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Our History

Our History

NSIDC's roots go back to 1957 when a World Data Center (WDC) for Glaciology was established to archive all available glaciological information. The WDC was established by the American Geographical Society under Director William O. Field. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) Glaciology Project Office operated the WDC between 1971 and 1976 under the direction of Mark F. Meier.

The organization that we today call NSIDC started to take form in 1976, when the USGS transferred responsibility for the WDC to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Data and Information Service, and the center moved to the University of Colorado in Boulder (CU Boulder) under our founding director, Professor Roger G. Barry. At CU Boulder, the WDC landed first at the Institute for Alpine and Arctic Research, then moved over to the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) in 1980.

In 1982, NOAA designated the center as the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) with the mission to expand the WDC holdings and as a place to archive data from some NOAA programs. Initially, the center had just a physical library, two staff members, and a budget of $50,000 per year. However, the partnership with CIRES strengthened the ability for NSIDC to expand its data management and stewardship activities and develop a strong scientific research portfolio, focused on the cryosphere and its impacts on the rest of the planet.

In the 1980s and 1990s, NSIDC began to grow as a result of:

As public interest in the cryosphere has grown, so has NSIDC’s research efforts, notably in areas of sea ice, permafrost, and the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets. In the decades since 2000, research and data sets focused on the increasing impacts of a warming climate on the polar regions, permafrost, seasonal snow, and glaciers have made NSIDC the go-to center for public and scientific interest. NSIDC continues to receive large awards for management of the Snow and Ice DAAC, and for other data management efforts, as well as a robust research group that receives grants for data analysis and polar and alpine field investigations.

Today, NSIDC is a center of over 90 staff, researchers, and students, and is respected throughout the world for its data management and cryospheric research.

The early years

1957—The World Data Center for Glaciology is established by the U.S. National Committee for the first International Geophysical Year (IGY) to archive all available glaciological data and information. The WDC in the United States joins a network of World Data Centers for Glaciology in other countries.

1972—The pilot study preceding the Arctic Ice Dynamics Joint Experiment program begins. NASA launches the Electrically Scanning Microwave Radiometer (ESMR), a single-frequency instrument that could monitor sea ice extent in polar darkness and in all weather conditions; Data from ESMR are available from the NASA NSIDC Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC).

1975—The Arctic Ice Dynamics Joint Experiment (AIDJEX) program, a major sea ice experiment designed to answer questions about how sea ice moves and changes in response to the influence of ocean and atmosphere, begins. NSIDC stores and manages several data sets from this project.

1976—The World Data Center for Glaciology is transferred from the U.S. Geological Survey to the University of Colorado Boulder under Roger Barry. This is when the organization that we today call NSIDC started to take form. 

1978—NASA launches the Scanning Multichannel Microwave Radiometer (SMMR) aboard the Nimbus-7 satellite, marking the initiation of the modern satellite sea ice record. NASA later contracts with NSIDC to archive and distribute the resulting sea ice data.

1982—NOAA officially establishes NSIDC as part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder.

1983—NASA awards NSIDC a grant to archive Nimbus-7 Scanning Multichannel Microwave Radiometer (SMMR) passive microwave sea ice data, which continues to the present with SSM/I and SSMIS instruments.

1985—NSIDC receives a major research award from the Office of Naval Research to study Arctic sea ice processes; several graduate students are subsequently brought aboard, acting as a major spark to NSIDC’s cryospheric research arm. As an important part of this effort, submarine sonar data are analyzed to address Arctic sea ice thickness.;

1987–The first of the Special Sensor Microwave/Imager (SSM/I) sensors is launched onboard Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites. This series of satellite passive microwave radiometers continue to add to the sea ice satellite record, and data from these instruments are managed by and available from the NSIDC DAAC.

1990s to 2000s

1990—NSIDC receives funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the Arctic System Science (ARCSS) Data Coordination Center (ADCC), which aims to collect all ARCSS-related data and provide for its preservation through long-term, off-site archiving.

