Monitoring Arctic sea ice thickness

A Seasonal Ice Mass Balance buoy designed and built at Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory records air temperature, air pressure, snow and ice thickness as well as a temperature profile in the air-snow-ice-ocean. An international consortium is installing machines to collect data to understand what causes the changes to the snow and ice thickness. Data from this particular buoy can be viewed on our buoy web page at To best understand climate change processes and their impacts, scientists monitor changes in the volume or mass of the Arctic sea ice cover. Specifically, researchers keep close tabs on the ice extent, or the area covered by sea ice, and ice thickness.

Measuring ice extent is effectively monitored by aircraft and from satellites.

By contrast, monitoring ice thickness is more challenging. Currently satellite measurements are still in the development phase; consequently ice thickness data collection sources are limited to on-ice mass balance measurements and submarine or seafloor-mounted upward looking sonars.

To develop a coordinated network to monitor changes in ice thickness, researchers created the NOAA SEARCH initiative, an international partnership that builds upon existing programs like the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO) and the International Arctic Buoy Progam (IAPB).

This initiative integrates observations made from buoys and moorings with models that design the observational network and interpret the results.

To that end, researchers have begun to deploy a network of ice-tethered ice mass balance buoys (IMB) buoys complemented by a few sea-floor moorings with ice profiling sonar (IPS). Together these instruments provide data on ice thickness in key areas of the Arctic Ocean.

You can keep tabs on the data here.

The IMB buoys report in real-time via System Argos, while the IPS moorings record data internally. Deployments are done via partnerships with other programs, such as United States, Canadian, Russian and Swedish icebreaker cruises. Ice mass balance buoys have been deployed during the SHEBA field experiment, in shorefast ice in Barrow Alaska, and in the Antarctic sea ice or Marguerite BayPosition, sea level pressure, and surface air temperaure are being integrated into the Global Telecommunication System according to the International Arctic Buoy Program Protocols and are available for data assimilation and modeling efforts.

A team of scientists recently deployed the 2014 bouys, and we’ll be reporting on their work in more detail in the coming weeks.