The Color of Water

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This article was originally published in the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences’ Spheres Magazine

Imagine being able to measure the depth of a lake simply by looking at its color.

That’s basically what Allen Pope, a postdoc working in the National Snow and Ice Data Center (part of CIRES) is doing with supraglacial lakes on top of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Pope uses images from NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite and is analyzing the color of these lakes to decipher their depth. Darker blues and greens indicate deeper lakes. The deepest can reach eight meters, and Pope is finding he can measure depth within a 4-foot accuracy (and even better when averaged over large areas).

These lakes are important to the study of ice sheet dynamics because they can force open crevasses to the bottom of the sheet, lubricating the base with water and speeding the ice sheet’s journey to the sea. Pope hopes his work will lead to more accurate climate modeling of ice sheet dynamics, and ultimately, a better understanding of global sea level rise.

“Having better constraints on not just the area of the lakes, but also the depths, will help those models better predict exactly what’s going to happen to the ice,” said Pope.

With a Ph.D. in glaciology from the University of Cambridge in the U.K. and a productive term at NSIDC under his belt, what’s next for Pope?

“I would love to find a teaching position that still lets me get to continue some cool research,” he said. “As long as I have some pretty satellite pictures to work with, I’ll be happy.”

Follow @PopePolar on Twitter or for news, videos, and photos of the changing Arctic and Antarctic ice, and check out his award winning video, “What Color is a Glacier?” at A NASA video also features some of his work:


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