New high-resolution map of Antarctica shows the continent in incredible detail

September 10, 2018, 11:39 a.m.
The Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (cartographic)
Photo: © Polar Geospatial Center 2017

Typically, maps of continents have a resolution of about 1,000 meters, which means that one unit of measure on the map represents 1,000 meters on the Earth's surface. But an impressive new terrain map of Antarctica has a resolution of 2 to 8 meters — making Antarctica the best-mapped continent in the world.

The Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (REMA) map has a resolution more than 100 times sharper than earlier looks at the icy continent. It's so detailed that the total file size for the map is more than 150 terabytes, or 150,000 gigabytes.

"It is the highest-resolution terrain map by far of any continent," said project leader Ian Howat, professor of earth sciences and director of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at The Ohio State University, in a statement.

"Up until now, we’ve had a better map of Mars than we’ve had of Antarctica. Now it is the best-mapped continent."

Helping advance science

Researchers say the map and related data will help change science on the continent.

"At this resolution, you can see almost everything. 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," Howat said. "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 detailed map will also allow scientific teams to plan exploratory trips over treacherous parts of the continent.

To create the map, first team members used images created by polar-orbiting satellites. They extracted hundreds of thousands of digital elevation models (DEMs), which are 3D representations of a terrain's surface. Then Howat and his team developed software to create the map.

"We had to start from scratch to build this," explains Howat. "The software had to filter the data, process it, and turn it into a refined product for the scientific and broader community to use."

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