(CNN) – On one of the hottest days this summer, locals in the tiny village of Kulusuk, Greenland heard what sounded like an explosion. It turned out that it was worth the ice on the football field to break away from the glacier for more than five miles.
Greenland lost 12.5 billion tonnes of ice to melt on August 2, the largest single-day loss in recorded history and another remarkable reminder of the climate crisis.
Kulusuk is also a base camp for NASA's OMG (Oceans that Greenland) program. OMG scientists travel to the largest island in the world this year after a wave swept the United States and Europe, breaking temperature records and triggering the massive melting of its ice sheet.
NASA oceanographer Josh Willis and his team investigate how ice is attacked not only by rising temperatures but also by the warming ocean that eats it below.
A World War II DC-3 airplane repaired, now called the Basler BT-57, takes a group of OMG researchers off the coast of Greenland. From the air, the crew launches special probes through the ice floor, which then transmits temperature and salinity data, which are used to outline possible elevations at sea level and what they might mean for humanity in the future.
"There is enough ice in Greenland to raise sea level by 7.5 meters, this is about 25 feet, a huge volume of ice and that would be detrimental to coastlines across the planet," Willis said. "We have to retreat from the coastline if we look at many meters [lost] in the next century or two."
NASA took CNN on a dramatic flight over Helheim – one of Greenland's largest glaciers and the fastest flowing at the eastern end of the island. Helheim, named after the kingdom of the dead in Norse mythology, is majestic, standing more than four miles and approximately the height of the Statue of Liberty.
As our plane approached Helheim, scientists noticed an ice-free lake in the very front of the glacier, something they said was not seen often. The probes also provided alarming data – Hellheim was surrounded by warm water all its depth, more than 2,000 feet below the surface.
"Very rarely, anywhere on the planet, we see 700 meters with no change in temperature, usually we find colder waters in the upper hundred meters or more, but right up the glacier is warm all the way up," says Ian Fenty, a NASA climatologist. "These warm waters can now be in direct contact with the ice all over his face, reloading the melting."
Helheim became famous in recent years as he retired at a staggering rate. In 2017, the glacier lost a whopping two miles, and a year later, scientists at New York University shot a millimeter ice column tearing off the glacier's front. The melting does not seem to be slowing down this year either.
"He retires many meters a day, he is tens of meters a day. You can probably tweak your iPhone late and actually see it, "Willis says as the data flashes on his phone screen.
Glaciers like Helheim and even much smaller ones around villages like Kulushuk are powerful enough to raise the global sea level by half a millimeter in just a month – something NASA researchers say cannot be ignored.
'Greenland has impacts all over the planet. One billion tons of ice lost here raises sea levels in Australia, Southeast Asia, the United States, Europe, "said Willis. "We are all connected by the same ocean."
Although most still think of rovers and other planets when they think of NASA missions, in the 1950s after the moon landed, public perception of what the agency was has to pour resources into seem shifting. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, the majority of Americans believe that NASA's top priority should be to monitor key parts of Earth's climate system rather than send a human to Mars.
And OMG is just one of the projects looking at our home planet that NASA has accumulated over the last few decades. With the NASA Earth Science Department budget increasing, the agency is creating at least two new satellites and research programs to track natural hazards.