Above the Arctic's Melting Glaciers

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Photographs by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Text by Ye Charlotte Ming

The Arctic has been one of the regions hardest hit by climate change. This year, Arctic sea ice reached its maximum wintertime extent on March 7, the lowest in nearly 40 years of satellite record, according to NASA scientists and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), a Colorado-based research agency. Scientists attributed the ice condition to a unusually warm winter in the Arctic.

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A section of an ice field is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 29, 2017 above Ellesmere Island, Canada. The ice fields of Ellesmere Island are retreating due to warming temperatures.
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Sea ice is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 29, 2017 above Ellesmere Island, Canada.

NASA's Operation IceBridge has been studying how polar ice changed over the past nine years. In October 2016, Getty Images photographer Mario Tama accompanied NASA scientists on three research flights to observe the ice sheets in Antarctica. This March, he was offered another rare opportunity—flying with the scientists over Greenland and Canada to monitor the Arctic ice loss. 

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Snow blows near Thule Air Base on March 25, 2017 in Pituffik, Greenland. NASA's Operation IceBridge is flying research missions out of Thule Air Base and other Arctic locations during their annual Arctic spring campaign. Thule Air Base is the U.S. military's northernmost base located some 750 miles above the Arctic Circle. 

The team departed daily from Thule Air Base, the U.S. military's northernmost base, in Pituffik, Greenland, located some 750 miles above the Arctic Circle. Each mission lasted for eight hours. 

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Crew members work prior to NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft takeoff from Thule Air Base on March 27, 2017 in Pituffik, Greenland.

The P-3 search aircraft NASA used for the missions was initially delivered to the Navy in 1966 and has been retrofitted with science instruments.

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A section of glacier is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft along the Upper Baffin Bay coast on March 27, 2017 above Greenland.
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NASA avionics technician Lauren Prinski looks out a window of NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft before takeoff from Thule Air Base on March 30, 2017 in Pituffik, Greenland.

"We took two flights over various glaciers in Ellesmere Island, Canada. On the second flight we encountered a strong section of turbulence, locking us into our seats for a significant portion of the flight. The flights were often through glacial valleys and even a small amount of wind into those valleys can result in a bumpy ride," Tama recounts the experience. 

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People hike near Thule Air Base on March 25, 2017 in Pituffik, Greenland. NASA's Operation IceBridge is flying research missions out of Thule Air Base and other Arctic locations during their annual Arctic spring campaign. Thule Air Base is the U.S. military's northernmost base located some 750 miles above the Arctic Circle.
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NASA project scientist Nathan Kurtz surveys an iceberg locked in sea ice near Thule Air Base on March 26, 2017 in Pituffik, Greenland. 

On one expedition, NASA scientists invited Tama on a hike to survey icebergs locked in a sea ice from the ground. "We hiked about 30 minutes across the sea ice over a frozen bay before reaching this iceberg," Tama says.

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Project scientist Nathan Kurtz and senior support scientist Jeremy Harbeck walk on their way to survey an iceberg locked in sea ice near Thule Air Base on March 26, 2017 in Pituffik, Greenland. 
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A snowshoe hare stands near Thule Air Base on March 25, 2017 in Pituffik, Greenland.

Tama spotted a few snowshoe hares poking out from behind the snow drifts while hiking to the iceberg. The hares are named "snowshoe" because of their large long feet, which help to prevent them from sinking into the snow.  "I never expected to encounter such a creature so far north," Tama says. "It seems that hares and foxes hang out near the air base as they may be able to procure discarded food from time to time." 

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Sea ice is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft along the Upper Baffin Bay coast on March 27, 2017 above Greenland.

Tama hopes his photographs can help visualize the important work the scientists are doing and make their discovery more accessible to the public. 

See more stunning photos of the arctic ice cap

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A section of a glacier is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 29, 2017 above Ellesmere Island, Canada.

A section of a glacier above Ellesmere Island, Canada, on March 29, 2017. 

Mario Tama/Getty Images
A section of an ice field is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 29, 2017 above Ellesmere Island, Canada.

An ice-covered mountain range on Ellesmere Island, Canada, on March 29, 2017. 

Mario Tama/Getty Images
A section of an ice field is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 29, 2017 above Ellesmere Island, Canada.

An ice field above Ellesmere Island, Canada, on March 29, 2017. 

Mario Tama/Getty Images
A section of ice sheet is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft along the Upper Baffin Bay coast on March 27, 2017 above Greenland.

A section of ice sheet along the Upper Baffin Bay coast above Greenland on March 27, 2017. 

Mario Tama/Getty Images
A section of an ice field is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 29, 2017 above Ellesmere Island, Canada.

A section of an ice field above Ellesmere Island, Canada, on March 29, 2017. 

related gallery: iceberg alley

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Icebergs break off from Baffin Island, Canada, and Greenalnd every spring and drift down the stretch of water along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador known as Iceberg Alley. See the images.