Antarctic Fieldwork Support

We regularly provide geospatial support to scientists who are heading out into the deep field in Antarctica.

Recently, we’ve helped one particular research team plan their trip into the field, scheduled for the end of this year.

Funded by NERC, Dr Joanne Johnson is leading an international team aiming to deliver a high-resolution record of past changes in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Specifically, it will use glacially-transported rocks and novel isotopic measurements to study changes in the Smith, Kohler and Pope Glaciers since the peak of the last glacial period, approximately 20,000 years ago.


At present, these glaciers are amongst the most rapidly thinning and retreating of all Antarctic glaciers, and yet we hardly know anything about their history.

Johnson and her BAS colleague Dr Stephen Roberts will undertake fieldwork in extremely remote mountain ranges in Marie Byrd land. Being so remote and seldom-visited, terrestrial geographic data available for this region is sparse, and of variable quality.

Having the best possible information in advance of a field campaign is invaluable for planning the most appropriate aircraft landing sites, safe overland travel, and for prioritising sampling sites.

Setting up GPS receivers at Turtle Rock
Setting up GPS receivers at Turtle Rock. Credit: JS Johnson, BAS.

With the use of high resolution satellite imagery captured in stereo, we are able to produce geospatial data of the region at a scale and level of detail previously not available.

We use data from the satellite Worldview-2, which collects full colour imagery at 2m resolution, and black and white imagery at 50cm. This is powerful stuff when it comes to helping out the field teams.

The imagery  allows us to create elevation models, terrain corrected imagery, 3D visualisations and mapping products.

Here’s a photo Jo took of Hedin Nunatak on her last trip to the field.

Hedin Nunatak from the air. Credit: JS Johnson, BAS

Compare this photo, to this georeferenced 3D visualisation created with stereo satellite imagery.

With our help, Johnson’s team will be using the same imagery, combined with outputs from smaller UAVs, to produce highly-detailed geomorphological data and maps when they return from the field. These will in turn inform interpretation of the isotopic analyses they will make on the rock samples. Together all these data will help to build a detailed picture of changes in the West Antarctic Ice sheet over the past 20,000 years across the whole Amundsen Sea Embayment.

New QGIS plugin for Oceancolor Data

We have released a new plugin for QGIS which allows easy download of oceancolor and sea surface temperature data from NASA Oceancolor.

It downloads either global level 3 mapped chlorophyll-a concentrations or sea surface temperatures within a defined time range, and resolution. The data is saved in GeoTiff format and can be added to the QGIS canvas once downloaded. The plugin is available via the official QGIS plugins repository.

The plugin provides access to three datasets:
  • MODIS AQUA CHL-a concentration
  • SeaWiFS CHL-a concentration
  • MODIS AQUA Night Sea Surface Temperatures
We are currently developing new features and working to improve existing ones. A selection of features we are looking to include in a future release are:
  • Alternative output file formats
  • Options to subset output data to a lat/long bounding box
  • Other datasets, such as Net Primary Production
  • Progress bar
Louise Ireland et al.. (2015) oceancolor_downloader: v1.1.1. Zenodo.10.5281/zenodo.160

First images from Sentinel-1

The first images from Sentinel-1 have been released and of the four images provided to highlight the new satellite capabilities, two of them are of the Antarctic. It is still early days and as ESA point out – “The satellite is not yet in its operational orbit, nor is it calibrated for supplying true data. These tasks will be carried out during the commissioning phase, which will take about three months to complete.” So these images are just a taster of what is to come later in the year.

For now have a look at the images below of Pine Island Glacier and part of the Antarctic Peninsula. More info on this release is available here, including the other images of Brussels and Namibia.

Part of the northern Antarctic Peninsula as imaged by the new European Sentinel-1a SAR satellite. It was acquired in the satellite’s ‘strip map’ mode with a swath width of 80 km and in dual polarisation. The colours indicate how the land, ice and water reflect the radar signal differently.
The Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers as seen by the new European Sentinel-1a SAR satellite.
The Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers as seen by the new European Sentinel-1a SAR satellite. It was acquired in Interferometric Wide Swath’ mode with a swath width of 250 km and in single polarisation.

