New Super-High-Resolution Map Shows Antarctica In Unprecedented Detail

By Maddie Stone on at

We’ve seen a lot of good maps of Earth’s polar regions of late. A map that shows the thickness of the entire Antarctic ice sheet. Another that shows Greenland’s hidden bedrock contours in unprecedented detail. But a new terrain map of Antarctica is still special. It’s not just the highest resolution ever produced for the frozen continent, but the highest resolution for any continent, full stop.

The map below—released on Tuesday by a consortium of ice researchers—is the very first version of the Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (REMA), a US National Science Foundation-funded initiative to produce the highest quality digital surface models of Earth’s largest slab of ice. Covering approximately 98 per cent of Antarctica to a latitude of 88 degrees south (there’s a slight hole right at the South Pole due to a lack of satellite coverage), the map has a resolution of 2-8 metres (6.6-26.4 feet). Which, if you think about how little of Antarctica humans have actually set foot on, is kind of stunning.

“Up until now, we’ve had a better map of Mars than we’ve had of Antarctica,” Ohio State University glaciologist Ian Howat, who led the mapping effort, said in a press release. “Now it is the best-mapped continent.”

The Antarctic Peninsula (Image: REMA)

The map draws on hundreds of thousands of stereoscopic pairs of images collected by polar orbiting satellites between 2009 and 2017, according to the REMA website. Satellite altimetry data was also used to register the precise elevation at any point. All of the data was fed into a supercomputer in order to assemble the continental-scale topographic map, with a total file size of over 150 terabytes.

The map, which can be updated continuously with new data, will inform any number of research projects, from investigations of changing snow cover to the motion of ice, thinning of glaciers, or changes in rivers and volcanic activity. Scientists can also use the map to plan field expeditions into unexplored regions of the icy continent.

Thwaites glacier in West Antarctica (Image: REMA)

Finally, the map will help benchmark data collected by ICESat-2, NASA’s new ice-scanning space laser that launches into orbit next week.

“This is AMAZING,” NASA cryosphere program scientist Tom Wagner told Earther via email. “We’re imaging the polar regions at a level of granularity never before possible.”

You can learn a lot more about how this first version of the map was constructed and explore the data for yourself here. You can also download high-resolution poster versions of the map to print out and slap on your wall if you want a permanent reminder of what Antarctica looked like circa 2018.

The new Antarctic topographic map in all its glory. (Image: REMA)