Changes all around

NSIDC will archive and distribute the new ICESat-2 data stream, expected in 2016, which will measure ice sheet mass balance, cloud and aerosol heights, as well as land topography and vegetation characteristics. Credits: Satellite image courtesy of Orbital Earth image illustrating AMSR-E sea ice courtesy of the NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

NSIDC will archive and distribute the new ICESat-2 data stream, expected in 2016, which will measure ice sheet mass balance, cloud and aerosol heights, as well as land topography and vegetation characteristics. Credits: Satellite image courtesy of Orbital Earth image illustrating AMSR-E sea ice courtesy of the NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

The next five years will bring exciting additions to the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s (NSIDC) holdings: new scientific data types, new technologies, and even new kinds of users with different expectations. NASA recently renewed a contract with NSIDC to operate and manage the Earth Observing System Data and Information System Snow and Ice Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC), which offers over 250 cryospheric data products, primarily from Earth observation satellites. NSIDC has managed the data center since 1993, and the new contract keeps the DAAC in NSIDC until May 2014 with optional one-year extension all the way to 2018.

Despite NSIDC’s long history in operating the DAAC, NSIDC’s NASA DAAC manager Ron Weaver expects a lot of changes in the DAAC in those five years. “The year 2018 will look very different from this year,” he said.

An artist's rendition of the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite is superimposed over a satellite view of Earth. NSIDC will distribute snow cover, frozen ground, and permafrost data from the SMAP mission. Credit: NASA

An artist’s rendition of the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite is superimposed over a satellite view of Earth. NSIDC will distribute snow cover, frozen ground, and permafrost data from the SMAP mission. Credit: NASA

For instance, NSIDC will have added data from the NASA Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2) to its holdings. ICESat-2 launches in 2016 and will measure ice sheet mass balance, cloud and aerosol heights, as well as land topography and vegetation characteristics. NSIDC will have also started distributing data from the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission, a synergy between active radar and passive microwave for snow cover, frozen ground, permafrost. “That’s a massive amount of data that is coming,” Weaver said. “By 2018, we’ll be over a petabyte of data or very close. But we’ll be able to handle that with more powerful computers.”

The coming years will also bring the challenge of making the data accessible to a growing community of users who favor mobile devices. “The times, they are a-changing,” said Weaver. “Our data users are experts in cryospheric research, other scientists, and graduate and undergraduate students. But think about who the undergraduate is going to be in 2018. It’s going to be today’s ninth grader who is extremely comfortable with mobile devices.”

Former NSIDC scientist Walt Meier (now with the NASA Goddard Cryospheric Sciences Lab) sets up an albedo experiment for Boulder middle school students while NSIDC's NASA DAAC manager Ron Weaver looks on. NSIDC anticipates adapting to the data needs of future cryospheric scientists who might favor more mobile means of computing. Credit: N. Vizcarra/NSIDC

Former NSIDC scientist Walt Meier (now with the NASA Goddard Cryospheric Sciences Lab) sets up an albedo experiment for Boulder middle school students while NSIDC’s NASA DAAC manager Ron Weaver looks on. NSIDC anticipates adapting to the data needs of future cryospheric scientists who might favor more mobile means of computing. Credit: N. Vizcarra/NSIDC

According to trends, today’s mobile computing platforms, such as tablets and phones, will become faster and more stable, and in a few years time could rival PCs and laptops as the computing workhorse of choice. If these are what NSIDC data users are using, “then we want to stay relevant to our users’ needs,” Weaver said.

A growing number of non-expert users, like journalists, educators, students and policymakers, have also been using NSIDC data, and the trend will probably continue. Weaver attributes this to the growing interest in the cryosphere and the changes it has undergone over the past several years. NSIDC has adapted to this demand by presenting some data in a format that is more accessible to this audience. The Charctic interactive sea ice graph for example, plots Arctic sea ice extent time series from 1979 to the present with a few clicks of the mouse.

“These rapidly changing directions are going to be a challenge for us,” Weaver said. “But we have a really good, flexible team and we’ve put systems in place. We are up to this challenge and we’ll stay relevant, stay flexible, and yet do cost effective data management.”

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