8-2 Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​L​D​.​8​.​2​.10 | RuizPDF


Rafi­co Ruiz | Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta

Collecting Cryographic Climate Data, Remembering Alberto Behar

On Fri­day, Jan­u­ary 9, 2015, a sin­gle-engine Lan­cair air­craft flown by Alber­to Behar fatal­ly crashed short­ly after take­off from Van Nuys Air­port near Los Ange­les. Behar was a 40-year-old robot­ics engi­neer and polar researcher who worked on var­i­ous mis­sions at NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­to­ry while also run­ning Ari­zona State University’s Extreme Envi­ron­ments Robot­ics and Instru­men­ta­tion Lab­o­ra­to­ry. In the pho­to­graph that accom­pa­nies the sto­ry that appeared on the web­site of the Los Ange­les Times that same day, two crash inves­ti­ga­tors exam­ine the debris of the plane (Ryan, “JPL sci­en­tist killed in Van Nuys plane crash). In the bot­tom right fore­ground of the image, the let­ter­ing of the word “EXPERIMENTAL” can be made out through thick black grill­work.

I came to know of Behar’s work invent­ing and devel­op­ing sen­sors, cam­eras, and autonomous vehi­cles through the labyrinthine notes of a series of sci­en­tif­ic arti­cles ded­i­cat­ed to bet­ter under­stand­ing how Greenland’s ice sheet is melt­ing (see Smith et al.; Lei­gleit­er et al.; Carsey et al.). While for decades glaciol­o­gists oper­at­ed on the premise that Green­land pri­mar­i­ly shed ice mass via calv­ing events that pro­duced ice­bergs (see Rig­not and Kana­garat­nam; Rig­not et al.), around 2010 this par­a­digm shift­ed as sharp­er atten­tion was giv­en to the glacial lakes, streams, rivers, and moulins that account for the melt­wa­ter that leaves the ice sheet each year (see Glea­son et al.; Ben­nartz et al.; Col­gan et al.). Try­ing to mon­i­tor and project the melt­ing of Greenland’s ice sheet has tak­en on increased urgency as cli­mate change, through such mech­a­nisms as the albe­do effect and oth­er accel­er­at­ing envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions, is reshap­ing the island’s eco­log­i­cal future while sig­nif­i­cant­ly con­tribut­ing to glob­al sea-lev­el rise.

Behar was a behind-the-scenes engi­neer who had to grap­ple with the chal­lenges of how to ren­der glob­al cli­mate data that is sit­u­at­ed and respon­sive to often dif­fi­cult-to-access polar field sites. His sen­sors, cam­eras, and crafts were designed to cap­ture in-situ glacio­log­i­cal and hydro­log­i­cal data by going into the fast-mov­ing and cir­cuitous moulin drains and supraglacial chan­nels that are increas­ing­ly appear­ing across the sur­face of the Green­landic ice sheet. For instance, in one study that attempt­ed to map the pat­terns and rates pre­cip­i­tat­ed by an extreme 2012 melt event, Behar designed and built a small-scale drone ves­sel that was deployed to col­lect water depths and spec­tral reflectances, with the lat­ter data cru­cial for cal­i­brat­ing satel­lite read­ings relat­ed to the chan­nels’ vari­able depths and lev­els of dis­charge (see Glea­son et al.). The ves­sel not only enabled field sci­en­tists to obtain accu­rate and time­ly mea­sure­ments from the safe remove of shore (as the ves­sel was remote con­trol­lable from up to one kilo­me­tre away), it also fore­ground­ed the spe­cif­ic spa­tial demands of the Green­landic ice sheet when it comes to con­duct­ing cli­mate-relat­ed field sci­ence. By gath­er­ing data across a sec­tion of south­west­ern Green­land com­prised of a large lake (Napoli) and two shal­low melt­wa­ter streams (Olsen Riv­er and Cold Creek), the ves­sel was able to improve satel­lite-based forms of remote sens­ing by enabling these instru­ments to more accu­rate­ly account for the bathy­met­ric dimen­sions of these fast-mov­ing bod­ies of water with increas­ing­ly large depth fluc­tu­a­tions pre­cip­i­tat­ed by ris­ing glacial melt rates. The ves­sel ulti­mate­ly allowed these cli­mate sci­en­tists to cor­re­late opti­cal satel­lite imagery with the esti­mat­ed depths of supraglacial bod­ies of water, thus facil­i­tat­ing the map­ping of the Green­landic ice sheet not as a sta­t­ic site of stor­age and slow change but rather as a mobile geog­ra­phy of “tran­sient flux con­vey­ing melt­wa­ter to moulins” (Glea­son et al. 216). Behar’s ves­sel was respon­si­ble for draw­ing out the vol­u­met­ric dimen­sions of glac­i­ers and track­ing how melt­wa­ter cir­cu­lat­ed across its var­i­ous stra­ta.

