Research News

Most detailed maps of polar regions ever created

Stunning images of polar regions are publicly available

A team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities has released four more years of high-resolution imagery data, which has been added to eight years of previous data, to make the most detailed polar region terrain maps ever created. The maps use high-resolution satellite data to show the polar regions in detail and will provide new insights into the effects of climate change over time.

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

"Our previous data resulted in more than 300 scientific publications," said Claire Porter, acting co-director of the U.S. National Science Foundation-funded Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. "With four more years of data that’s even more accessible, we're excited to see what scientists will discover about how Earth is changing."

The project began with images taken from polar-orbiting satellites about 400-700 kilometers above Earth. Researchers at the Polar Geospatial Center created the digital elevation models based on 50-centimeter resolution images captured by commercial satellites owned by Maxar and licensed by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Partners at The Ohio State University and Ohio Supercomputer Center developed the software to process the images, and University of Minnesota scientists put the maps together with computing resources, including the Blue Waters supercomputer, from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. They processed millions of images to create high-resolution topographic maps.

With the newest data, they were filled in previous gaps to provide full coverage of the polar regions north of 60 degrees N, including most of Scandinavia, Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia and south of 60 degrees S, including all of Antarctica. They also built a continent-wide seamless terrain map in the Antarctic, and plan to release an Arctic version this winter.

The polar regions are important because the effects of climate change are amplified at the poles. Using these digital elevation models, scientists can see detailed topography of the land, including individual trees, lakes, roads and buildings.

"In the past, we collected data using expensive airplane or land exploration at limited times of the year," Porter said. "Now, we are measuring the surface of the Earth at a resolution and geographic scale that no one has seen before, and we've been doing it for more than a decade. We've been able to see glaciers change, erosion, landslides and flooding — all in incredible detail over time."

Added Allen Pope, a program director in NSF's Office of Polar Programs, "This new data release is another game-changer for understanding and building resilience to rapid Arctic and Antarctic change. Thanks to many partnerships, these freely available data provide unprecedented maps that will help unlock a new understanding of Earth's polar regions."