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Ian Joughin

Senior Principal Engineer

Affiliate Professor, Earth and Space Sciences






Ian Joughin continues his pioneering research into the use of differential SAR interferometry for the estimation of surface motion and topography of ice sheets. He combines the remote sensing with field work and modeling to solve ice dynamics problems. Solving the problems helps him understand the mass balance of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets in response to climate change.

In addition to polar research, he also contributed to the development of algorithms that were used to mosaic data for the near-global map of topography from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM).

Department Affiliation

Polar Science Center


B.S. Electrical Engineering, University of Vermont, 1986

M.S. Electrical Engineering, University of Vermont, 1990

Ph.D. Electrical Engineering, University of Washington, 1995


2000-present and while at APL-UW

Weekly to monthly terminus variability of Greenland's marine-terminating outlet glaciers

Black, T.E., and I. Joughin, "Weekly to monthly terminus variability of Greenland's marine-terminating outlet glaciers," Cryosphere, 17, doi:10.5194/tc-17-1-2023, 2023.

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5 Jan 2023

Seasonal terminus-position variability of Greenland's marine-terminating outlet glaciers is superimposed on multidecadal trends of glacier retreat. To characterize this seasonal variability, we manually digitized terminus positions for 219 marine-terminating glaciers in Greenland from January 2015 through December 2021 using Sentinel-1 synthetic aperture radar (SAR) mosaics. We digitized at a monthly frequency for 199 glaciers and at a 6 d frequency for 20 glaciers. We found that nearly 80 % of glacier termini in Greenland vary significantly on a seasonal basis. For these seasonally varying glaciers, on average, seasonal retreat typically begins in mid-May, and seasonal advance generally commences in early October. The timing of the initiation of the retreat period may be related to the timing of the onset of ice-sheet surface melt. The rate of retreat events peaks in late summer and reaches a minimum in late winter and early spring. The median magnitude of terminus-position seasonality, the difference between glacier length at the dates of peak advance and retreat, is about 220 m. We find a stronger correlation between this magnitude and glacier velocity than between magnitude and glacier width. Terminus-position seasonality can influence longer-term glacier dynamics and, consequently, ice-sheet mass balance. This study contributes to our understanding of terminus-position seasonality for individual glaciers and collectively for glaciers around the entire Greenland Ice Sheet.

TermPicks: A century of Greenland glacier terminus data for use in scientific and machine learning applications

Goliber, S., and 22 others including T. Black and I. Joughin, "TermPicks: A century of Greenland glacier terminus data for use in scientific and machine learning applications," Cryosphere, 16, 3215-3233, doi:10.5194/tc-16-3215-2022, 2022.

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12 Aug 2022

Marine-terminating outlet glacier terminus traces, mapped from satellite and aerial imagery, have been used extensively in understanding how outlet glaciers adjust to climate change variability over a range of timescales. Numerous studies have digitized termini manually, but this process is labor intensive, and no consistent approach exists. A lack of coordination leads to duplication of efforts, particularly for Greenland, which is a major scientific research focus. At the same time, machine learning techniques are rapidly making progress in their ability to automate accurate extraction of glacier termini, with promising developments across a number of optical and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite sensors. These techniques rely on high-quality, manually digitized terminus traces to be used as training data for robust automatic traces. Here we present a database of manually digitized terminus traces for machine learning and scientific applications. These data have been collected, cleaned, assigned with appropriate metadata including image scenes, and compiled so they can be easily accessed by scientists. The TermPicks data set includes 39 060 individual terminus traces for 278 glaciers with a mean of 136 ± 190 and median of 93 of traces per glacier. Across all glaciers, 32 567 dates have been digitized, of which 4467 have traces from more than one author, and there is a duplication rate of 17%. We find a median error of ~100 m among manually traced termini. Most traces are obtained after 1999, when Landsat 7 was launched. We also provide an overview of an updated version of the Google Earth Engine Digitization Tool (GEEDiT), which has been developed specifically for future manual picking of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

An observation-based approach to calculating ice-shelf calving mass flux

Evans, E., A.D. Fraser, S. Cook, R. Coleman, and J.I. Joughin, "An observation-based approach to calculating ice-shelf calving mass flux," Remote Sens. Environ., 272, doi:10.1016/j.rse.2022.112918, 2022.

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1 Apr 2022

In order to determine whether the calving flux of an ice shelf is changing, the long-term calving flux needs to be established. Methods used to estimate the calving flux either take into account non-steady-state behaviour by capturing movement of the calving-front location (e.g., using satellite observations), or they assume the calving front is stationary and that the ice is in steady state (e.g., flux-gate methods). Non-steady-state methods are hampered by the issue of temporal aliasing, i.e., when the satellite observation frequency is insufficient to capture the cyclic nature of the calving-front position. Methods that assume a steady state to estimate the calving flux accrue uncertainties if the ice shelf changes its physical state. In order to overcome these limitations we propose and implement a new observation-based approach that combines a time series of calving-front locations with a flux-gate method. The approach involves the creation of a unique semi-temporal domain as a mechanism to overcome the issue of temporal aliasing, and only requires easily accessible ice thickness and surface velocity estimates of the ice shelf. This approach allows for complex calving-front geometries and captures calving events of all sizes that are visible within the satellite imagery. Application of the approach allows the long-term average calving flux to be estimated (provided sufficient temporal coverage by satellite imagery), as well as identification of the minimum temporal baseline needed to produce a representative estimate of the long-term average calving flux, for any ice shelf. Implementation of the approach to multiple ice shelves would enable comparisons to be made regarding the spatial variability in the long-term calving flux of Antarctica's ice shelves, thereby highlighting calving regime change around the continent.

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In The News

UW polar bear expert appears in BBC-produced film about the Arctic

UW News, Hannah Hickey

A new production, "Arctic: Our Frozen Planet," narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, screens May 25 and 27 at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Eric Regehr, a researcher at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory, appears in the film doing fieldwork on Wrangel Island, an island off the northeast coast of Russia that is home to the world’s highest concentration of polar bears.

23 May 2023

Parts of Greenland Warmer Now Than in 1,000 Years

Axios, Andrew Freedman

The new research offers the first conclusive evidence of human-induced long-term warming and increased meltwater runoff in the northern and central parts of Greenland, typically the coldest parts of the ice sheet. Ian Joughin comments that the warming has a clear linear trend, which will likely steepen with time.

19 Jan 2023

Here are 3 dangerous climate tipping points the world is on track for

NPR, Rebecca Hersher and Lauren Sommer

Climate tipping points won't be as abrupt as that term would suggest. Most will unfold over the course of decades. Some could take centuries. Some may be partially reversible or avoidable. But they all have enormous and lasting implications for the humans, plants and animals on Earth.

10 Nov 2022

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