Researchers Create Most Detailed Map of Antarctica Ever

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Even in the 21st century, much of Antarctica remains unvisited by man, with the frozen continent largely unexplored. Sure, there are expeditions to the South Pole every austral summer, but most stick to the same trident and true routes, rarely varying their approach to 90ºS. Because of this, much of what we know about the Antarctic comes from satellite photography and mapping. Even those high-tech methods haven’t always offered the most detailed representation of what the place actually looks like. To remedy this, a team of scientists at Ohio State University has created what it describes as the most detailed map of Antarctica ever assembled.

The project to build these new maps was spearheaded by OSU professor Ian Howat, who found that all of the maps of Antarctica that he looked at simply lacked details. In order to change that, Howat launched the Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (REMA) project, which uses high resolution satellite photos to give explorers, scientists, climatologists, and cartographers their clearest and most detailed look at the continent ever.

In a statement announcing the new mapping project, Howat said “Up until now, we’ve had a better map of Mars than we’ve had of Antarctica. Now it is the best-mapped continent.”

To create this new, highly-detailed map of the Antarctic, Howat and his team built a computerized tool that automatically collected and examined the photos that were being gathered by various satellites tasked with flying over the continent. That tool has the ability to properly place the photos in their correct locations, even overlaying boundaries with one another to piece together an incredibly accurate depiction of the terrain found there. When the photos overlapped with others, the system could properly match them up with one another and align the images as neatly and accurately as possible. 
When the process was completed, the map ended up including more than 150 terabytes of data. That is a file size that is difficult to imagine, and most computers would crash just trying to quantify that much information, let alone store it. But the end result is a map that is allowing those interested to view the Antarctic like never before. 

“At this resolution, you can see almost everything,” Howat says. “We can actually see variations in the snow in some places. We will be able to measure changes in the surface of the continent over time. We will see changes in snow cover, changes in the motion of ice, we will be able to monitor river discharge, flooding and volcanoes. We will be able to see the thinning of glaciers.”

That information should make this map a boon for climatologists and those measuring climate change. But it should also give those of us fascinated with Antarctica an interesting new map to pour over as we armchair explorers eye it from afar. Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton never had it so easy. 

Research Spotlight: Ian Howat discusses the ArcticDEM and REMA Projects from Byrd Polar and Climate Center on Vimeo.

Kraig Becker