Sea Ice Research and Arctic Data: A Conversation with Angela Bliss

By Ranna Zahabi, Natasha Haycock-Chavez, Daphne Virlar-Knight, and Matt Jones

Angela Bliss is a research scientist at the Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. Bliss’s Arctic Research based around the MOSAiC expedition is fascinating, considering the unique approaches to her research regarding the breadth of data available. Her work on remote sensing and sea ice deformation spans across a wide range of Arctic research environments. The Arctic Data Center hosts data from the MOSAiC project to promote research possibilities through open science.  Here at the Arctic Data Center, we feature her recent research, “Code for sea ice drift tracks from the Distributed Network of autonomous buoys deployed during the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) expedition 2019 – 2021. 

To learn more about the data, we can turn toward the story behind the data scientist. Bliss first focused on atmospheric science during her time at the University of Nebraska, where she came to Goddard for postdoctoral research. Working in the cryospheric science lab, she used passive microwave data and collaborated with researchers using ICESat data to embark on her new projects. Soon after, she began her postdoctoral work at Oregon State University. After moving, she shifted her research focus to arctic sea ice dynamics. In particular, the ways in which ice moves, whether it breaks up or deforms. 

Bliss also dove into the dynamics of the shift between working in a lab being a federal job versus a research institution at a University. Bliss states that “Federal jobs are so few and far between. I had to wait until the right position opened up at the right time.” Lucky for NASA, this opportunity happened at the right time, and Bliss made the move back to Maryland. 

Bliss soon found herself back in Maryland working for NASA. “It’s interesting how timing and opportunities just line up like that,” she stated. Accepting a full-time civil service sea ice position, she returned and reconnected with her old research team and became a funded project working on the NASA measures program. Designed to produce high-quality data records and standard tracking of the state of the cryosphere for the northern hemisphere, this research was pivotal for aggregating data sets on arctic sea ice. Working in tandem with MOSAiC data, her focus on satellite remote sensing amplified the beneficial role of open science in the research community. 

For Bliss, satellite remote sensing makes up most of her work. Field work for data scientists is pretty limited due to funding but she had the opportunity to experience NASA’s Operation Ice Bridge. Bliss described how “This experience flying over ice sheets and sea ice in Greenland was awe-spiring. ”  

Additionally, she elaborated on the role of female scientists at Goddard. When she first arrived, she was introduced early on to prominent female scientists in leadership positions at Goddard, climatologist Claire Parkinson, and cryospheric scientist Dorothy Hall. Bliss described that she “never felt a big gap in the numbers of achievements between female and male scientists. I feel lucky that I have these people to look up to.” 

The biggest obstacle she’s faced in her work is a symptom of balancing a work-from-home dynamic in a post-COVID world. The downside of coming out of COVID she describes is “So many people working from home most of the week”. 

She credits her work environment for making post-COVID lab work bearable. She describes that “It was helpful coming in and having those pre-existing relationships with people. Although I don’t see them onsite, I still find myself catching up on their day-to-day and having a community to return to. ” 

Finding a healthy work-life balance is no easy task when working in a hybrid or fully remote position. While living in Oregon, Bliss mentioned how she lived next to a 20-mile hiking trail. This became her haven. A natural getaway to process the long work days in the lab, hiking became her favorite hobby. This transferred over to be her favorite way to spend free time after work at Goddard as well. 

It is the passionate nature of the research community that’s ultimately a driver for Bliss. Not to mention, the creativity and collaboration that comes with it. In a scientific setting, creativity is rarely addressed but is becoming embraced further with its role in accelerating innovation. 

Bliss reiterates how “It’s been helpful coming in and having those relationships with people that I don’t see when I’m not on site[at Goddard Space Flight Center]. Catching up and having a community to return to is so valuable.”

Along with her coworkers, Bliss has found herself facing creative challenges in the scientific community. Without casual hallway chats like she used to experience in the lab, collaboration and creativity has felt stagnant. 

This was a major focus of her team that was discussed on their recent retreat. “We’re trying to implement dedicated time to connecting and interacting with one another. Virtual coffee chats and phone calls have made this a lot easier” Bliss said.

The importance of creating such an atmosphere cannot be overstated. Creativity breeds innovation and without it, it only hinders progress and productivity as a whole. The size of data is a stepping stone that has only just begun to be overturned.

“Even with the internet access and bandwidth,  sometimes it can take up to a week to download data” Bliss describes. A data tool she hopes will be further developed is the capacity of cloud storage and bandwidth access. 

She elaborates upon how the size of these data sets inhibits accessibility because such enormous volumes take a long time to download. Interfering with the innovative process, she posits potential solutions. “Ultimately, I’d like to see an easy way to discover the specific data you need. A subset[ting tool] to download just those parts would make open data science much more accessible.”

Bliss also reiterates the importance of a breadth of data accessibility. Effectively, “To increase diversity in collaborators to improve innovation in science.”

Community discourse aims to remove the burden of navigating large data sets or accessibility blockages which slow scientists from being creative. Such creativity can also be applied to the international community of collaborators on Arctic Data. 

Although NASA’s work is primarily domestic, there have been instances of international collaboration with ICESat and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ice satellite, CyroSat. “Combining these measurements from both satellites enables us to work at a higher level internationally” Bliss explains.  

To aggregate Arctic measurements from both satellites is beneficial because of the parallel goals NASA’s community shares with the ESA  in terms of analyzing MOSAiC data.

 “But funding can be tricky” she states. Budgets and proposals take up a bulk of energy that can otherwise be reallocated to scientific collaboration and research. Although focusing on the same scientific end goal, Bliss makes clear that these specific international projects are not intimately linked. 

Nonetheless, Bliss has had the opportunity to travel internationally and see the Arctic region up close. She doesn’t have a favorite region in the Arctic, instead, she just explains how much the ice means to her. 

“I love the snow and I love the sea ice,” Bliss said, lighting up. “It’s a different perspective on the ground in the Arctic when you can see the sea ice in front of you. It’s not the same view from the top down that you tend to see with just a satellite image. Experiencing the majesty of the vertical scale is something else. Anywhere I can go to touch the ice and walk around is my favorite.”

Although Angela Bliss may be working directly with cold-hard data on the conditions of sea ice, her warm demeanor and human take on data science access is anything but cold. By encouraging creativity and openness within the lab, and advocating for open science across the board, Bliss has effectively connected a collaborative community of cryospheric scientists for Arctic research.  

Bliss’s work is featured on the Arctic Data Center’s open science repository and can be accessed here