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The Rapid Ice Sheet Change Observatory (RISCO) Initialization Program

The recent expansion of observational capacity from space has revealed dramatic, rapid changes in the Earth’s ice cover. These discoveries have fundamentally altered how scientists view ice-sheet change. Instead of just slow changes in snow accumulation and melting over centuries or millennia, important changes can occur in sudden events lasting only months, weeks or even a single day. Our understanding of these short time- and space-scale processes, which hold important implications for future global sea level rise, has been impeded by the low temporal and spatial resolution, delayed sensor tasking, incomplete coverage, inaccessibility and/or high cost of data available to investigators. New cross-agency partnerships and data access policies provide the opportunity to dramatically improve the resolution of ice sheet observations by an order of magnitude, from timescales of months and distances of 10’s of meters, to days and meters or less. Advances in image processing technology also enable application of currently under-utilized datasets.

The infrastructure for systematically gathering, processing, analyzing and distributing these data does not currently exist. Here we propose the development of a multi-institutional, multi-platform observatory for rapid ice change with the ultimate objective of helping to elucidate the relevant timescales and processes of ice sheet dynamics and response to climate change. The Rapid Ice Sheet Observatory (RISCO) will gather observations of short time- and space-scale cryosphere events and make them easily accessible to investigators, media and general public. As opposed to existing data centers, which are structured to archive and distribute diverse types of raw data to end users with the specialized software and skills to analyze them, RISCO will focus on three types of geo-referenced raster (image) data products in a format immediately viewable with commonly available software. These three products will be:

  1.  sequences of images and image animations from the ice sheet scale down to scales of meters,
  2. maps of ice flow velocity and acceleration and
  3. digital elevation models and elevation change maps.

These products will be created both from data to be acquired and from a decade of archived data. An online user interface will allow browsing of the data catalog, product ordering and requests for sensor tasking.

The objective of this initialization program will be to develop RISCO into a long-term observational system, with an adaptable infrastructure to accommodate new sensors and currently unforeseeable demands. The RISCO has the potential to greatly enhance observation of ice sheets, moving from ad hoc studies of past changes using whatever data happens to be available, to scalable, targeted, near-real time monitoring of events as they occur.

Funded by grant NNX10AN61G from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).