National Aeronautics and Space Administration


What is your agency’s mission and how does supporting research in the Arctic advance that mission?

NASA’s mission is to: “inspire the world through exploration and discovery, leading scientific and technological advancements that benefit Americans and all humanity. Our efforts in space help to further the national economy, including through innovative commercial partnerships with American businesses. With the increasing threat of climate change, NASA’s efforts to study and understand the Earth are of critical global significance. In addition, NASA’s partnerships with academic institutions support a robust Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) workforce and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the fields of science and technology.” Toward these ends, NASA’s Earth Science Division sponsors scientific endeavors that increase our understanding of the physical, chemical, and biological processes controlling Earth systems and driving changes that impact our planet and society.

Arctic research is vital to the Agency’s mission, since changes at the polar regions can profoundly affect the whole planet. For example, Arctic ice and permafrost are experiencing rapid change and the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere on Earth. The resulting changes are contributing to climate change in other parts of the globe. The vast Arctic region includes some of the most inaccessible and inhospitable zones on Earth, and NASA’s satellite and aircraft remote sensing capabilities are critical tools for characterizing and understanding the changes occurring in this region. Results from NASA’s Arctic research efforts not only further our scientific understanding of Earth systems and processes, they also provide forecasts and information about the implications of Arctic changes.

Where would one go to find out what research is being funded by your agency in the Arctic?

NASA provides information on Arctic research opportunities and awarded projects via Research Opportunities in Earth and Space Science (ROSES) solicitations posted on the NASA Solicitation and Proposal Integrated Review and Evaluation System (NSPIRES) website. The NSPIRES site contains information about past, present, and future solicitations, as available.

More specifically, NASA sponsors several Arctic research endeavors via its Earth Science Research and Analysis (R&A) Program. NASA’s Earth science research leverages investments in satellite systems made through the Flight Program and also in coordination with the Applied Sciences Program, which helps people across the world use NASA data to solve big problems and make better decisions about our environment, food, water, health, and safety. The R&A Program consists of a portfolio of projects designed to advance our scientific understanding of the Earth system and its response to natural and human-induced changes and to improve our ability to predict climate, weather, and natural hazards. R&A efforts are global in nature and its portfolio is organized by six focus areas: Atmospheric Composition, Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems, Climate Variability and Change, Earth Surface and Interior, Water and Energy, and Weather. Therefore, Arctic research at NASA is addressed across many organizational components and programs including, but not limited to: 

Satellite Missions

Many NASA Earth Science satellites are in polar sun-synchronous orbits, which means they make measurements over both poles multiple times per day. These provide information about the physical, chemical, and biological state of the surface and the overlying atmosphere throughout the planet, including the Arctic. Four satellite missions whose products are of particular interest in addressing Arctic change include:

  • NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission, which launched in May 2018, is continuing GRACE’s legacy of measuring the Earth’s global gravity changes monthly and monitoring water movement across the planet, including changes in ice sheets and glaciers. GRACE data are used extensively to determine mass changes of the world’s land ice (ice sheets, icefields, ice caps, and mountain glaciers). GRACE-FO represents a partnership with the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ).
  • NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2), launched in September 2018, gathers data that precisely track changes in Earth’s terrain, including Arctic areas like glaciers, sea ice, and forests. These high-resolution height measurements create a global portrait of Earth’s vertical dimensions that documents the changes in Earth’s polar ice caps and will be used to improve forecasts of sea level rise bolstered by ice sheet melt in Greenland and Antarctica. ICESat-2 also will help scientists understand the mechanisms that are reducing sea ice cover and assess how that ice loss affects the polar oceans and atmosphere.
  • The NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) satellite, a dedicated U.S. and Indian InSAR satellite mission in partnership with ISRO, is optimized for studying hazards and global environmental change and is planned to be launched in January 2024. The NISAR satellite will use the radar imaging technique SweepSAR, which will provide an unprecedented detailed view of Earth by measuring some of the planet's most complex processes, including ecosystem disturbances, ice-sheet collapse, permafrost and glacier dynamics, and natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, land subsidence, and landslides. NISAR will image all of Earth's land and sea ice south of 77.5°N to Antarctica on average twice every 12 days. This will enable researchers to systematically measure centimeter level motion of the world's ice sheets and glaciers. NISAR will provide the most complete measurements of rapidly changing sea ice motion and thickness of both polar regions. Understanding the causes and mechanisms of ice loss requires knowledge of ice thickness distribution, sea ice types, and sea ice dynamics. Thawing permafrost releases methane to the atmosphere, erodes soil, and impacts surface water distribution and stability of infrastructure. NISAR will measure heave and thaw in the near-surface active layer of permafrost. Data and data products from NISAR will be free and open to all users and available at the Alaska Satellite Facility data portal, thereby enabling new and innovative Arctic and Cryosphere science.
  • The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission, launched in December 2022, is NASA's first global survey of Earth's surface water. The newly-selected SWOT Science Team has researchers from around the globe with expertise in oceanography and hydrology. This multidisciplinary group is tackling pressing issues such as availability of Earth's freshwater resources and our changing ocean and coasts, including a project focused on levels and discharge estimates for Arctic rivers. Using state-of-the-art "radar interferometry" technology to measure the elevation of water, SWOT will observe major lakes, rivers, and wetlands while detecting ocean features with unprecedented resolution. SWOT data will provide critical information that is needed to assess water resources on land, track regional sea level changes, monitor coastal processes, and observe small-scale ocean currents and eddies. Its orbit will cover 77.6° N to 77.6° S with an average revisit time of 21 days. SWOT will help researchers better understand how sensitive Arctic lakes respond to warming temperatures and show the patterns of open water and sea ice in the Arctic (see “Where’s Water? Arctic”). This mission is being jointly developed by NASA and Centre National D'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) with contributions from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the United Kingdom Space Agency.

R&A Focus Areas and Programs

The Atmospheric Composition Focus Area addresses questions that encompass the Arctic region as part of efforts to assess the effects of climate change on ozone recovery and future atmospheric composition, improved climate forecasts based on the understanding of the forcings of global environmental change, and air quality modeling that takes into account the relationship between regional air quality and global climate change. The program also operates a significant observing capability that includes the Arctic in its network ground stations through its Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE), AErosol RObotic NETwork (AERONET), Micro-Pulse Lidar Network (MPLNET), Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Composition Change (NDACC), Pandora, and Total Carbon Column Observing Network (TCCON) activities.

The Climate Variability and Change Focus Area studies global climate and sea level to understand their change on seasonal to decadal timescales. Arctic research questions are addressed through several programs:

  • The Cryospheric Sciences program supports studies based on satellite and aircraft remote-sensing observations to understand the factors controlling changes in Earth's ice and its interaction with the ocean, atmosphere, solid earth, and solar radiation.
  • The Physical Oceanography program investigates the ocean’s role in climate variability at different timescales. Some key Arctic components include:
    • The Sea Level Change Science Team research provides observational evidence of sea level change with improved accuracy, quantifies contributions from various processes—including ocean dynamics and thermodynamics, land ice mass changes, and solid Earth dynamics—that drive sea level variability, and uses this knowledge to produce meaningful projections of future sea level change. The team delivers results to the public in an accessible and actionable manner, mainly through the Sea Level Change Web Portal, which also serves as the main portal for sharing the team’s latest discoveries and research tools with the wider sea level community. This activity is a partnership between the Earth Surface and Interior and Physical Oceanography Focus Areas.
    • NASA’s ocean/ice state estimate program Estimating the Circulation and Climate of the Ocean (ECCO) provides a framework to examine causal mechanisms of changes in the Arctic Ocean, including to sea-ice, within the last three decades.
    • In early 2021, NASA selected a new Arctic salinity observing and modeling campaign called Salinity And Stratification at the Sea Ice Edge (SASSIE). The mission will utilize satellite, in situ, airborne, and modeling NASA assets to investigate the potential of satellite salinity as a predictor for autumn sea-ice advance in the Arctic. Deployment is planned for summer/fall 2022.
  • The Modeling, Analysis, and Prediction (MAP) program supports advanced modeling capabilities to improve understanding of the physical processes that control the Earth system and enable prediction. This program incorporates an understanding of the role of ice by addressing such areas as atmosphere-ocean-ice-land interactions. Its Earth system modeling activities develop representations of the Earth as a complete, dynamical system spanning atmosphere, land, ocean, and cryospheric components.

The Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Focus Area seeks to detect and predict changes in Earth’s ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles, including land cover, biodiversity, and the global carbon cycle. Arctic research questions are addressed through:

R&A’s other focus areas, Earth Surface and Interior (ESI), Water and Energy Cycle (WEC), and Weather and Atmospheric Dynamics (WAD), solicit proposals addressing research questions critical to their disciplines, which may include funding investigations that incorporate Arctic science. For example, WAD supports research to obtain accurate measurements of the atmosphere that help improve short-term, subseasonal, and seasonal weather predictions at local, regional, and global scales. This may entail research that helps improve characterization and understanding of cloud, radiation, and precipitation processes in the Arctic (and Antarctic). The WEC Focus Area works to define, quantify, and model the different components of the water cycle that take place on land, such as snow, soil moisture, soil freeze/thaw state, surface and groundwater, river discharge and evapotranspiration. The WEC Focus Area also investigates how these components interact with other parts of the Earth system and specific phenomena such as (thawing) permafrost, droughts, floods, etc. A current focus is advancing on long term capability to measure snow covered area to develop satellite remote sensing of snow albedo and snow water equivalent, including for boreal and tundra regions. This focus is partly done through NASA-led field campaigns, which may include future activity in Arctic regions (e.g., Alaska).

Field Campaigns

Using a fleet of research aircraft, NASA’s Operation IceBridge imaged Earth's polar ice to better understand connections between polar regions and the global climate system. IceBridge studies annual changes in thickness of sea ice, glaciers, and ice sheets. It also documents ice-shelf bathymetry, snow accumulation-rate variability, and other geophysical properties to better interpret volume changes measured with laser altimetry and to enable more realistic simulations of ice-sheet flow and mass balance using numerical models. Data collected during IceBridge help scientists bridge the gap in polar observations between NASA's Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat)—launched in 2003 and de-orbited in 2010—and ICESat-2, launched in September 2018. Operation Ice Bridge completed its primary operations in early FY20, after ICESat-2 had been in orbit for roughly one year.

The Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) is a field campaign conducted in Alaska and Western Canada focused on understanding environmental change and associated impacts on social-ecological systems. ABoVE links field-based, process-level studies with geospatial data products derived from airborne and satellite sensors, providing a foundation for improving the analysis and modeling capabilities needed to understand and predict ecosystem responses and societal implications.

The Arctic Radiation-Cloud-Aerosol-Surface-Interaction Experiment (ARCSIX) is an airborne investigation planned to take place during early summer 2024 based from Northern Greenland and possibly Kiruna. It is driven by the need to: understand how coupling between radiative processes and sea ice surface properties influence summer sea ice melt; understand processes controlling the predominant Arctic cloud regimes and their properties; and improve our ability to monitor Arctic cloud, radiation, and sea ice processes from space. The current plan is for ARCSIX to include two aircraft: one dedicated to remote sensing from a higher altitude and the other focused on in situ sampling while flying at lower altitude.

Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) was a six-year field campaign to understand the role the ocean plays in melting Greenland’s glaciers. From sky and sea, OMG gathers data about water temperatures and glaciers all the way around Greenland to evaluate how fast the ice is melting and how quickly global sea levels will rise. OMG observes changing water temperatures on the continental shelf surrounding Greenland and how marine glaciers react to the presence of warm, salty Atlantic water. OMG conducted its final campaign in summer 2021. The team hopes that the ongoing measurements of ocean conditions will be invaluable for refining predictions of ice loss, ultimately helping the world prepare for a future of rising oceans.

