Here's How Scientists Created The Most Complete And Accurate Map Of Antarctica

Rhodilee Jean Dolor

Antarctica is now the best-mapped continent on our planet. Researchers have unveiled the Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica, or REMA, which they described as the most accurate high-resolution terrain map of the icy continent ever created.

In a statement published on Sept. 4, REMA project principal investigator Ian Howat, from Ohio State University, said that planet Mars had a better map than Antarctica prior to REMA.

Now, the new map is so detailed it provides the equivalent of being able to see down to a car or a smaller object. REMA is also so complete it can now allow scientists to determine the height of each feature on the southernmost continent down to a few feet.

How did scientists create the best, most accurate and complete map to date of the the most desolate and inhospitable place on Earth?

Howat and colleagues used images from a constellation of polar-orbiting satellites, which include the WorldView-1, WorldView-2, WorldView-3, and the GeoEye-1 that gather data from space. The researchers used 187,585 images that the satellites have collected over a span of six years from 2009 to 2017 to create the map.

Howat and his colleagues from Ohio State developed the open source software Surface Extraction from TIN-based Searchspace Minimization (SETSM) to process the images.

Their colleagues at the University of Minnesota, on the other hand, collaborated with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to process the data using the Blue Waters supercomputer, one of the largest and most powerful academic computers in the world.

"REMA is generated by applying fully automated, stereo auto-correlation techniques to overlapping pairs of high-resolution optical satellite images," the REMA website explained.

The supercomputer processed millions of images to produce the high-resolution topographic map with a file size of 150 terabytes.

Howat and his colleague, Paul Morin, from the University of Minnesota, said that they hope to update the map every year. The map can be continuously updated with new data, which scientists can use to track phenomena on the continent. These phenomena include those popularly attributed to climate change, such as the melting of ice caps.

"This is just the first step. We never dreamed we'd be able to process this volume of data with such accuracy. Now, we'll now be able to repeat this process one and a half times every year so we can see the change over time," Morin said in a statement published by the University of Minnesota.