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NASA fellowship will help KU student develop better polar ice radar

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

LAWRENCE — A three-year, $90,000 NASA fellowship will allow a University of Kansas School of Engineering graduate student to design tools that will help more precisely predict future sea level rise based on the impact of climate change on the polar ice sheets.

Theresa Stumpf, a doctoral student in electrical engineering at KU’s Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) from Wentzville, Mo., was awarded a fellowship to NASA’s Earth and Space Science Program to conduct research on a new type of ice penetrating radar designed to gather data from a much wider area and provide a much clearer picture of the conditions where the ice meets bedrock. Much of the data used by the scientific community, particularly Greenland data, are gathered with radars developed by CReSIS at KU and flown on aircraft over the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. These data represent images and information from the surface of the ice sheet to the bedrock.

The formal name of Stumpf’s NASA fellowship application is “Ultra-Wideband, Wide-Swath Radar Imaging of the Ice-Bed Interface for Generating Fine Resolution Bed Topography and Quantifying Basal Conditions.”

“That essentially means that the ice sheets are mapped out over a very wide swath, providing more accurate and abundant data about the conditions at the bedrock. Current information on that is very sparse,” Stumpf said. The conditions where the ice meets rock at the bottom of the ice sheet – whether it’s solid ice, melting ice or water – have a major influence on the speed of the ice flow to the oceans. The faster the ice flows, the more it affects sea level rise.

“Another important aspect of wide-swath imaging is that you can collect this data in a single pass from the aircraft,” Stumpf said. “You don’t have to fly multiple lines over the same area and then piece the data together to get fine resolution. You’re getting it in just one pass and that’s the objective.”

Data used by CReSIS have traditionally been gathered solely from the area directly beneath the aircraft. Stumpf’s research will analyze data from three separate antennas that gather information from a much wider patch of ground. While it can be more challenging to filter out interference and convert data to an accurate map, once Stumpf interprets all the information, the result can provide a more thorough and revealing picture of the conditions beneath the surface.

“Detailed descriptions of hydrological channels below the ice allow scientists to make more accurate predictions about future sea levels,” Stumpf said.

She says the outstanding work done on ice sheet research at KU over the years certainly helped earn her the NASA fellowship.

“They recognize the University of Kansas, here in the heart of the country, as a true leader in ice sheet research, and our track record and reputation definitely put me in a position to do research that I think a lot of other graduate students wouldn’t have the opportunity to do. I’m excited to see what we can do,” Stumpf said.

Video on Stumpf's project can be viewed here.

KU serves as the lead institution for the National Science Foundation-funded CReSIS, which incorporates the strengths of six additional partner institutions: Elizabeth City State University, Indiana University, University of Washington, The Pennsylvania State University, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Association of Computer and Information Science Engineering Departments at Minority Institutions. In addition to this core group, CReSIS collaborates with several international institutions and industry partners.

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