News Release

High-res maps of entire polar regions provide new clues for climate researchers

Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (REMA) of Central Transantarctic Mountain regions
Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (REMA) of Central Transantarctic Mountain regions. Credit: Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota.

A team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota has released four more years of high-resolution imagery data, which has been added to eight years of previous data, to create the most detailed polar region terrain maps ever created. The maps use high-resolution satellite data to show the polar regions in stunning 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 Polar Geospatial Center. “With four more years of data that is even more accessible, these are transformative data sets. We’re excited to see what scientists will discover about how our Earth is changing.”

The project began with images taken from a constellation of polar-orbiting satellites about 400-700 kilometers above the Earth. The researchers at the Polar Geospatial Center created the digital elevation models based on 50-centimeter resolution images captured by the 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 U of M researchers put the maps together with computing resources from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that provided the Blue Waters supercomputer, a leadership-class academic supercomputer. The researchers processed millions of images to create the high-resolution topographic maps.

With the newest data set they were able to fill in all the previous gaps in data to provide full coverage of the entire polar regions north of 60⁰N (including most of Scandinavia, Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia) and south of 60⁰S (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 especially 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. 

“We’ve been able to see glacier change, erosion, landslides and flooding — all in incredible detail over time,” Porter added. “That’s a game changer for everyone who is trying to protect our planet for the future.”

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About the Polar Geospatial Center
The Polar Geospatial Center is a polar science and logistics support organization at the University of Minnesota with core funding provided by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs. Founded in 2007, the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota provides geospatial support, mapping and GIS/remote sensing solutions to researchers and logistics groups in the polar science community.

About the College of Science and Engineering
The University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering brings together the University’s programs in engineering, physical sciences, mathematics and computer science into one college. The college is ranked among the top academic programs in the country and includes 12 academic departments offering a wide range of degree programs at the baccalaureate, master's, and doctoral levels. Learn more at cse.umn.edu.

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