Antarctic LiDAR survey reveals swiftly changing landscape

By on 9 August, 2017

The cold, dark valleys of Antarctica closely resemble Mars. Interestingly, they are full of life. This image shows the Canada Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

The changing nature of the landscape in Antarctica has been closely modelled in a new open data release.

Researchers have publicly released high-resolution maps of Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, a unique desert region. The high-resolution maps cover 3,564 square kilometres of the McMurdo Dry Valleys and allow researchers to compare present-day conditions with the last surveys conducted almost 13 years ago.

The new research project led by Portland State University, and funded by the United States National Science Foundation (NSF), mapped the area using LiDAR, a remote-sensing method that uses laser beam pulses to measure the distance from the detector to the Earth’s surface. The data was collected by aerial survey to provide topography of the perpetually ice-free region. In recent years surprising landscape changes have been observed including rapid erosion along some streams.

Two NSF-funded facilities, the Open Topography Facility and the Polar Geospatial Center, made the LIDAR data publicly available. A paper about the work was published in the journal Earth System Science Data.

The freely available datasets will allow scientists to get a handle on how widespread and how significant changes to the frozen landscape might be in this ecologically sensitive region.

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The McMurdo Dry Valleys are of interest to a wide range of scientists, from biologists to geologists to glaciologists. The Dry Valleys are one of the few places in Anarctica where bedrock is exposed, allowing geologists to reconstruct the continent’s geological history.

Interestingly, NSF say that the region is also the ecosystem on Earth that most closely resembles the surface of Mars, due to its cold, dark conditions.

Researchers from across the globe come to study the site for its abundance of microbial life in the soil. They have also identified unique ecosystems under at least one of its glaciers and in several of its saline lakes.

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