1993—NSIDC quickly grows when it receives its first NASA Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC) contract to steward cryospheric and related geophysical data from NASA Earth Observing Missions. This contract also expanded NSIDC research for the organization by including funding to support early career scientists conducting DAAC-related research, bringing several new researchers to the organization and expanding the scientific research capabilities of NSIDC.

1994—NSIDC launches its first website.

1996—The NOAA program at NSIDC (NOAA@NSIDC) begins with the goal of preserving data over the long-term to support current and future research. NOAA@NSIDC provides over 90 data sets about Earth's fast-changing frozen regions.

1996—The Antarctic Data Coordination Center (ADCC), which provides a research data repository and Project Catalog for the NSF-funded U.S. Arctic Program community, is established.

1997—The Environmental Working Group Arctic Atlases on CD-ROM , a joint effort between the United States and Russia, are released. These atlases include Arctic observations from the 1950s through the mid-1990s and include Russian and Western perspectives on the Arctic climate system, including atmospheric, oceanographic, and cryospheric data, maps, histories, and facts about climate and weather. The year-long Surface Heat Balance of the Arctic (SHEBA) project is initiated, featuring freezing an icebreaker into the sea ice in the Beaufort Sea and collecting atmospheric, sea ice, and oceanic measurements.

1999—NSIDC begins managing the newly established Antarctic Glaciology Data Center (AGDC), funded by the NSF Office of Polar Programs, to document, preserve, and disseminate results from NSF-funded Antarctic research. The NASA Terra satellite launches and the NSIDC DAAC archives data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument. The Global Land Ice Measurements from Space (GLIMS) initiative launches to inventory the world’s glaciers. The NSIDC DAAC manages GLIMS data from this initiative.

2000—NSIDC collaborates with the International Arctic Research Center (IARC) to serve as a central node of the International Permafrost Association’s Global Geocryological Data (GGD).

2002—The Frozen Ground Data Center (FGDC) is established with International Arctic Research Center (IARC) support. The NASA Aqua satellite launches, and NSIDC DAAC archives data from the MODIS and Advanced Microwave Sounding Radiometer - Earth Observing System (AMSR-E) instruments. The Antarctic Megadunes project, a three-year research expedition, begins. The Glacier Photograph Collection, an online, searchable collection of photographs of glaciers that serve as historical records, is launched. The Sea Ice Index launches to provide a quick look at Arctic-wide changes in sea ice. A large portion of Antarctica’s Larsen B Ice Shelf disintegrated after record summer warmth and melting. NSIDC’s announcement of this event, made in concert with British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and Argentina’s Division National Antartico, became a global news story.

2003—The NASA Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) satellite launches to measure ice sheet mass balance, cloud and aerosol heights, and land topography and vegetation characteristics. The NSIDC DAAC archives data from the Geoscience Laser Altimeter System (GLAS) instrument on ICESat.

2004—The Frozen Ground Data Center program ends, though the data remain available in the NSIDC data catalog.

2006—NSIDC scientists begin the Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis (ASINA) page with NASA funding, which provides daily images and regular analysis on Arctic sea ice conditions. IceTrek, a two-year Antarctic research expedition project, begins. NASA launches the Making Earth System Data Records for Use in Research Environments (MEaSUREs) program to produce unified data records critical to understanding Earth system processes and in assessing variability, long-term trends, and change in the Earth system. NOAA releases its first annual Arctic Report Card, a peer-reviewed publication that focuses on the current state of different components of the Arctic environmental system relative to historical records. NSIDC scientists regularly contribute to the Arctic Report Card.

