Building a Better Glacier with NASA/JPL's New Sea Level Simulator

Published : Thursday, January 11, 2018 | 8:04 PM

A simulation by VESL of Columbia Glacier, Alaska. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena have developed a new simulator that allows anyone with a computer to perform experiments and learn about the complexities of the sea level that previously only scientists had access to.

The new simulator, called the Virtual Earth System Laboratory (VESL), provides the public with an interactive platform that allows them, for example, to bury the Columbia glacier in Alaska in snow and watch how it responds. With VESL, anyone can also theoretically melt the ice of Greenland and the Antarctic, and watch how the rising seas inundate the Florida and California coasts.

A JPL press release Thursday said VESL now provides the public with an idea as to how NASA models important Earth processes such as the melting ice caps. JPL says the platform will also prove useful to scientists anywhere as a convenient way to create visual representations of data.

While many interface tools are available to explore sea level effects, VESL stands apart for its strong representation of Earth’s cryosphere – the melting ice caps, ice sheets, and glaciers that are major contributors to sea level rise.

JPL says the simulator is not just a simplified version of a model or a menu of pre-existing results. It is direct access to the complex, number-crunching model itself, though with limited scenarios and factors that can be adjusted.

“It’s the real software, being used on the fly, live, without being pre-recorded or precomputed,” said Eric Larour of JPL, who led VESL’s development. “You have access to a segment of an ice sheet model or sea level model, running NASA’s software.”

The platform can also access a JPL cloud so it won’t overtax computers with its complex capabilities and heavy demand.

The VESL platform allows the user to control one or two parameters for each model scenario.

“You can explore different aspects of the model that maybe even the scientists didn’t,” Larour said.

VESL was developed over five years by members of the Ice Sheet System Model development team at JPL and the University of California, Irvine (UCI) with the help of several students.

The website hosting the simulator will also include a public outreach section, being developed by Daria Halkides, a scientist and outreach exhibit developer of Earth and Space Research in Seattle and a JPL affiliate.

“VESL was initially intended for scientists,” Larour said. “Then we realized it could also be an excellent tool for public outreach. These simulations are so easy to run, and visually so compelling that any person from the public can go and run them and probably understand what is going on.”

You can try out VESL by visiting








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