Declassified Arctic Sea Ice Images Released


Photo Courtesy of NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio

The National Research Council published a plea to the U.S. government early Wednesday to release and disseminate hundreds of spy satellite Arctic sea ice images for use in climate change research. The pictures were taken by intelligence agencies as part of the Medea program, an initiative started in the 1990s to encourage the sharing of classified data between government agencies and the scientific community. After record losses of summer sea ice the past couple of years, scientists attempted to get access to the Arctic images for climate change modeling and measurements. But their efforts proved futile - despite the fact that many of the images had already been declassified - until Wednesday afternoon.

Almost immediately after the National Research Council’s report had been made public, the U.S. Geological Survey announced that it would release 699 sea ice images taken in the Arctic Basin at four locations since 1999 and an additional two since 2005.

Scientists are hopeful the images will help in researching lateral melting, ice topography, ice thickness, snow depth, and ice deformation, shearing, and cracking patterns. They are particularly interested in studying data from the Beaufort Sea. “Forecasts of regional sea-ice conditions on seasonal timescales can help different stakeholders prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change,” states the National Research Council’s report. “And minimize environmental risks associated with industrial activity. Converging economic activities (natural resource extraction and shipping) and indigenous interests (subsistence harvest of marine mammals)… place great importance on the detection and tracking of multiyear ice.”

Images produced by intelligence technology are much more valuable to the scientific community than civilian satellite photographs because of their high resolution. The newly released Arctic sea ice images have a resolution up to one meter.

The National Research Council’s Committee on the Scientific Value of Arctic Sea Ice Imagery Derived Products, Committee on Climate, Energy, and National Security, and the Polar Research Board produced the report and plea for release of the sea ice photos.

“At a time when there is concern that Earth observation systems are decreasing and aging, releasing these images would be a step toward continuing the flow of critical information to the scientific community,” said Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences in a statement. “We hope that these images are the first of many that could help scientists learn how the changing climate could impact the environment and our society.”

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