Scientists have now mapped Antarctica in unprecedented detail

Mindy Sparks
September 12, 2018

"Until now, the map of Mars was more accurate than the map of Antarctica".

Researchers this week announced the release of a new high-resolution terrain map of the southernmost continent, called the Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica, or REMA, which they say makes Antarctica the best-mapped continent on Earth.

"Now it is the best-mapped continent on Earth", Howat said.

The map has a resolution of 8 meters (26 feet), although in certain places this goes all the way down to an incredible 2 meters (6.5 feet).

"It is the highest-resolution terrain map by far of any continent", project leader Professor Ian Howat, from The Ohio State University, said in a statement. Still, if you're able to access just a fraction of the map that you need, or if the technology advances on to make it accessible to those outside of research and education institutions, it could really be an incredible way to explore a part of the world nearly nobody has seen properly.

The 150-terabyte data set is the first that will allow researchers to watch the fracturing of ice shells within a three-week time span, almost tracking changes on the ice in real time.

This map will be the flawless tool for research projects that will need data on snow cover, the motion of ice, thinning events, river or volcano activity and monitoring of climate change effects. "It will be possible to actually see the thinning of glaciers".

The same region seen with prior available surface imaging (left) and REMA (right).

Such accurate maps of the ground the ice is resting on are incredibly important for scientists to determine the stability of the massive ice sheets in Antarctica, especially the West Antarctic Ice Sheet which has been losing mass. If all those ice sheets melt, the sea would rise by up to 190 feet.

The project started with pictures taken from a constellation of polar-orbiting satellites that passed over areas of Antarctica a normal of 10 times to take photos.

Notwithstanding the pictures, the REMA project required programming created by Howat and M.J. Noh of the Byrd Center that prepared the information on high-performance supercomputers.

The researchers used a powerful supercomputer Blue Waters to process data using software razrabotannogo Centre Baird, to collect a pair of overlapping satellite imagery.

Without the viewer, one would need to seek out and use the full map file, which in total is over 150 terabytes large.

The map - which will continue to be updated - is so precise that it will allow teams of scientists to undertake missions in difficult-to-access regions whose terrain conditions were previously unknown.

"Something that's always been a problem is knowing where the ice is and knowing how thick it is", Howat said.

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