Where would one go to read about scientific research results from your agency?

Scientific results from NASA-funded research projects are published in peer reviewed journals. Results also are highlighted on the project and program websites listed above, and on the ESD Publications webpage. A summary of scientific research results from the ICESat-2 mission, including the Arctic, is available on the ICESat-2 website. NASA supports studies conducted by the National Academies; these reports are accessible through the Polar Research Board. In addition, ABoVE posts its project publications on its website and this extensive list can be searched by parameters including year, project, citation, and free-text. 

In terms of budget, approximately how big is your agency’s investment in Arctic research?

NASA's investment in Arctic research crosses many disciplines and programs. Some research and observations that include the Arctic also cover other parts of the planet. As a result, funding varies and is based on proposals solicited and received.

What are your agency’s funding priorities over the next 2 years?

NASA solicits Arctic-related research in a variety of disciplines through the Research Opportunities in Earth and Space Sciences (ROSES) announcement. Examples of Arctic-related research solicited under ROSES in 2023 include Cryospheric Sciences, Modeling, Analysis and Prediction, and the Sea Level Change Science Teamelements, among others.

Examples of Arctic-related research solicited under ROSES in 2021 include the Cryospheric Science, Arctic Radiation-Cloud-Aerosol-Surface Interaction Experiment, and the Terrestrial Ecology elements, among others. Examples of Arctic-related research solicited under ROSES in 2022 included the Interdisciplinary Research in Earth Scienceswith two components loosely incorporating the Arctic; Terrestrial Hydrology; the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission validation team; and Studies with ICESat-2.

NASA uses the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s decadal survey in Earth Science and Applications from Space as a primary source of input when determining the agency’s future Earth science strategies and missions. Published in 2018, the purpose of the survey is to “generate recommendations from the environmental monitoring and Earth science and applications communities for an integrated and sustainable approach to the conduct of the U.S. government’s civilian space-based Earth-system science programs.” The decadal survey recommends science and applications priorities for the decade 2017-2027 as a series of objectives and questions to be answered. In discussing Earth science and applications in the next 10 years, the authors note that “Earth science and derived Earth information have become an integral component of our daily lives, our business successes, and society’s capacity to thrive. Extending this societal progress requires that we focus on understanding and reliably predicting the many ways our planet is changing.” Several of the highest-priority objectives identified (see Table 3.2 starting on page 81 and Question C-8 on page 480) will require Arctic research to fulfill, including:

  • Quantify rates of snow accumulation, snowmelt, ice melt, and sublimation from snow and ice worldwide at scales driven by topographic variability.
  • Determine the global mean sea level rise to within 0.5 mm/yr over the course of a decade.
  • Determine the changes in total ice-sheet mass balance to within 15 Gton/yr over the course of a decade and the changes in surface mass balance and glacier ice discharge with the same accuracy over the entire ice sheets, continuously, for decades to come.
  • Provide early warning of carbon loss from large and vulnerable reservoirs such as permafrost.
  • Determine how permafrost thaw-driven land-cover changes affect turbulent heat fluxes, above- and below-ground carbon pools, resulting GHG fluxes (CO2, CH4) in the Arctic, as well as their impact on Arctic amplification.
  • Quantify how increased fetch, sea level rise, and permafrost thaw increase vulnerability of coastal communities to increased coastal inundation and erosion as winds and storms intensify.

NASA plans to implement a science and applications program that follows the recommendations in the survey within given budget constraints; therefore, Arctic research will be an important component of NASA’s upcoming research portfolio.

How does your agency coordinate and collaborate with other agencies to advance your mission in the Arctic?

