The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) is an organization that stores and manages ongoing scientific data from polar and glacier ice research. Despite its name, NSIDC is not a government agency, but a research organization affiliated with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. It has agreements and funding with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation. The center is led by Dr. Mark Serez, a faculty member at UC Boulder.
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NSIDC’s stated goal is to support research into the frozen regions of the world: the ice, snow, glaciers, and frozen ground (permafrost) that make up the planet’s cryosphere. NSIDC maintains and provides access to scientific data, builds tools for data access and supports data users, it conducts scientific research, and it fulfills a public education mission.
Why do we study snow and ice?
Snow and ice (cryosphere) research is a scientific field of great relevance to global climate change. On the one hand, glacier ice provides a record of past seasons. Studying the air trapped in ice can help us understand the atmospheric concentrations of various gases in the distant past. In particular, carbon dioxide concentrations and ice deposition rates can be linked to past climates. On the other hand, ongoing changes in the amount of snow and ice play some important roles in the future of our climate, in transportation and infrastructure, in freshwater availability, in sea level rise, and directly in high-latitude communities.
The study of ice, whether in glaciers or in the polar regions, presents a unique challenge because it is usually difficult to reach. Collecting data in those areas is expensive and it has long been recognized that collaboration between agencies and even countries is necessary to make significant scientific progress. NSIDC gives researchers online access to datasets that can be used to detect trends, test hypotheses, and build models to evaluate ice behavior over time.
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Remote sensing as the main tool for cryosphere research
Dozens of satellites currently orbit the Earth, collecting imagery in various bandwidths, resolutions, and regions. These satellites provide a convenient alternative to expensive data gathering missions to the poles, but the accumulated time series of images require well-designed data collection solutions. NSIDC can help scientists store and access this enormous amount of information.
NSIDC supports scientific expeditions
NSIDC researchers are closely monitoring a rapidly changing portion of sea ice in Antarctica, collecting data on ocean floor sediments, and shelf ice, all the way up to coastal glaciers.
Another NSIDC researcher is using indigenous knowledge to improve scientific understanding of climate change in Canada’s north. Inuit residents of the Nunavut region hold several generations’ worth of knowledge on snow, ice, and wind seasonal dynamics and provide a unique perspective on ongoing changes.
Critical data synthesis and dissemination
NSIDC’s best-known work is probably the Monthly Report which summarizes the state of the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice as well as the state of the Greenland ice cap. Their Sea Ice Index is released daily and provides a snapshot of sea ice extent and concentration going back to 1979. The index includes an image of each pole showing the extent of the ice in comparison to the outline of the middle ice edge. These images are providing remarkable evidence of the sea ice retreat we are experiencing. Some recent situations highlighted in the daily reports include:
The January 2017 average is the lowest January Arctic ice extent since records were set in 1978.
Arctic sea ice extent reached 5.6 million square miles in March 2016, the lowest ever observed, beating the previous record for – no surprise – 2015.