2007—The Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge of the Arctic (ELOKA) program is established at NSIDC with NSF funding to foster collaboration between resident Arctic experts, Indigenous communities, and visiting researchers. ELOKA creates online products that facilitate the collection, preservation, exchange, and use of local observations and Indigenous Knowledge of the Arctic. A 2007 Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and to former US Vice President Al Gore for informing the world about the important issue of human-caused climate change. NSIDC scientists were among the many experts who contributed to the IPCC's efforts. Former Vice President Al Gore visits NSIDC and is briefed by the science team on climate change impacts at the poles. NSIDC scientists publish a widely cited paper showing that the observed rate of Arctic sea ice loss is faster than predicted by climate models.

2008—The NSF-funded Sea Ice Outlook, a forum for researchers to share their predictions of the seasonal minimum (September) Arctic sea ice extent, is initiated. NSIDC gains global attention for its analysis of the record low September 2007 sea ice extent.

2009—The NASA Operation IceBridge airborne mission is established to bridge the gap in data between ICESat/GLAS and the planned ICESat-2 mission. The NSIDC DAAC archives resulting IceBridge data. The NSF-sponsored Larsen Ice Shelf System, Antarctica (LARISSA) expedition, a large, interdisciplinary, multi-institute study to explore every aspect of the Larsen Ice Shelf region, begins. NSIDC researchers travel to the Larsen Ice Shelf region as part of LARISSA. NSIDC works with Clyde River residents to launch the Silalirijiit Project, a collaborative research project to increase the community’s access to weather information by establishing a modest weather station network and documenting Inuit knowledge of weather, weather indicators, and weather forecasting. Mark Serreze becomes NSIDC’s director following Roger Barry’s retirement.

2010 to Present

2010—The ICESat/GLAS mission ends after seven years in orbit and 15 laser-operations campaigns. NOAA@NSIDC launches the Multisensor Analyzed Sea Ice Extent – Northern Hemisphere product (also known as MASIE-NH), which gives a graphical view of daily sea ice extent in various formats based on operational sea ice analysis from the U.S. National Ice Center.

2011—NOAA launches the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) weather satellite with the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor on board. The NSIDC DAAC archives snow and sea ice data from VIIRS. The NSIDC NSIDC Green Data Center goes online, replacing an energy inefficient cooling system and slashing energy consumption by more than 90 percent. NASA and Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE), the Argentinian satellite agency, launch theAquarius satellite instrument to study the links between ocean circulation, the global water cycle, and climate. The NSIDC DAAC manages Aquarius soil moisture and polar-gridded data. The Advanced Cooperative Arctic Data and Information Service (ACADIS), a joint effort between NSIDC, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and Unidata to manage the diverse data needs of the Arctic research community supported by the NSF Office of Polar Programs, begins. The NOAA/NSIDC Sea Ice Concentration Climate Data Record Version 1 is published, with development and maintenance suppprt from the NOAA Climate Data Record (CDR) program. A CDR is a data record that is consistantly produced and long enough that detectable trends can have climatological significance. After a data-rescue project, NOO@NSIDC publishes products from the Nimbus-I and Nimbus-II satellites that operated in 1964 and 1966, respectively. These data provide the earliest satellite information on sea ice conditions.

2012—NSIDC launches Charctic, a popular interactive graphic that visualizes changes in Arctic and Antarctic sea ice conditions over time. NSIDC receives a NASA-USGS contract supporting membership on the Landsat Science Team, supporting both research and product development. The U.S. Department of State funds the Contribution to High Asia Runoff from Ice and Snow (CHARIS) project to systematically assess the role that glaciers and seasonal snow play in the freshwater resources of high Asia; CHARIS was supported by a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Agency for International Development and the University of Colorado Boulder, and led by NSIDC. 

