Direct Ice Observations

While indigenous people have populated the Arctic for thousands of years, exploration of the Arctic by European explorers did not begin until the 16th century. While these voyages were initially motivated by the search for the Northwest Passage, they also provided the first real records of Arctic sea ice conditions. However, it was not until numerous expeditions to the Arctic and several attempts for the North Pole had been made that the distribution of sea ice in the Arctic became well understood.

While early theories speculated the existence of a large southern continent, Antarctica eluded explorers for several centuries, until it was first sighted by Captain James Cook in 1773, after which many voyages were made to the area for both sealing and exploration. Similar to the Arctic, by the mid-1800s, there were rough models of sea, ocean currents, and winds for the Antarctic region.

The first scientific literature discussing Arctic, sea ice properties and extent were published in the 1870s, but it was the organization of the First International Polar Year (IPY) in 1882-83 that spurred scientific exploration to both the globe's polar regions. From 1900-06, a major scientific expedition to the Arctic Ocean was undertaken by Fridtjof Nansen, aboard the Fram, to determine ocean currents and sea-ice extent. In the Southern Hemisphere, expeditions by Robert Falcon Scott, Erich von Dryglaski, and Ernest Shackleton to Antarctica marked the transition from early exploration to modern scientific expeditions.

modern ice observations in the polar regions

In the 1950s, international scientific campaigns were undertaken on both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. The scientific advances made during these research campaigns were unprecedented, and resulted in deep ice cores retrieved from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, as well as the establishment of long-term scientific monitoring sites. The information gained during these campaigns now form the foundations for the current understanding of ice volumes and ice-sheet dynamics in these regions, as well as providing high-resolution proxies of past climatic conditions. Insight into past glacial dynamics provides a context in which to view the current ice-sheet behavior.

Continued technological advances in transportation, computing, and communications have increased accessibility to the polar regions, and increased the number of scientists investigating glacial dynamics in these regions. In the late 1960s, an improved understanding of the potential environmental impacts associated with decreasing global ice volumes brought the study of glaciers and ice sheets to the forefront of scientific research. The current understanding of global ice volumes to serve a bellwethers of global climate change is largely the result of research done in the 1960s; it was during this time that glaciologists and climate scientists began expressing concern over 20th-century climate change.

In 1972, the Landsat 1 satellite was launched and provided the next major scientific advance in ice monitoring. The development of remote-sensing techniques has opened a whole new world for scientists studying sea ice, ice sheets, and glaciers. These techniques allow scientists to make observations of ice extents and changing surface heights, without having to make expensive and time-consuming visits to these remote regions.

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