Continue reading First images from Sentinel-1

Sentinel-1 launch success

Congratulations to ESA and everyone involved in the successful Sentinel-1 launch on 3 April 2014 . This new C-band SAR satellite is going to provide abundant new data to monitor the polar regions. The Polar View programme ( will be making extensive use of the images to provide timely information about sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. Data should start flowing in the next few months after the commissioning phase – we’ll keep you posted. But for now congratulations again to all involved and enjoy the launch video taken from onboard cameras.

Sentinel1 launch
The Sentinel-1satellite satellite lifted off on a Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

Some info on UK Space Agency


If you are interested in the ongoing deevlopments with the newly established UK Space Agency then some details are being made available on their website. Some details on the current transition plans are available here and info on the International Space Innovation Space Centre (ISIC) at Harwell is given here. This of course may change as a result of forthcomng government spending review, but let’s hope the Agency does not stall now.

Tandem-X promises new elevation data

Tandem-X, the partner satellite of the German TerraSAR satellite, was successfully launched today. It will now fly in formation with Terrasar, another synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite, and collect data from which a detailed elevation model of the earth surface will be generated. Uniquely this system will be based on SAR interferometry techniques and is therefore not hindered by cloud or surface texture factors.


The end goal is a global, detailed and accurate elevation model free of the anomalies present in current datasets such as G-DEM. It also promises to be more detailed with pixel spacing of 12 metres. For comparison see the graphic below and consider that SRTM provides data at 90m resolution and G-DEM at 30m. Of course in polar regions we will suffer from the usual data gap at extreme latitudes, but an orbit inclination of ~98 degrees means coverage for almost all steep terrain in the Antarctic, only missing parts of the Trans Antarctic Mountains.


The global elevation data is expected to be available in 2013 and will be distributed by Infoterra, but more news here if any coverage is available before that date. No details on data licence and costs yet.

More information is available here and a video showing the formation flying is available here.

Pesky icebergs

One of the advantages of having very frequent ESA Envisat SAR imagery in the Antarctic is being able to keep a close eye on large icebergs that might cause problems such as restricting access, impact on wildlife or navigational hazard. Add to that list the consequences of hitting an iceshelf, especially when it is home to one of your bases, and it’ s a good idea to keep an eye open.

One such iceberg, lovingly named the B15K, has been loitering around the Brunt iceshelf over the past couple of weeks. Any risk to the Halley base now appears to have passed, but the regular images were a useful part of the monitoring in place to track any changes to the Brunt.

Movement of the B15K iceberg near Halley

To access the up to date images please visit the Polar View Antarctic website.

Successful launch for CryoSat2

Second time lucky. CryoSat2 was successfully launched yesterday from Kazakhstan following the failure of the first attempt in 2005.  The remainder of the Launch and Early Operations Phase will continue over the coming weeks before data will begin to be disseminated. More details are available from ESA and the BBC.

That brings to three, the number of satellites launched as part of the ESA Earth Observation programme with CryoSat2 following earlier successful launches of GOCE and SMOS. Jonathan Amos gives a good overview of just what rude health the European EO sector is currently facing which is well worth a read in the afterglow of yesterdays launch.

Antarctic sea ice charts

The Polar View Antarctic service is now providing interpreted sea ice charts produced by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. In the high-bandwidth map view, users can now select the ‘Ice chart by’ tab to display the latest chart. A number of options for download are then made available on the right-side of the viewer including OGC compliant WMS. The simplest option however is the permanent link to the latest chart as a JPEG graphic.

These charts will be compiled on a weekly basis and currently cover from the Fimbul Ice Shelf, across the Weddell Sea, to west of the Antarctic Peninsula. They are compiled using the most up to date AMSR-E passive microwave ice concentration data and ESA Envisat ASAR imagery.