University of Minnesota helps develop most accurate map of Antarctica terrain

Antarctica is now the best-mapped continent on Earth for topography, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota and at Ohio State University. The research team has just released what is now the most accurate map of Antarctica’s terrain.

This is important because about 99 percent of Antarctica is covered in ice, and the new map’s unprecedented detail will help scientists measure the impact of climate change over time. The precision and accuracy of the topography will also allow scientists to plan trips over the treacherous Antarctic terrain.

“Now we’ll be able to see changes in melting and deposition of ice better than ever before,” said Paul Morin, a University of Minnesota earth sciences researcher and the director of the Polar Geospatial Center. “That will help us understand the impact of climate change and sea level rise. We’ll be able to see it right before our eyes.”

The Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (REMA) map has a resolution of 8 meters, or about 26 feet. This means researchers now know the height of every mountain and all of the ice in all of Antarctica within measurement of just a few feet. Previously, the most accurate topographical map was within about one kilometer of elevation.

“Up until now, we’ve had a better map of Mars than we’ve had of Antarctica,” said Ian Howat, professor of earth sciences and director of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at The Ohio State University. “Now it is the best-mapped continent on Earth."

The Antarctica mapping project began with images taken from a constellation of polar-orbiting satellites about 400 to 700 kilometers in space, which have been collecting images for more than six years. It look millions of images to render the high-resolution topographic map.

The Ohio State University researchers developed the software to process the images and University of Minnesota researchers put the maps together over the last five years with computer processing help from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Funding for the REMA mapping project was provided by the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Science Foundation.

The image capture and processing will be completed one and a half times each year to measure changes and hopefully answer some important scientific questions.