From The Editor | February 26, 2024

Unlocking Antarctica's Secrets With The Power Of LiDAR

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By John Oncea, Editor

photo - GettyImages-antartcia - iceberg web size

Antarctica presents unique challenges and opportunities for scientific exploration. LiDAR technology has revolutionized research in Antarctica, enabling detailed mapping of ice sheets, topography, and ecosystems, contributing to our understanding of climate change, krill distribution, and Sun-Earth interactions. Studies utilizing LiDAR have uncovered ancient fossils, underground lakes, and surprising geological features, while also aiding in infrastructure assessment and human exploration efforts in this remote and extreme environment.

The largest desert on Earth measures more than 5.3 million square miles. It’s covered by a permanent ice sheet containing 90% of the Earth’s fresh water and the coldest temperature ever recorded – around -136 degrees – was taken at the Soviet Vostok Station.

I’m guessing you already knew this but I’m talking about Antarctica, the coldest, windiest, and most isolated continent on Earth. According to Universe Today it is considered a desert because its annual precipitation can be less than two inches in the interior.

“There are no permanent human residents, but anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 researchers inhabit the research stations scattered across the continent – the largest being McMurdo Station, located on the tip of Ross Island,” writes Universe Today. “Beyond a limited range of mammals, only certain cold-adapted species of mites, algaes, and tundra vegetation can survive there.”

But there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the White Continent including underground lakesancient fossils and rainforests, and the Gamburtsev Mountains. The discovery of these surprising features was made using a variety of technologies including radar and now, with the use of LiDAR, more surprises could be in store.

LiDAR In Action

LiDAR, due to its accuracy and ability to create detailed 3D maps, has been utilized for various research purposes, primarily related to mapping and monitoring the ice sheets, as well as studying the topography and geology of Antarctica.

It has proven particularly useful in assessing changes in ice thickness with high precision, helping scientists understand the dynamics of ice loss and gain. This data is vital for predicting future sea-level rise and understanding the impact of climate change on polar regions.

By scanning glaciers with LiDAR, scientists studied the morphology and dynamics of glaciers in Antarctica, including their movement patterns, crevasses, and ice flow velocities. This data helped researchers to better understand the processes driving glacier behavior and how they contribute to overall ice sheet dynamics.

Of course, topographic and subglacial mapping both benefitted from the use of LiDAR which helped create highly accurate digital elevation models (DEMs) of Antarctica’s terrain, including mountains, valleys, and ice-covered landscapes. LiDAR was used to penetrate the ice and provide detailed topographic maps of the bedrock beneath the ice sheet. These maps are essential for scientific research, logistical planning, and environmental management.

LiDAR also helped to reveal detailed surface features, such as rock outcrops, moraines, and fault lines, which are essential for geological research in Antarctica. By analyzing these features, scientists reconstructed past environmental conditions and studied the continent’s geological history.

LiDAR-assisted archaeological and geological surveys have uncovered hidden features beneath the ice, such as ancient landscapes, fossilized remains, and evidence of past environmental conditions, discoveries contributing to our understanding of Antarctica’s geological history and its role in Earth’s past climate.

It also has been used to study vegetation distribution, habitat structure, and wildlife populations in Antarctica. This information is valuable for understanding ecosystem dynamics, monitoring biodiversity trends, and conserving fragile polar ecosystems. By measuring atmospheric parameters such as aerosol concentration, cloud properties, and wind patterns over Antarctica, researchers have been able to study climate modeling, weather forecasting, and atmospheric research in the region.

Finally, LiDAR surveys have been useful in assessing the condition of research stations, airstrips, and other infrastructure in Antarctica. This information helps ensure the safety and efficiency of operations in this remote and harsh environment.

Real-World Examples: Krill Distribution And Opening A Window For Human Exploration

Antarctica is surrounded by the Southern Ocean, geologically the youngest of the oceans, which was formed when Antarctica and South America moved apart roughly 30 million years ago. The Southern Ocean is home to the Antarctic krill, a pivotal species in the Southern Ocean’s ecosystem due to its extraordinary nutritional content and plentiful resources, writes Frontiers.

