Fiber optics enable scientists to accurately track changes in ice sheets

Monitoring temperatures of huge masses of ice is key to understanding how climate change affects our planet. So far, scientists have been performing such monitoring by fitting sensors to cables that are fed down a hole, but such devices can only offer readings of the environment at certain intervals beneath the surface.

The accuracy of these measurement tools, however, is poised to get an upgrade thanks to a research team led by scientists at the University of Cambridge. The team developed a new device that uses a mix of fiber-optic cables and laser pulses to gain accurate temperature readings from the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet — the world’s second-largest — all the way down to the bottom.

“We normally take measurements within the ice sheet by attaching sensors to a cable that we lower into a drilled borehole, but the observations we’ve made so far weren’t giving us a complete picture of what’s happening,” said study co-author Dr. Poul Christoffersen. “The more precise data we are able to gather, the clearer we can make that picture, which in turn will help us make more accurate predictions for the future of the ice sheet.”

As reported by New Atlas, the technology uses a fiber optic cable that can emit laser pulses along its entire length, from the surface of the ice sheet to its base one kilometer below. By analyzing the varying distortions in the scattered light as it encounters the surrounding ice, the system can reveal its temperature.

With ice sheets around the globe melting at a fast rate, the new technology will play a crucial role in providing a clearer picture of the changes taking place beneath the surface of these glacial structures, enabling scientists to create more accurate models of the melting process, and better prepare for the future.

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