NASA taps UB researchers’ team to advance satellite observation of climate change

Aerial image of a large crack in an ice sheet in Antarctica.

A coastal polynya, or opening in the sea ice cover, near the Filchner Ice Shelf in Antarctica, as seen during an Operation IceBridge flight on Oct. 10, 2018. Photo: John Sonntag/NASA

By Tom Dinki and Lauren Fimbres Wood, originally published in UBNow

Published May 17, 2024

“The EDGE team brings together vegetation and cryosphere scientists to work toward a shared goal of developing an instrument to measure these vital signs of our planet."
Helen Amanda Fricker, Professor of Geophysics
UC San Diego’s Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics

UB researchers are part of an international team selected by NASA to conceptualize a future satellite mission that can advance understanding of Earth’s response to climate change.

Sophie Nowicki, Empire Innovation Professor, and Beata Csatho, professor and associate chair, both in the Department of Geology, are members of the Earth Dynamics Geodetic Explorer (EDGE) team. Led by the University of California San Diego, EDGE proposes using satellite laser altimetry for an unprecedented, real-time look at both carbon stored in forests and ice at the poles.

It was one of four proposals selected by NASA’s new Earth System Explorers Program, which is seeking satellite-based missions that will advance understanding of climate change factors like greenhouse gases and changes in ice and glaciers around the world.

The four finalists will each receive $5 million to conduct a one-year mission concept study. After the study period, NASA will choose two proposals for satellites to launch in 2030 and 2032, with a budget of $310 million for each chosen investigation.

Proposal builds on previous missions

The goal of EDGE is to observe the three-dimensional structure of terrestrial ecosystems like forests and the surface features of glaciers, ice sheets and sea ice as they change in response to human activity. This will be done by laser altimetry, which sends laser pulses to Earth’s surface and records the time it takes them to return to the spacecraft.

EDGE will build on two ongoing NASA space laser altimeter missions that first launched in 2018: Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) and Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI).

EDGE advances the technology on ICESat-2 and GEDI through an increased density of laser beams that will map the planet using five 120-meter-wide strips. This unprecedented resolution and accuracy will allow scientists to precisely measure changes as they are happening, providing a real-time look at whether the planet is crossing critical tipping points that will cause abrupt or irreversible change.

“The EDGE team brings together vegetation and cryosphere scientists to work toward a shared goal of developing an instrument to measure these vital signs of our planet,” says EDGE team leader Helen Amanda Fricker, professor of geophysics at UC San Diego’s Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. “EDGE will have the capability to measure the density of the rainforest in the Amazon and depths of individual cracks in glaciers, enabling improved tracking and understanding of our planet’s biodiversity, changes in carbon storage and rate of ice loss contributing to sea-level rise.”

 EDGE, flying on Maxar’s 500 spacecraft, will also expand the footprint of Earth that is monitored. The GEDI instrument on the International Space Station only covers as far north as Canada and south to Australia, but EDGE’s orbit goes all the way to the poles, providing global coverage of vegetation and allowing for dense mapping around the edges of ice sheets and sea ice pack.

The data from EDGE will be used to inform Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and policymakers about projected future conditions, helping society prepare for and adapt to climate change.

Researchers have prior experience with NASA

Nowicki and Csatho have both been involved in previous NASA satellite laser altimeter missions. Csatho served on the science team for the ICESat-2 and original ICESat missions, as well as the follow-on missions between the two, known as Operation IceBridge. Nowicki, who is also director of the UB Center for Geological and Climate Hazards, served on the Operation IceBridge team. 

Nowicki will be EDGE’s cryosphere application lead, tasked with coordinating and expanding ice sheet modeling, as well as community engagement with the team’s dataset. Csatho will be a land ice products co-lead in charge of elevation change products over glaciers and ice sheets.

Altogether, the EDGE team is composed of 25 scientists and engineers from around the world. Aside from UB and UC San Diego, they represent the University of Maryland, George Mason University, Boise State University, Northern Arizona University, Bristol University, University of Washington, Colorado School of Mines, Singapore University, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution and the Australian Antarctic Division.

In the next year, the EDGE team will finalize the technical capabilities of the mission, demonstrate feasibility and refine satellite design so the missions can be executed on time and on budget. NASA will then choose two of the four accepted proposals to move forward to launch.


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