How Ants Inspired a New Way to Measure Snow With Space Lasers


Ants, as a group, are creatures of behavior. Whereas a person’s path isn’t sure, biologists who’ve spent a whole lot of time watching the conduct of complete colonies can predict the average time anybody ant may wander round underground earlier than resurfacing. That acquired NASA physicist Yongxiang Hu questioning if the identical predictability is likely to be true of photons—particles of sunshine—touring by means of the snowpack. If that’s the case, that may let scientists use a laser pulsed from an orbiting satellite tv for pc to estimate snow depth—doubtlessly a robust new strategy to monitor water provides and the well being of sea ice within the Arctic.

NASA’s ICESat-2 satellite tv for pc is equipped with lidar, the identical number of laser system that self-driving vehicles use to construct 3D maps of their environment. This extraordinarily delicate instrument fires trillions upon trillions of photons on the Earth, then analyzes what bounces again to the satellite tv for pc. As a result of scientists know the pace of sunshine, they will use lidar to find out altitude: A photon that bounces off the highest of a mountain will take barely much less time to succeed in ICESat-2 than a photon that bounces off a valley flooring.

The identical factor occurs while you shoot lidar right into a snowbank. “We will measure that distance of every particular person photon touring contained in the snow,” says Hu, a researcher at NASA’s Langley Analysis Heart. Some photons may go tens or perhaps a hundred ft deep into the snowpack earlier than coming to the floor and heading again to the satellite tv for pc. (The photons penetrate the snow as a beam, as a substitute of spraying out laterally. Think about the best way a laser shot by means of a cloud of smoke appears to be like like a single line.) This delay exposes the snow’s depth, similar to a photon bouncing off a valley takes a bit extra time to return to the lidar instrument than one bouncing off a mountaintop.

A photon’s path shouldn’t be at all times easy. Simply as an ant wanders round its underground colony, a photon shot from an area laser takes a random route by means of the snow. Just a few will journey all the best way to the underlying soil and mirror off it earlier than they arrive again aboveground. Some bounce again halfway by means of, after hitting snow particles. “Most of them go inches within the snow and are available again,” says Hu. “However then there are a whole lot of them that go very deep, very lengthy distances trapped contained in the snow—bouncing forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards.” All that ricocheting round makes for noisy knowledge.

However inside it, there’s a sample, simply as there’s in the best way teams of ants, within the mixture, transfer round a colony. Whereas every photon takes an erratic path, scientists can mathematically characterize the typical distance that every travels. The staff calculated that on common, a photon travels twice so far as the depth of the snow it’s shifting by means of.

As soon as that they had that components, the staff might estimate snow depth all around the planet utilizing international lidar knowledge from ICESat-2. Then they in contrast these estimates to snow depth measurements of the identical areas taken by airplanes utilizing radar. (A 3rd possibility is inserting particular poles into the snow.) “They evaluate very nicely,” says Hu of the strategies. “We’re very glad that the speculation labored.”

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