A passion for understanding the Earth’s climate has taken Natalia Galin on a global journey from university in her hometown of Sydney to Tasmania, Antarctica and a scholarship with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
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Following her family’s emigration from the former USSR to Australia in 1991 to Sydney, Natalia Galin’s inquisitive mind was nurtured by the family; the garage was turned into a ‘chemistry lab’ and Galin would while away hours looking through her microscope at pollen and other dead bugs from the backyard.
Galin believes that her education at one of Sydney’s academically selective high schools was a strong influence on her development, particularly the support she received from her chemistry and mathematics teachers.
“I was always good at maths and physics but even as a youngster it’s been the practical side of science that I’ve enjoyed the most,” recalls Galin. “As a kid I was fascinated by the planets, and to look at them I built a telescope out of shampoo bottles.”
First Class Honours, (electrical engineering), University of New South Wales followed by a PhD (Geophysics & Remote Sensing) University of Tasmania
In collaboration with colleagues at Kansas University’s Center of Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, the Australian Antarctic Division in Tasmania and the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, Sydney, Galin assembled and wrote the operating software for a helicopter-borne radar system which could measure snow thickness on sea ice.
In order to test the system, Galin took two trips to East Antarctica, where she flew over sea ice to study its snow cover. It was the first time an airborne system of this type had ever been validated in the field.
“From up there the awesome influence of the polar regions would become apparent to anyone,” she says, recalling her numerous helicopter flights over the Antarctic plains testing the radar. “The polar regions play an integral role in the Earth’s climate system, with sea ice having a major influence on the interaction between the ocean and atmosphere and ocean circulation.
“The bright surface of the sea ice reflects incoming solar radiation back into space that would otherwise be absorbed by the ocean. The thickness of ice determines how effectively the ocean is insulated from the cold atmosphere. The addition of snow to the surface of the sea ice compounds many climate processes and can have a dramatic effect on the heat exchange between the ocean and atmosphere.”
Fulbright Scholarship in Science and Engineering to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre
Only a handful of scholars are awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, and Galin received hers in recognition of her ground-breaking research.
This honour enabled her to spend a year working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the US, a hotbed for the world’s leading scientists, engineers and technologists who develop spacecraft, instruments and new technology to study the Earth, sun, solar system and the universe.
“My experience at NASA is unparalleled; you find yourself in the company of some of the biggest names in your field and being able to talk with them about your research is a huge advantage,” says Galin.
“My time at Goddard is definitely something that I look back on with pride and it was so important in helping me secure my next position.”
Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling, University College London,
National Centre for Earth Observation
Now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM), Galin is one of the first people in the world to look at the data coming from the CryoSat-2 satellite, a European Space Agency mission.
CryoSat-2 carries a highly sophisticated radar altimeter that acquires accurate measurements of floating sea ice so that annual variations can be detected. Researchers are able to estimate the thickness of the sea ice from data provided by the satellite on the height by which the ice extends above the water’s surface.
This technique has been used before but CryoSat-2 will drastically improve the accuracy of these measurements.
Galin’s work at CPOM has concentrated on the data CryoSat-2 acquired to help improve our understanding of the role Greenland and Antarctica have in determining global sea levels.
The ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland contain enough water to raise global sea levels by some 70 metres, and data coming from CryoSat-2’s flights will allows a better understand of the relationship between these regions and global climate.
Satellite radar altimeters have monitored the ice sheets since 1992, with greatest thinning of the ice sheets observed at the margins. Yet, due to the steepness of these surfaces, these fast-changing areas have proven difficult to survey. CryoSat-2 addresses this shortcoming by operating its radar in ‘interferometric mode’, which allows it to estimate the slope of the surfaces it looks at.
Following the launch of the satellite, Galin worked on calibrating the interferometer, analysing data from it collected over the world’s oceans.
“Through our calibration work, we have demonstrated that the interferometer has a precision of about 30 micrometres, that’s about the width of a human hair,” she says.
Over the oceans, the high accuracy of the interferometer allowed the first-ever direct measurement of the east–west slopes of the ocean surface. This is important because thus far, the east–west slopes of the ocean surface had to, in the most part, be indirectly estimated.
“CryoSat-2 has already delivered breakthrough data and insights on polar sea ice and our radar altimeter is now being used to measure sea levels, the height of waves and for mapping sea beds,” says Galin.
“I feel very fortunate to be a part of CPOM, which is contributing so much to our understanding of the Earth’s climate. We’re by no means finished however – we hope to be announcing another first in the near future.”
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