It is important to study krill and their environmental impact factors for the development of Antarctic krill fisheries. Acoustic measurements and other traditional methods face limitations in their capacity to provide a comprehensive and uninterrupted assessment. That, combined with the six-month duration of polar nights, has made LiDAR a promising alternative. “Known for their high resolution, flexibility, and efficiency, LiDAR systems can obtain detailed information on diurnal ocean parameters in polar regions on a vast scale and in a systematic way,” Frontiers writes.

Frontiers used “the spaceborne LiDAR system, CALIPSO, to successfully attain continuous Antarctic krill CPUE over the past decade, using various models such as the generalized linear model (GLM), artificial neural network (ANN), and support vector machine (SVM).”

Frontiers’ research indicates that CALIPSO has the potential to overcome the challenges of traditional satellite observations during polar winters. Furthermore, they did not observe any apparent pattern of year-to-year variation in krill CPUE, with high values being most common between February and May. This suggests that krill is primarily located around the South Shetland Islands from January to April, before moving offshore toward South Georgia in May and June.

“A substantial krill aggregation community is found in the South Atlantic waters, indicating high potential for krill fishing,” writes Frontiers. “The optimum mix layer depth range for high krill CPUE is 270-390 m, with a chlorophyll concentration of approximately 0.1 mg m -3. The optimum sea surface temperature range is between -1.4-5.5°C, and the sea ice coverage range is approximately 0-0.1×10 6 km 2. The predicted Antarctic krill bioresource has risen from 2.4×10 8 tons in 2011 to 2.8×10 8 tons in 2020. This increase in krill biomass aligns with the biomass of krill assessed by CCAMLR.”

A second group of scientists, the Chu Research Group at the University of Colorado Boulder, is studying advanced spectroscopy principles, developing new LiDAR technologies, and investigating fundamental physical and chemical processes in Antarctica. They believe that combining LiDAR observations and data analyses with numerical modeling will open a new window for human exploration of the universe.

Chu’s team of scientists and engineers aims to achieve this by studying complex interactions between the Sun and Earth’s upper atmosphere that impact climate, life on Earth, and orbiting satellites. The research utilizes advanced LiDAR systems and is conducted primarily from McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

“By more fully understanding the Sun-Earth interactions, we can understand space weather better to guide spacecraft to avoid problems from solar storms, we can improve upper atmosphere climate models and better predict climate change,” said Xinzhao Chu, a professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences and a fellow in the CU Boulder Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

Chu’s research group has been using sophisticated, custom LiDAR systems to study the upper atmosphere since 2010. Typically, students are deployed to the ice for 13 months at a time to operate the systems and study the region where the atmosphere meets space.

Students thus do something most scientists don’t do: spend wintertime at the bottom of the world —braving temperatures down to -60 F, and periods of total darkness. The team uses their advanced equipment to make discoveries about clouds, the atmosphere, and space. A lot of work goes into running such a long observational campaign in a remote location like McMurdo, but the scientific discoveries and unique environment make it all worth it.

LiDAR research has been a cornerstone of Chu’s career, and Antarctica’s unique atmospheric conditions available only at extreme latitudes make the location perfect for these studies. Her specialized LiDAR systems shoot pulsed laser beams into the sky to observe conditions ranging from roughly 6-124 miles in altitude, where terrestrial weather and space weather processes influence each other.

LiDAR’s Crucial Role

LiDAR is playing a crucial role in advancing scientific knowledge and environmental management efforts in Antarctica, helping researchers address pressing challenges such as climate change, ice sheet dynamics, and ecosystem conservation. It has revolutionized our understanding of Antarctica by providing detailed, high-resolution data that allows scientists to study the continent’s ice sheets, geology, and environment in unprecedented detail. These discoveries have significant implications for our understanding of climate change, sea-level rise, and the broader Earth system.