How Stanford Researchers Are Using Drones to Monitor Ice Sheets and Predict Sea Level Rise

by Suzanne Halliburton
Thor Wegner/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Imagine that it’s your job to monitor data buried deep in the ice sheets of Greenland or Antarctica. Researchers at Stanford now are using a drone named for a falcon to find all that information.

So who cares if it’s brutally cold, with winds dropping the feels-like temps even lower. Let a Stanford-developed drone called the Peregrine do the work. The drone carries ice-penetrating radar. And it can gather key information miles deep in the ice sheets.

“This is our tool for understanding what lies underneath the ice, which is one of the most critical inputs to understanding how this ice sheet is going to evolve in the future,” Stanford drone developer Thomas Teisberg told ABC7 in San Francisco.

Here’s how the Stanford drone works. The wings of the drone carry antennae. And there are other instruments shielded from the weather. According to the Stanford researchers, deploying these drones are far more cost effective than previous methods. Plus, once radar is inserted into the ice sheets, researchers from around the world can monitor and use the data.

Teisberg, the Stanford engineer, said: “We reduce the cost of collecting this data dramatically. And we make it so we can collect data more of the time, during the night, in more adverse weather, and we can solve this data gap.”

The Nature Climate Change journal reported in August that up to 3.3 percent of the Greenland ice sheet is expected to melt by the year 2100 because of climate change. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it, the study said. That’s the equivalent of 110 trillion tons of tons. And it’ll cause the seas around the world to rise by about a foot.

Italian researchers seen here are exploring the Antarctic ice sheet. The Stanford drones could bring down the cost and collect far more data. (Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, NASA reports that Greenland is losing an average of 280 billion tons of ice per year. Antarctica’s ice sheets are melting at about 150 billion tons per year.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty we could reduce,” Teisberg said. “Exactly how much is going to melt and exactly how fast and there’s a lot of value to planners, especially in coastal communities and your critical infrastructure where there might be roads or vulnerable communities.”

Dr. Dustin Schroeder is heading up the Stanford drone project. He thinks the next step is to add AI to the drones.

“We know that ice sheets are very dynamic,” Schroeder said. “That their processes evolve far more frequently than once ever, or going back every few decades, or even every year. We know there are processes that take place over the scale of tides, or the scale of seasons or the scale of days. And so the ability to put sensors out there that can capture that fine-tuned timescale is really transformative.”