Mapping the Earth’s Polar Regions

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The Earth’s Polar Regions, Antarctica and the area within the Arctic Circle, are the most inhospitable places on the planet for humans. Yet, scientists and researchers continue to explore and map these regions in order to get a better understanding of their importance. It is widely believed that the Polar Regions hold keys to unlocking other scientific mysteries and can reveal what the future holds for the Earth and all of its inhabitants. In order to better understand the Arctic and Antarctica, there is a constant need for better-quality maps to be produced.

One of biggest steps taken towards supplying better maps of the Polar Regions has been recently completed by the Polar Geospatial Center (PGC). The center, located at the University of Minnesota, has released and made available a series of web-based applications using high-resolution images and maps showing the Arctic and Antarctica in unparalleled detail. These images are of an improved resolution and more up-to-date than earlier mapping projects of the Earth’s extremities.

Previous mapping projects of Antarctica include LIMA, a mosaic of Antarctic images based on NASA’s Landsat satellite program. High-quality images of the continent were compiled into an all-encompassing satellite view and released in 2007 as The Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica (LIMA). LIMA was the result of collaborative efforts from the U.S. Geological Society, NASA, The British Antarctic Survey, and the National Science Foundation (NSF). What is distinctive about LIMA was the quality of its images. The project brandished images in 15-meter resolution, and it was the first true color, seamless map of Antarctica that was virtually cloudless.

The LIMA mosaic is based on approximately 1,100 images taken from 1999 to 2001 from the Landsat-7. The project was developed as part of the International Polar Year back in 2007-2008 in order to educate people about Antarctica and demonstrate how scientists use GIS data to study the continent. One disadvantage, however, is that the LIMA mosaic does not cover the whole continent. A portion is left off of its satellite view from the South Pole at 90 degrees latitude to 82.5 degrees south latitude because of gaps in Landsat’s coverage.

Nevertheless, the Polar Geospatial Center has taken polar mapping to the next level with their web-based applications. Using commercial imagery from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, these maps of Antarctica offer a resolution 900 times better than that from LIMA and come within thirty kilometers of the geographic South Pole. According to the PGC’s director Paul Morin, their maps and applications can show every rock outcropping, every penguin colony, and every crevasse. Moreover, the Polar Geospatial Center has the ability to shoot images of Antarctica that are at a 50-centimeter resolution every forty-five days.

Satellite map of Ross Island using the Landsat Imagery Mosaic of Antarctica, including insets of nearby Beaufort Island and Franklin Island.  From the Polar Geospatial Center.

Satellite map of Ross Island using the Landsat Imagery Mosaic of Antarctica, including insets of nearby Beaufort Island and Franklin Island. From the Polar Geospatial Center.

In 2007, the Polar Geospatial Center was established in order to provide geospatial services to Antarctica. It mainly supported the U.S. Antarctic Program and was funded by the National Science Foundation. Since then, the PGC has expanded into doing its own fieldwork using geospatial data for the purpose of solving critical questions concerning the Polar Regions. The PGC also produces geospatial products for individual use. Their Imagery Viewers allow its users to create their own maps of locations in Greenland and Alaska as well as Antarctica.



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