Ching-Yao Lai, and others, awarded NSF-NERC grant to pursue research on melting ice sheets in Greenland

Written by
The Department of Geosciences
Feb. 27, 2023
Chain-Yao Lai
Ching-Yao Lai, Assistant Professor of Geosciences, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (AOS)

In February 2023, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) awarded Ching-Yao Lai, Assistant Professor of Geosciences and Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Prof. Leigh Stearns (KU), Prof. Laura Stevens (OXFORD) and Prof. Ian Hewitt (OXFORD) a collaborative grant to pursue research in surface-to-bed meltwater pathways across the Greenland Ice Sheet. Lai stands as the lead principal investigator, along with Stearns, Stevens, and Hewitt as co-principal investigators.

This is of importance to those of us living in on the coastline of New Jersey, and to other coastal inhabitants around the world. Lai further writes on the importance of studying glacier movement: “It is important to understand how melting ice on the surface of ice sheets, caused by a warming climate, affects the movement of the ice sheets. As the climate warms, melting ice at the surface forms ponds of meltwater. In order to have an impact on the movement of the Greenland Ice Sheet and, in most cases, contribute to sea level rise, the meltwater must reach and lubricate the bottom of the ice sheet. For example, lakes on the surface of the ice sheet can drain through cracks and reach the bottom of the ice sheet within a few hours. In order to understand the formation of these cracks, and the cause of draining lakes on the Greenland Ice Sheet, we plan to use deep learning, an artificial intelligence algorithm, to find the locations of cracks and draining lakes in satellite imagery. Based on this new dataset, we will use mathematical models to understand the formation of new cracks and their impact on the movement of the ice sheet. Our approach contains an exciting mix of observations and mathematical models. The ability to use artificial intelligence to detect cracks and draining lakes offers opportunities to drive new understandings at the ice-sheet scale.”


Mathematical models of ice sheets with blue cracks assists in the formation of new cracks

On the surface of the Greenland Ice sheet, meltwater lakes (left) empty through fractures in the ice sheet (right). Water from surface melting can lubricate the bottom of the ice sheets and influence its movement. Photos: Sentinel-2 imagery

This project will support a US-UK collaboration, the development of open-source artificial intelligence codes for the Arctic sciences community. Three of the PIs of this four-PI project are women. Given robust findings of the impact of mentorship programs on increasing retention of students from minoritized groups in Geosciences, all senior and junior PIs of this project will also work together to create a mentoring program COMPACT (COmmunity-led Mentoring Program for Advancing Cryosphere Trainees) within the US and UK cryospheric communities for doctoral students and early career researchers (ECRs) from minoritized groups.

It is exciting for the department to see Ching-Yao Lai obtain the support needed to further her research modeling melting ice sheets, through machine-learning and physics-based models. Her potential to affect policies pertaining to natural disasters around the globe is of most relevance to our climate scientists, and at our associated program High Meadows Environmental Institute where Lai is an active faculty member. This grant will assist Lai in seeking a deeper perception on how sea-level rise will further challenge global communities, as the planet warms.

Lai is an alumna at Princeton. She obtained her Ph.D. in 2018 with The Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) and is with the Complex Fluids Group at Princeton. “The GEO department and Princeton have provided tremendous support for interdisciplinary approaches involving mechanistic and machine learning models to study glacier geophysics” Lai said. The department is delighted that she is will able to move forward with her first NSF backing. Lai recently became a member of our faculty, arriving back at Guyot Hall in January of 2021. With a little sadness, Lai and her group will be relocating to Stanford University this June. However, our department is looking forward to working with her, and her team, as they transition into their new west-coast laboratory.