University center maps Antarctica for scientists

AGIC creates project-specific maps using satellite images.

University center maps Antarctica for scientists

Brent Renneke

About 4,000 scientists travel around the vast, ice-covered continent of Antarctica each year to look at topics ranging from climate change to the search for dark matter, and prior to 2007, they were doing it blind. Previously, scientists in Antarctica used inaccurate maps created 40 years ago to navigate the treacherous continent, according to Michelle LaRue, geospatial analyst at the Antarctic Geospatial Information Center. Today, AGIC, based out of the University of Minnesota, works to make sure a lack of geographical vision is no longer an issue. “We are here to update the maps, make them better and make more of them,” LaRue said. Gaining funding from the National Science Foundation in 2007, AGIC is part of the United States Antarctic Program, which utilizes the continent’s unique environment for researching a wide variety of areas. AGIC’s purpose is to provide imaging, maps and map analysis to groups devoted to research in the continent. “The goal of the program is to get the most science done as efficiently as possible,” LaRue said. LaRue said AGIC serves as the national program’s central hub for mapping, cartography, geographical information services, data collection and the archiving of old maps. “Everybody in the United States [Antarctic Program] knows to come to us if they want any of those things,” LaRue said. Brad Herried, cartographer at AGIC and a graduate student in the Master of Geographic Information Science program, said the data required to make these maps come from a number of areas. According to Herried, a common request from scientists is the imaging of a specific area in the continent. High-resolution images from NASA are commonly used to provide these kinds of images. However, Paul Morin, director of AGIC and professor in the department of Earth science, geology and geophysics, said NASA alone cannot satisfy the wide variety of requests. Morin said AGIC utilizes imagery libraries worldwide. “We will use imagery from anywhere, because what we look at can be anything from counting penguins to looking at ice moves,” Morin said. Herried said the images and coordinates acquired are then made into a map. One important reader of AGIC’s maps and images is Raytheon Polar Services Co., which provides support to the scientists involved in the USAP while in Antarctica. Raytheon is vital to the work of the scientists, according to LaRue, who said about 80 percent of the groups in Antarctica use logistics from companies like Raytheon. “If they didn’t exist, no one would be able to get there,” LaRue said. Kevin Pettway, lead environmental specialist at Raytheon, said their task is made easier by imaging that allows them to identify areas environmentally protected by government programs. Pettway said scientists often ask to go to a protected area for research, and the researcher wants to know exactly what they are allowed to do. “I can give that information to AGIC, and they can make a highly detailed map of the area,” Pettway said. David Ainley, senior ecologist at H.T. Harvey & Associates, said he is currently researching the demographic structure of Adelie penguins, which are frequently found along the Antarctic coast, as part of the USAP. Ainley said the imaging provided by AGIC allows him to monitor an otherwise unreachable location where the penguins spend a lot of time breeding. “It is pivotal to my research,” Ainley said. “The project they are doing for us is just incredible.” AGIC’s role in the national program also extends to aiding researchers in their travels across the continent — a task more difficult than anything Google maps could solve, Morin said. “[In the United States], you have infrastructure,” Morin said. “[In Antarctica], you are driving on straight earth. It is a different kind of animal.” With the physical setting creating these difficulties, AGIC provides maps with the primary goal of getting people where they need to go. “If someone says that they need to go to a top of a mountain and stop in a specific spot, we are going to make a map for that,” Herried said. Herried said the majority of travel originates from McMurdo Station, which is the central base for the USAP. Located along the southern coast of Antarctica, McMurdo Station is the central base for about 1,000 people during the Antarctic summer months between November and March, according to Herried. However, researchers will often leave the base for research, and Morin said this is where AGIC’s service is crucial. The maps aid people leaving the base by making them knowledgeable of the land they are traversing, according to Morin, who said being able to identify open water as opposed to ice is an example of crucial knowledge to have. “It is way beyond first class,” Ainley said. “Whatever category that puts it in.”