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Benjamin Smith

Senior Principal Physicist

Affiliate Associate Professor, Earth and Space Sciences





Department Affiliation

Polar Science Center


B.S. Physics, University of Chicago, 1997

M.S. Geology & Geophysics, University of Wisconsin - Madison, 1999

Ph.D. Earth & Space Sciences/Geophysics, University of Washington - Seattle, 2005


2000-present and while at APL-UW

Estimating differential penetration of green (532 nm) laser light over sea ice with NASA's Airborne Topographic Mapper: observations and models

Studinger, M., B.E. Smith, N. Kurtz, A. Petty, T. Sutterly, and R. Tilling, "Estimating differential penetration of green (532 nm) laser light over sea ice with NASA's Airborne Topographic Mapper: observations and models," Cryophere, 18, 2625-2652, doi:10.5194/tc-18-2625-2024, 2024.

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31 May 2024

Differential penetration of green laser light into snow and ice has long been considered a possible cause of range and thus elevation bias in laser altimeters. Over snow, ice, and water, green photons can penetrate the surface and experience multiple scattering events in the subsurface volume before being scattered back to the surface and subsequently the instrument's detector, therefore biasing the range of the measurement. Newly formed sea ice adjacent to open-water leads provides an opportunity to identify differential penetration without the need for an absolute reference surface or dual-color lidar data. We use co-located, coincident high-resolution natural-color imagery and airborne lidar data to identify surface and ice types and evaluate elevation differences between those surfaces. The lidar data reveals that apparent elevations of thin ice and finger-rafted thin ice can be several tens of centimeters below the water surface of surrounding leads, but not over dry snow. These lower elevations coincide with broadening of the laser pulse, suggesting that subsurface volume scattering is causing the pulse broadening and elevation shift. To complement our analysis of pulse shapes and help interpret the physical mechanism behind the observed elevation biases, we match the waveform shapes with a model of scattering of light in snow and ice that predicts the shape of lidar waveforms reflecting from snow and ice surfaces based on the shape of the transmitted pulse, the surface roughness, and the optical scattering properties of the medium. We parameterize the scattering in our model based on the scattering length Lscat, the mean distance a photon travels between isotropic scattering events. The largest scattering lengths are found for thin ice that exhibits the largest negative elevation biases, where scattering lengths of several centimeters allow photons to build up considerable range biases over multiple scattering events, indicating that biased elevations exist in lower-level Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) data products. Preliminary analysis of ICESat-2 ATL10 data shows that a similar relationship between subsurface elevations (restored negative freeboard) and "pulse width" is present in ICESat-2 data over sea ice, suggesting that biased elevations caused by differential penetration likely also exist in lower-level ICESat-2 data products. The spatial correlation of observed differential penetration in ATM data with surface and ice type suggests that elevation biases could also have a seasonal component, increasing the challenge of applying a simple bias correction.

Simulating the processes controlling ice-shelf rift paths using damage mechanics

Huth, A., R. Dudu, B. Smith, and O. Sergienko, "Simulating the processes controlling ice-shelf rift paths using damage mechanics," J. Glaciol., EOR, doi:10.1017/jog.2023.71, 2023.

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21 Sep 2023

Rifts are full-thickness fractures that propagate laterally across an ice shelf. They cause ice-shelf weakening and calving of tabular icebergs, and control the initial size of calved icebergs. Here, we present a joint inverse and forward computational modeling framework to capture rifting by combining the vertically integrated momentum balance and anisotropic continuum damage mechanics formulations. We incorporate rift–flank boundary processes to investigate how the rift path is influenced by the pressure on rift–flank walls from seawater, contact between flanks, and ice mélange that may also transmit stress between flanks. To illustrate the viability of the framework, we simulate the final 2 years of rift propagation associated with the calving of tabular iceberg A68 in 2017. We find that the rift path can change with varying ice mélange conditions and the extent of contact between rift flanks. Combinations of parameters associated with slower rift widening rates yield simulated rift paths that best match observations. Our modeling framework lays the foundation for robust simulation of rifting and tabular calving processes, which can enable future studies on ice-sheet–climate interactions, and the effects of ice-shelf buttressing on land ice flow.

Mass balance of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets from 1992 to 2020

Otosaka, I.N., and 67 others including I. Joughin, M.D. King, B.E. Smith, and T.C. Sutterley, "Mass balance of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets from 1992 to 2020," Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 15, 1297-1616, doi:10.5194/essd-15-1597-2023, 2023.

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20 Apr 2023

Ice losses from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have accelerated since the 1990s, accounting for a significant increase in the global mean sea level. Here, we present a new 29-year record of ice sheet mass balance from 1992 to 2020 from the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE). We compare and combine 50 independent estimates of ice sheet mass balance derived from satellite observations of temporal changes in ice sheet flow, in ice sheet volume, and in Earth's gravity field. Between 1992 and 2020, the ice sheets contributed 21.0±1.9 mm to global mean sea level, with the rate of mass loss rising from 105 Gt yr−1 between 1992 and 1996 to 372 Gt yr−1 between 2016 and 2020. In Greenland, the rate of mass loss is 169±9 Gt yr−1 between 1992 and 2020, but there are large inter-annual variations in mass balance, with mass loss ranging from 86 Gt yr−1 in 2017 to 444 Gt yr−1 in 2019 due to large variability in surface mass balance. In Antarctica, ice losses continue to be dominated by mass loss from West Antarctica (82±9 Gt yr−1) and, to a lesser extent, from the Antarctic Peninsula (13±5 Gt yr−1). East Antarctica remains close to a state of balance, with a small gain of 3±15 Gt yr−1, but is the most uncertain component of Antarctica's mass balance.

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In The News

UW-led project to study ozone, atmospheric layers a finalist for next-generation NASA satellite

UW News, Hannah Hickey

A project led by the University of Washington to better understand our atmosphere's complexity is a finalist for NASA's next generation of Earth-observing satellites. The four teams that reached the proof-of-concept stage will spend the next year refining their proposals. NASA will then review the concept study reports and select two for implementation.

14 May 2024

How ants inspired a new way to measure snow with space lasers

Wired, Matt Simon

Glaciologist Ben Smith comments on a clever new technique to measure fluffy snow on the Earth's surface with the orbiting ICESat-2 lidar instrument.

31 May 2022

Edge of Pine Island Glacier’s ice shelf is ripping apart, causing key Antarctic glacier to gain speed

UW News, Hannah Hickey

For decades, the ice shelf helping to hold back one of the fastest-moving glaciers in Antarctica has gradually thinned. Analysis of satellite images reveals a more dramatic process in recent years: From 2017 to 2020, large icebergs at the ice shelf’s edge broke off, and the glacier sped up.

11 Jun 2021

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