About the National Snow and Ice Data Center

Boat on fresh sea ice
Boat on fresh sea ice. Gabe Rogel/Aurora/Getty

The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) is an organization that archives and manages scientific data issued from polar and glacier ice research. Despite its name, the NSIDC is not a government agency, but a research organization affiliated with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. It does have agreements with and funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation.

The Center is led by Dr. Mark Serreze, a faculty member at UC Boulder.

The stated goal of NSIDC is to support research into the world’s frozen realms: the snow, ice, glaciers, frozen ground (permafrost) that make up the planet's cryosphere. NSIDC maintains and provides access to scientific data, it creates tools for data access and to supports data users, it performs scientific research, and it fulfills a public education mission. 

Why Do We Study Snow and Ice?

Snow and ice (the cryosphere) research is a scientific field which is extremely relevant to global climate change. On one hand, glacier ice provides a record of past climates. Studying the air trapped in ice can help us understand the atmospheric concentration of various gases in the distant past. In particular, carbon dioxide concentrations and rates of ice deposition can be tied to past climates. On the other hand, ongoing changes in the amount of snow and ice play some key roles in the future of our climate, in transportation and infrastructure, on freshwater availability, on sea level rises, and directly on high-latitude communities.

The study of ice, whether it’s in glaciers or in polar regions, presents a unique challenge as it is generally difficult to access. Data collection in those regions is expensive to do and it has long been recognized that collaboration between agencies, and even between countries, is necessary to make significant scientific progress.

NSIDC provides researchers with online access to datasets which can be used to detect trends, test hypotheses, and build models to evaluate how ice will behave over time.

Remote Sensing as a Major Tool for Cryosphere Research

Remote sensing has been one of the most important tools for data collection in the frozen world. In this context, remote sensing is the acquisition of imagery from satellites. Dozens of satellites currently orbit the Earth, collecting imagery in a variety of bandwidth, resolution, and regions. These satellites provide a convenient alternative to costly data gathering expeditions to the poles, but the accumulating time series of images require well-designed data storage solutions. NSIDC can assist scientists with archiving and accessing these massive amounts of information.

NSIDC Supports Scientific Expeditions

Remote sensing data is not always sufficient; sometimes scientists have to collect data on the ground. For example, NSIDC researchers are closely monitoring a rapidly changing section of sea ice in Antarctica, collecting data from the seafloor sediment, the shelf ice, all the way up to the coastal glaciers.

Another NSIDC researcher is working towards improving scientific understanding of climate change in Canada’s north by using indigenous knowledge.

The Inuit residents of the Nunavut territory hold many generations’ worth of knowledge on snow, ice, and wind seasonal dynamics and provide a unique perspective on ongoing changes.

Important Data Synthesis and Dissemination

NSIDC’s best-known work is perhaps the monthly reports it produces summarizing Arctic and Antarctic sea ice conditions, as well as the state of the Greenland ice cap. Their Sea Ice Index is released daily and it provides a snapshot of sea ice extent and concentration going all the way back to 1979. The index includes an image of each pole showing the extent of ice in comparison to an outline of the median ice edge. These images have been providing striking evidence of the sea ice retreat we have been experiencing. Some recent situations highlighted in daily reports include:

  • January 2017 averaged the lowest January Arctic ice extent since records have been kept in 1978.
  • In March 2016 the extent of Arctic sea ice peaked at 5.6 million square miles, the lowest extent observed, beating the previous record established in – no surprise – 2015.