2013—NASA funds the second Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis (ASINA) proposal and supports the creation of Greenland Ice Sheet Today. The Greenland Ice Sheet Today page shares daily satellite images and information about melting on the Greenland Ice Sheet as well as periodic analysis as conditions warrant this. The NASA Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) mission, which collects data on the snow melt flowing out of major water basins in the Western US, begins. The NSIDC DAAC manages ASO data from the ASO mission. NSIDC scientists make the earliest known satellite maps of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice available to the public via the NSIDC Nimbus Data Recovery Project. The project recovered, reprocessed, and digitized infrared and visible data from the NASA Nimbus I, II, and III missions. The NSF begins the NSIDC-led A Broker Framework for Next Generation Geoscience (BCube) project to engage Earth, atmosphere, ocean, computer, information, and social scientists, educators, and data managers in an effort to develop community-guided cyberinfrastructure that integrates data and information across the geosciences.

2014—The NSIDC DAAC launches the Satellite Observations of Arctic Change data visualization interface, which uses dynamic maps to illustrate the changes taking place in the Arctic over time. The Sea Ice Prediction Network (SIPN), an international collaborative network that aims to improve upon and communicate about sea ice forecasting and prediction, is established and begins managing the Sea Ice Outlook. Several NSIDC researchers are active members of SIPN.

2015—NASA launches the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission, an orbiting observatory that measures the amount of water in the surface soil everywhere on Earth. The NSIDC DAAC manages SMAP data.

2016—NSIDC partners with the United States Antarctic Program - Data Center (USAP-DC) at Columbia University, to consolidate NSF glaciology data into a central USAP Project Catalog and Data Repository. The Antarctic Glaciology Data Center data sets are transferred to the United States Antarctic Program - Data Center; The NASA SnowEx airborne and field campaigns, which aim to address the most important gaps in snow remote sensing knowledge, begins. The NSIDC DAAC manages SnowEx data, and NSIDC researchers participate in the field campaigns. NASA funds the High Mountain Asia research project to use satellite data, model simulations, and field data to assess the changing hydrology and cryosphere of the High Mountain Asia region. The NSIDC DAAC manages HIgh Mountain Asia data from this project. NSF launches the Navigating the New Arctic (NNA) initiative to drive important aspects of NSF's long-term research agenda, push forward the frontiers of US science and engineering research, and lead to new discoveries and innovations. The University of Colorado Boulder Libraries and NSIDC win a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources to digitize the Glacier Photograph Collection. NSIDC receives a NASA award to use Landsat image pairs to map ice flow velocity globally.

2018—NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) launches with the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) instrument on board to allow scientists to measure the elevation of ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice, and more in unprecedented detail. The NSIDC DAAC manages ICESat-2 data. NSIDC founding director Roger Barry passes away, concluding a distinguished career in the study of the cryosphere and mountain climates. The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC) launches, with NSIDC and CIRES jointly hosting the Science Coordination Office for the project. ITGC is a joint US-UK project to investigate Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier and its potential impact on global sea level rise.

2019—Snow Today, funded by NASA, launches, provides daily data images and seasonal analyses of snow conditions in the western United States. NSIDC and partners launch QGreenland, a free and open-source mapping tool funded by NSF that can be used to better understand, monitor, and research the changes occurring in Greenland and the connections among them. NSIDC scientists participate in the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) expedition, the largest ever Arctic Ocean research effort, which freezes an icebreaker in sea ice in the Arctic Ocean to collect atmospheric, oceanic, and sea ice data. NSIDC publishes data from the Environmental Sciences Service Administration (ESSA) satellites that operated from 1966 to 1972. These rescued data provide early satellite information on sea ice and other climate parameters. 

2020—The Arctic Rain On Snow Study (AROSS) research project, led by NSIDC and funded by NSF, begins. The project aims to quantify changes in Arctic rain on snow events, assess their impacts on ecosystems and human societies, and determine how their frequency and intensity will change in coming decades.

2021—In collaboration with Alaska Pacific University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, NSIDC co-hosts the Navigating the New Arctic Community Office (NNA-CO), which supports the goals of the National Science Foundation’s Navigating the New Arctic initiative through communication, coordination, education, and outreach.