NASA partners with other federal agencies and international organizations to leverage NASA's Earth Science Division (ESD) resources and accomplish shared science objectives. As part of its research solicitations, ESD emphasizes an approach that encourages open and extensive participation and partnership. To facilitate the agency’s Arctic studies, NASA participates in and, where appropriate, has established numerous interagency partnerships to conduct research and monitoring activities, share data from various platforms, collaborate on scientific studies, and more.  For example:

  • NASA is an active leader in the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC) and it takes advantage of opportunities IARPC affords to share information and coordinate and collaborate with other agencies.
  • Collaborating partners in NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) include the Department of Energy, U.S. National Parks Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • In 2017, NASA’s Cryospheric Sciences program awarded a three-year grant to the National Academy of Sciences to support the Polar Research Board (PRB), which provides advice on issues related to the Arctic, Antarctic, and cold regions and represents the nation at international nongovernmental polar science organizations, such as the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC). This agreement was renewed in 2022 for another three years.
  • The Cryospheric Sciences program works closely with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to collaborate on Greenland-focused research.
  • NASA also partners with domestic and foreign agencies to conduct Arctic research, such as the Ice Sheet Model Intercomparison for CMIP6 (ISMIP6), a project of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). ISMIP6 brings together a consortium of international ice sheet models and coupled ice sheet-climate models to fully explore sea level rise contributions from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Another example is the ice sheet mass balance inter-comparison exercise (IMBIE) established in 2011 as a community effort to reconcile satellite measurements of ice sheet mass balance. IMBIE is a collaboration between scientists supported by the European Space Agency and NASA and contributes to reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
  • NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are planning a joint community initiative to investigate the linkages between permafrost degradation and Arctic methane emissions. The Arctic Methane Challenge initiative will synthesize pan-Arctic satellite, airborne, and site-level data. This effort complements NASA’s ongoing Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment and ESA’s Permafrost Climate Change Initiative. The initiative kickoff meeting was convened virtually in June 2020. The team established working groups and began pursuing a number of synthesis activities. The initiative was introduced to the broader research community with a series of three virtual sessions during the EO Polar Observations Meeting in October 2020. Two different review papers will be submitted in Spring 2021.

Activities in Alaska

Does your agency have office(s) in Alaska)?

NASA Headquarters is in Washington D.C., and although NASA has several field centers elsewhere in the U.S., none are in Alaska.

Under contract to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, which is part of Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute operates the Poker Flat Research Range, which is about 35 miles northeast of Fairbanks. Poker Flat, the largest land-based research rocket range in the world and the only high-latitude rocket range in the United States, launches scientific sounding rockets as part of NASA’s Sounding Rockets Program. In addition to launching sounding rockets, Poker Flat is home to many scientific instruments (both on site and down range) designed to study the Arctic atmosphere and ionosphere.

Does that office support research?


Where can one go to learn more about your agency’s presence in Alaska?

Many of the Arctic research endeavors listed above are conducted in Alaska; information about these programs and projects are available at the websites listed above.

The Alaska Satellite Facility (ASF), located in the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, includes two NASA-sponsored components. NASA supports the Alaska Satellite Facility (ASF) Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC), which acquires, processes, archives, and distributes synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data from polar-orbiting satellites and airborne sensors to advance Earth science research. The ASF Satellite Tracking Ground Station operates three antennas on behalf of NASA, and provides communication services to polar-orbiting, Earth-imaging spacecraft as part of NASA’s Near Earth Network of globally located tracking stations. 

In addition, NASA sponsors the Alaska Space Grant Program (ASGP) via a grant from NASA's National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program. The ASGP is a consortium of public and private universities and non-profit organizations that sponsors a broad range of programs to enhance teaching, research, and educational outreach within aerospace and Earth science and other NASA-related STEM disciplines throughout Alaska. The NASA Office of STEM Engagement, through programs such as the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and the Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP), funds a broad range of research. Information about these projects, which may include Arctic research, is available at the STEM Engagement website or at the Alaska NASA EPSCoR website.


Thorsten Markus
Program Manager, Cryospheric Science
NASA Earth Sciences Division


NASA Cryosphere Program Manager Chat

This webinar is part of the IARPC Collaborations Public Webinar Series.