Rachel Tilling is an Assistant Research Scientist at the Cryospheric Sciences Lab focuses on polar science who uses satellite data, mainly from NASA’s ICESat-2 mission, to look at sea ice.
It is no news to us that we are losing ice at the poles owing to climate change, but here’s a scientist who spends her days studying the ice caps and she cannot stress more on how serious the problem is and what grave danger the planet is in.
“Sea ice is frozen ocean water, and we can use satellites to get an idea of how it’s changing over time and how it’s being impacted by climate change. I get to be involved at the project level, seeing how satellite missions work, how the data are developed, and looking at the cool data we get from the satellite,” says Tilling, who has also gotten to travel to the Arctic and the Antarctic for fieldwork.
From a young age, Rachel Tilling loved the ocean which was also why she pursued her master’s in oceanography. “During that, I read a paper written by the man who became my PhD advisor. The paper was the very first that used satellite data to estimate sea ice thickness. It brought everything together that I love: the polar regions, satellite stuff, the ocean, and physics,” says Tilling.
Her dad and her older brother were both scuba divers. As soon as she was old enough to learn to dive (at age 12), she got the scuba license that helped her pursue her lifelong passion; that’s where she has felt at home.
“I’ve been twice to the Arctic and once to the Antarctic. All three of those trips had to do with validating the accuracy of satellite measurements from the ground. The satellite we were verifying was the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2. We had this great old radar set up on a sled. The heating box was literally held together in places by duct tape, and there was cardboard to stop the snow getting in. We dragged the sled around and squinted at this little computer screen in the glaring Sun, taking measurements to double-check the accuracy of the satellite data,” says the scientist in a NASA Goddard interview.
The Arctic especially has been changing so rapidly, even throughout her career. For example, when Tilling first started, most of the estimates of when the Arctic might become ice free were by the end of the century. Now there’s papers coming out saying maybe in the next couple of decades.
We need to worry about that because the ice doesn’t just cool the Arctic or the Antarctic, it cools the rest of the globe as well because it reflects some of the Sun’s energy. This is going to impact our weather, and longer-term, our climate as well, says Rachel Tilling.
“Our lab is a really supportive, friendly group to work in. Even though what we’re doing can be stressful and high pressure sometimes, everyone makes time for each other. I also really enjoy working with people who have so many different backgrounds and specialties.”
It’s easy to just connect with the laser engineer for the satellite or speak to a programmer for a data product says Tilling. You get to work with so many different types of people who have an insight that as a scientist, you might not have, which she believes definitely helps her do better research.
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