physical resistance of the ice’s snow cover.

Under the Ice

Though the underside of the ice is particularly interesting for sea-ice research, it’s also extremely difficult to access. Nevertheless, researchers have found ways to investigate even this area, which is so essential to understanding the sea-ice system, without harming it – for instance, with the help of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

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Autonomous Monitoring

Researchers don’t always have to venture into the field to investigate the sea ice. For example, by gathering positioning data, a network of autonomous buoys allows us to monitor the movement and deformation of a massive ice field – and to identify navigable leads amidst the ice.

Ship-based Observations

Research vessels are the most important tool for sea-ice research. They safely transport researchers and their equipment through the ice and are what make fieldwork in the polar regions possible to begin with. In addition, the ice is systematically observed – in a variety of ways – on board them.