Perhaps unbelievably, it’s still less than 200 years since the continent of Antarctica, first sighted in 1820, was finally confirmed to exist. Even into the 21st century, detailed knowledge about the interior of the vast frozen landmass was hard to come by. Almost overnight, this situation has entirely changed. Extreme close-up satellite imagery and dedicated computer power has now made Antarctica visible in an extraordinary amount of detail, with around 98 per cent of the continent having been mapped.
‘It is the highest-resolution terrain map by far of any continent,’ says Ian Howat, professor of earth sciences at The Ohio State University. ‘Up until now, we’ve had a better map of Mars than we’ve had of Antarctica. Today, Antarctica is the best-mapped continent.’
By stitching together photographs taken from a network of polar-orbiting satellites that passed over Antarctica an average of ten times each – primarily during 2015 and 2016 – the icy surface is now visible at a resolution of either two or eight metres – a significant improvement to the mere 1,000 metre resolution that was available on most previous maps.
‘At this resolution, you can see almost everything,’ continues Howat, leader of the Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (REMA) project, the masterminds behind this new mapping project. ‘We can actually see variations in the snow in some places. We will be able to measure changes in the surface of the continent over time. We will see changes in snow cover, changes in the motion of ice, we will be able to monitor river discharge, flooding and volcanoes. We will be able to see the thinning of glaciers.’
The complete maps are open-source and as such have been released online for anyone to download. Be warned though, with such detail spanning an entire continent, the total file collection is more than 150 terabytes (or approximately 150,000 gigabytes) in size.
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