Only a selected group of researchers and explorers have had the unique opportunity to set foot in Antarctica. It is one of the most inhospitable places on the face of the earth – where six months of freezing temperatures in the summer is followed by six months of even harsher conditions in the winter. Fortunately, video recordings of the place have driven us to appreciate its beauty – endless icy landscapes inhabited by penguins and other desolated animals and birds. Anthropogenic Global Warming has also rendered Antarctica an important element in predicting the mean sea level rise and changing ocean currents. The mystical land of ice, located at the southernmost end of the world, holds an important role in determining the future of the planet.
However, the idea of properly mapping the continent had eluded scientists for a long time. Now, thanks to the thousands of images collected by polar-orbiting satellites between 2009 and 2018, scientists have finally released the first version of the Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (REMA). The model maps the continent in excruciating detail, with a resolution of 2-8 meters. Such enhanced resolution will ensure that objects, as small as the size of a motorcycle, will now be visible.
The consortium of scientists has integrated thousands of stereoscopic pairs of images to assemble the huge topographic map. After developing the software from scratch, they fed the images into it and used a supercomputer to consolidate the data. The final result ensured a map size that’s 150 terabytes in size. It covers 98% of Antarctica to a latitude of 88 degrees south. Due to lack of satellite coverage, a small area near the South Pole is the only part that’s missing in the map.
The resolution ensures that Antarctica is now the most well-mapped continent in the world. Ian Howat, an Ohio State University glaciologist who led the mapping effort, 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.”
The map will provide vital information and aid numerous research projects in the future. As REMA provides elevation detail of every known feature on the continent, scientists can use the map to make superior predictions on snow cover evolution, ice sheet collapse, glacial melt, and volcanic activity. Researchers can use the help of the map to monitor the effects of climate change, and planning field expeditions to unexplored regions of the continent would be much easier.
The landscape of Antarctica has drastically changed over the past decades, thanks to global warming. Since 1992, more than 3 trillion tons of ice has melted – adding more than 2 quadrillion gallons of water to the ocean. Melting of Antarctic ice is one of the key reasons behind sea level rise, and scientists hope that REMA will assist them in providing a better prediction of sea levels in the future.