NASA to Monitor Earth's Melting Ice and Snow With Two New Satellites

Earth is rapidly losing one of its most valuable natural resources for keeping the planet cool and everything in balance: ice.

Arctic sea ice was once again at a low this season, according to data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. It was the second lowest sea ice extent recorded in the past 39 years, second only to last year. Sea ice extent essentially means the square mileage of ice coverage. The maximum extent is when the ice covers as much as it will that winter season. Computer simulations show that if the melting continues, the sea level could rise 1 to 4 feet by 2100.

NASA has plans to watch this trend more closely with two new satellites scheduled to launch sometime this year. Those satellites will monitor more than just the Arctic sea ice—they'll also watch the ice sheets, glaciers, snow cover and permafrost, or the parts of the Earth referred to as the cryosphere, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Two new satellites are set to launch this year. The first, called Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On, or GRACE-FO, is expected to launch this spring. It's a follow-up of the GRACE satellite that was the first to confirm the shrinking of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Those satellites measure the mass on Earth and its movement and changes by monitoring the Earth's gravity.

The second satellite, the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2, or ICESat-2, is set to launch in September. That satellite will use a laser to measure the thickness of sea ice as well as the height of glaciers and ice sheets.

Information gathered by those satellites will be combined with research done by scientists working in those regions and monitoring the changes and the melt of the ice. Operation IceBridge and a project called Oceans Melting Greenland, Antarctica will also continue to gather data on the changing cryosphere.