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University of Alaska Fairbanks Researchers Use Big Data to Better Understand Ice Melt

By Rod Boyce and Kimberly Mann Bruch

Last year, the National Science Foundation established five Harnessing the Data Revolution institutes, each with a specific focus. The West Hub recently had a chance to learn more about the Institute for Harnessing Data and Model Revolution in the Polar Regions and particularly the work of University of Alaska Fairbanks (USF) Geophysical Institute Research Associate Professor Andy Aschwanden, a glaciologist and climate scientist, who works in conjunction with the iHARP project led by the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Aschwanden, who uses computer models to study glaciers and ice sheets, has been collaborating with UAF Geophysical Institute researcher Mark Fahnestock, an expert in satellite observations, to utilize big data to better understand melting glaciers in Alaska and beyond.

“The more data we as researchers have and need, the more important the intersection between the researchers and data scientists becomes,” Aschwanden said. “A big part of this institute is having the data science people help us make the data more useful and more easily accessible.”

Within the polar-focused institute, Aschwanden is co-leading a focus group working to improve computer modeling to better predict the extent of melting of the Earth’s ice sheets. Rapidly melting ice sheets contribute to sea level increase.

“Glaciology or polar science was a data-starved field 20 years ago,” Aschwanden said. “We didn't have observations. We barely even knew how our ice sheets were changing.”

The explosion in satellite data as computers have become increasingly powerful means researchers need help from data scientists to avoid becoming bogged down in time-consuming data acquisition and preparation. Data isn’t presented in a uniform way among researchers and can include “noise,” or data not germane to research.

“We are not data scientists,” Aschwanden said. “And they are not glaciologists or climatologists. We all have our specialty.”

To learn more about Aschwanden’s work, refer to his website.

Photo Credit: Sean Tevebaugh, University of Alaska Fairbanks


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