NASA unveils detailed map of Antarctica

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

High-resolution image of McMurdo Station taken by Landsat 7.

Scientists at NASA have recently released the most detailed map of Antarctica ever. NASA's Landsat 7 satellite took 10,000 photographs of the continent over a period of two years, from 1999 to 2001. 1,100 pictures were chosen to form the mosaic map. Officially titled the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica (LIMA), the map reveals Antarctica's geography in high definition and with accurate colors. Details as small as half the size of a basketball court are visible.

NASA created the map to coincide with the International Polar Year of 2007-2008. Robert Bindschadler, chief scientist of the Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, remarked, “This innovation is like watching high-definition TV in living color versus watching the picture on a grainy black-and-white television.” The map represents a tenfold improvement over previous Antarctic imagery databases.

This innovation is like watching high-definition TV in living color versus watching the picture on a grainy black-and-white television.

—Robert Bindschadler, NASA

Landsat 7 managed to capture 80% of the continent in high definition. While the satellite was not able to take photographs of the South Pole due to its orbit path, lower-resolution images helped fill in the gap.

The map will help scientists plan and carry out expeditions on the notoriously difficult terrain. The new, intensely detailed information will also facilitate the tracking of environmental changes such as the calving of ice shelves. Researchers will be able to use such data to better understand phenomena like global warming in such amazing detail that even relatively small changes will be visible. Geologists, on the other hand, will be able to use the maps to study Antarctic rock formations.

Comparison of the same Antarctic landscape taken by the older MODIS instrument in lower resolution (left), and the newer Landsat 7 satellite (right).

The LIMA images are available to the public via the internet. The National Science Foundation contributed nearly US$1 million to create the website.

The Landsat 7 satellite will continue to document Antarctica from space through to 2011. Subsequently, NASA will launch the Landsat Data Continuity Mission. Information from both projects will update the map.