University of Minnesota researchers use satellites to create detailed map of Antarctica

The map was unveiled earlier this month.

Chuying Xie

University of Minnesota researchers have created a map of Antarctica that shows the continent in more detail than its predecessors. 

On Sept. 4, researchers at the University’s Polar Geospatial Center and Ohio State University unveiled a map that has a higher resolution than any other map of the continent. 

Unlike past attempts to map Antarctica, researchers did not have to physically travel to Antarctica to collect the data, said PGC Director Paul Morin. They were able to use three satellites owned by the United States Government. 

“We realized that these satellites had some incredible capabilities, and so we started using that capability to not only image Antarctica but also figure out the height of it,” Morin said.

The project began by taking about 180,000 stereo-images from the network of satellites. The data points across Antarctica provide researchers with detailed information on the height of the elevation changes, according to Mike Cloutier, user services lead at PGC.

The high number of data points collected by the satellites allows for a more accurate, higher-resolution map.

“It’s about 1,200 times the data points than we had before,” Morin said. “If they were doing [mapping] in the Twin Cities, it’s the difference between seeing a hill and seeing a building.”

Graduate students on the research team compiled pictures collected from the data points, which have a resolution of 8 meters, to create a full map of the ice cap.

“Over a number of years we get elevation models, basically [topographical] maps, of small areas, but we realized quickly that if we got enough imagery, if we got enough supercomputers, we can do this on a bigger scale.” Morin said.

Researchers processed the data collected from the satellites using a large academic supercomputer called Blue Waters. They used the images to create a digital elevation map called the Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica. 

Blue Waters’ memory equals 300 million images from a digital camera, according to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. 

“That was one of the few computers that really has the capabilities to process this much data.” Morin said.

PGC Geospatial Support Assistant Erik Husby said the map will be especially useful to researchers working in Antarctica. 

“If they have a recent high resolution topographic map, then that will help them see which crevasses they need to avoid,” Husby said. “Moving across Antarctica is a dangerous thing and whenever you have more information about what you are going to go over, that is of use to them.”

PGC plans to release an update on the project later this month.