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Climate Change

High-Res Maps Of Entire Polar Regions Provide Clues For Climate Researchers

Four more years of high-resolution imagery data have been released to show the polar regions in stunning detail, thanks to a hard-working team of researchers at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. The new images have been added to eight years of previous data, which introduce the most detailed polar region terrain maps ever created. Using high-resolution satellite data, the maps show the polar regions in stunning detail and will provide new insights into the effects of climate change over time.

The researchers have also partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to make the high-resolution imagery data publicly available in the cloud for free.

The scientific project is being headed up by Claire Porter, the acting co-director at the Polar Geospatial Center (PGC), a polar science and logistics support organization at the University of Minnesota. The PGC receives support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). PGC provides geospatial support, mapping, and GIS/remote sensing solutions to researchers and logistics groups in the polar science community.

PGC provides three primary services which are domain and institutional knowledge to solve a broad range of polar geospatial problems: access to sub-meter commercial satellite imagery for the Antarctic and Arctic; expertise to be able to task, manage, process, and deliver high-level, value-added products; and educational courses and online material to transfer PGC’s knowledge and experience to the community.

“Our previous data resulted in more than 300 scientific publications,” said Claire Porter, acting co-director of the National Science Foundation–funded Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. “With four more years of data that is even more accessible, these are transformative data sets. We’re excited to see what scientists will discover about how our Earth is changing.”

The project started with images taken from a constellation of polar-orbiting satellites about 400–700 kilometers (250–435 miles) above the Earth. The researchers then created the digital elevation models based on 50-centimeter resolution images captured by the commercial satellites owned by Maxar and licensed by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

To help create the stunningly detailed maps, PGC partnered with Ohio State University and the Ohio Supercomputer Center to develop the software to process the images and University of Minnesota researchers put the maps together with computing resources from the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign that provided the Blue Waters supercomputer, which is a leadership-class academic supercomputer. After processing millions of images, the researcher was able to create high-resolution extremely detailed topographic maps.

The newest data was used to fill in all the previous gaps in data to provide full coverage of the entire polar regions north of 60°N (including most of Scandinavia, Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia) and south of 60°S (including all of Antarctica). With all the data and the ability to process it, the researchers were able to build a continent-wide seamless terrain map in the Antarctic, with plans to release an Arctic version this winter that will be just as stunning.

With the signs of climate change becoming more apparent, these detailed maps of the polar regions are more significant to understanding the full effects of what’s truly happening. Using these digital elevation models, scientists can see the detailed topography of the land, including individual trees, lakes, roads, and buildings.

“In the past, researchers collected data using expensive airplanes or land exploration at limited times of the year. Now, we are measuring the surface of the Earth at a resolution and geographic scale that no one has ever seen before, and we’ve been doing it for more than a decade,” Porter said.

“We’ve been able to see glacier change, erosion, landslides, and flooding—all in incredible detail over time,” Porter added. “That’s a game changer for everyone who is trying to protect our planet for the future.”

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Written By

Tim holds an electronics engineering degree and is working toward a second degree in IT/web development. He enjoys renewable energy topics and has a passion for the environment. He is a part-time writer and web developer, full time husband and father.


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