I want to give Behar this posthu­mous recog­ni­tion as the in-situ read­ings and images he cap­tured can reshape our expe­ri­ence of the scales of anthro­pogenic cli­mac­tic change and the glob­al net­works of data that form their evi­den­tiary base. While recent stud­ies have found micro­scop­ic algae and air­borne dust play­ing a part in accel­er­at­ing the melt­ing of the ice sheet (Kin­tisch, “The great Green­land melt­down”), Behar’s data-dri­ven media of cap­ture remind us of the mobil­i­ty of water as it cross­es from one phase state to anoth­er. From immo­bile ice to rac­ing water, his atten­tive designs rede­fined under­stand­ings of polar in situ tech­nolo­gies as being respon­sive to the ele­men­tal scale of cli­mate sci­ence.

Works Cited

Ben­nartz, Ralf, et al. “Green­land melt extent enhanced by low-lev­el liq­uid clouds.” Nature, vol. 496, 2013, pp. 83-86.

Carsey, Frank, et al. “A bore­hole cam­era sys­tem for imag­ing the deep inte­ri­or of ice sheets.” Jour­nal of Glaciol­o­gy, vol. 48, no. 163, Dec. 2002, pp. 622-628.

Col­gan, William, et al. “West Green­land: Hydro­log­ic impli­ca­tions.” Geo­phys­i­cal Research Let­ters, vol. 38, 2011, n.p.

Glea­son, Col­in, et al. “Char­ac­ter­iz­ing supraglacial melt­wa­ter chan­nel hydraulics on the Green­land Ice Sheet from in situ obser­va­tions.” Earth Sur­face Process­es and Land­forms, vol. 41, 2016, pp. 2111-2122.

Kin­tisch, Eli. “The great Green­land melt­down.” Sci­ence (mag­a­zine). Feb­ru­ary 23, 2017. http://​www​.sci​encemag​.org/​n​e​w​s​/​2​0​1​7​/​0​2​/​g​r​e​a​t​-​g​r​e​e​n​l​a​n​d​-​m​e​l​t​d​own. Accessed March 30, 2017.

Lei­gleit­er, Carl, et al. “Map­ping the bathym­e­try of supraglacial lakes and streams on the Green­land ice sheet using field mea­sure­ments and high-res­o­lu­tion satel­lite images.” The Cryos­phere, vol. 8, 2014, pp. 215-228.

Rig­not, Eric, et al. “North and north­east Green­land ice dis­charge from satel­lite radar inter­fer­om­e­try.” Sci­ence,  vol. 276, no. 5314, 1997, pp. 934-937.

Rig­not, Eric, and Pradeep Kana­garat­nam. “Changes in the veloc­i­ty struc­ture of the Green­land Ice Sheet.” Sci­ence, vol. 311, no. 5763, 2006, pp. 986-990.

Ryan, Har­ri­et. “JPL sci­en­tist killed in Van Nuys plane crash aid­ed ‘extreme’ explo­ration.” Los Ange­les Times. Jan­u­ary, 10, 2015. http://​touch​.latimes​.com/​#​s​e​c​t​i​o​n​/​-​1​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​p​2​p​-​8​2​5​0​9​2​60/. Accessed March 30, 2017).

Smith, Lau­rence et al. “Effi­cient melt­wa­ter drainage through supraglacial streams and rivers on the south­west Green­landic ice sheet.” Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ence, vol. 112, no. 4, 2015, pp. 1001-1006.