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satellite imagery

Geosciences Column: A new rock outcrop map and area estimation for the entire Antarctic continent

Geosciences Column: A new rock outcrop map and area estimation for the entire Antarctic continent

Antarctica has been known as “the frozen continent” for almost as long as we have known of its existence. It may be the only place on Earth where, instead of information on the extent of glaciers or ice caps, there exists a dataset of all non-icy areas compiled from satellite imagery.

However, this repository is far from perfect: while satellite resolution and coverage have been steadily improving, Antarctica is challenging ground for remote sensing. Ice and cloud cover can be difficult to tell apart, and the low position of the sun in the sky means that long shadows can make snow, ice and rock very difficult to distinguish. As a result, the estimates of the ice-free proportion of the Antarctic continent have been vague, ranging from “less than 1%” to 0.4%.

In a new paper published in the journal The Cryosphere, scientists from British Antarctic Survey and the University of Birmingham show that the continent is even icier than previously thought. Using imagery from NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite, they find that just 0.18% of the continent are ice-free – less than half of previous estimates. This equates to an area roughly the size of Wales on a continent half again as big as Canada.

Lead author Alex Burton-Johnson and his colleagues have developed a new method of accurately distinguishing between ice, rock, clouds and liquid water on Antarctic satellite imagery. Because of the challenging nature of classifying Antarctic satellite imagery, the researchers used only the highest-quality images: they were mostly taken in midsummer, when the sun describes the highest arc in the sky and shadows are smallest, and on days with low cloud cover.

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(Left) The blue squares represent the coverage of the 249 satellite images the researchers used, showing that most rocky areas in Antarctica are clustered along the coastline. The images overlap in many places, allowing for more accurate classification where some clouds occur in pictures. (Right) The new dataset for rock outcrops covers all areas marked in red. The NASA Landsat 8 satellite does not cover areas south of 82°40′ South. Islands such as South Georgia and the South Orkney Islands are too consistently cloudy during the summer period, so the new method cannot be applied here. From : Burton-Johnson et al. (2016).

The huge thickness of the Antarctic ice sheet – more than 4,000m in some places – made the scientists’ job easier: they could exclude large parts of the continent where not even the tallest peaks come close to the ice surface. A total of 249 suitably high-quality images covered those parts of the Antarctic continent that have rock outcrops.

A few locations, however, are too extreme for the new image classification method. Some of the South Orkney Islands and the subantarctic island of South Georgia are covered in heavy cloud for so much of the time even in summer that the researchers could not apply their new method. Here, they had to rely on the older dataset. They also had to exclude parts of the rugged but remote Transantarctic Mountains from the study as the Landsat 8 satellite only covers areas north of 82°40’S.

The code for the new classification methodology is available on GitHub, so that enthusiastic remote sensers can try their hand at further improving it or simply admire the frozen beauty of Antarctica from above.

By Jonathan Fuhrmann

References

Burton-Johnson, A., Black, M., Fretwell, P. T., and Kaluza-Gilbert, J.: An automated methodology for differentiating rock from snow, clouds and sea in Antarctica from Landsat 8 imagery: a new rock outcrop map and area estimation for the entire Antarctic continent, The Cryosphere, 10, 1665-1677, doi:10.5194/tc-10-1665-2016, 2016.

Geosciences Column: An international effort to understand the hazard risk posed by Nepal’s 2015 Gorkha earthquake

Geosciences Column: An international effort to understand the hazard risk posed by Nepal’s 2015 Gorkha earthquake

Nine months ago the ground in Nepal shook, and it shook hard: on April 25th 2015 the M7.8 Gorkha earthquake struck and was followed by some 250 aftershocks, five of which were greater than M 6.0. The devastation left behind in the aftermath of such an event, and how to coordinate disaster-relief efforts in a vast, mountainous region, is difficult to imagine. Yet, this December at the 2015 AGU Fall Meeting, I came a little closer.

At the meeting I attended the press conference ‘Future Himalayan seismic hazards: Insights from earthquakes in Nepal’. It focused, mainly, on the outcomes of two research papers published in Science on the role that both past and the recent Gorkha earthquakes can play in triggering quake-induce landslides. The findings of the research were covered widely by the media.

I was struck, not only by those findings, but by the personal accounts of the scientists who’d seen the devastation left behind by the earthquake. But more still, what really caught my attention, was the multinational effort and collaboration that went into the research.

Before-and-after photographs of Nepal’s Langtang Valley showing the near-complete destruction of Langtang village due to a massive landslide caused by the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Photos from 2012 (pre-quake) and 2015 (post-quake) by David Breashears/GlacierWorks. Distributed via NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Before-and-after photographs of Nepal’s Langtang Valley showing the near-complete destruction of Langtang village due to a massive landslide caused by the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Photos from 2012 (pre-quake) and 2015 (post-quake) by David Breashears/GlacierWorks. Distributed via
NASA Goddard on Flickr. Click to enlarge.

After the press conference I met with Dalia Kirschbaum of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre and Dan Shugar of the University of Washington Tacoma, two of the co-authors of the 2015 Gorkha earthquake paper, to discuss this aspect of the research in more detail.

Given the vast geographical area over which the Gorkha earthquake had caused damage, as well as the hard-to-access mountainous terrain, the team used satellite imagery to map earthquake-induced landslides. They also monitored the stability of the region’s moraine dammed glacial lakes, prone to outburst following earthquakes due to the failure of moraine damns.

When a large scale disaster occurs the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters allows for the dedicated collection of space data to contribute towards humanitarian and charitable efforts in areas affected by natural or man-made disasters. Following the Gorkha earthquake, Nepal called for the activation of the charter.

Following Nepal activating the Charter, satellite imagery was provided by NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the China Space Agency, as well as private organisations such as DigitalGlobe, to name but a few.

This project was “different to what we had seen in the past in terms of international collaboration,” Dalia told me during our conversation.

A group of nine nations, coordinated by the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space, began assessing the imagery provided and mapping the earthquake-induced geohazards, including landslides. In the first instance the data was used to identify potentially hazardous situations where communities and infrastructure might be at risk. This was followed by an effort to build a landslide inventory, which could provide information about the distribution, character, geomorphological, lithological and tectonic controls which govern the occurrence of earthquake triggered landslides.

An international volunteer geohazards team mapped landslides triggered by the 2015 Nepal Gorkha earthquake and its aftershocks. The landslides were mapped using a range of different satellite products. Credit: Landslide mapping team/NASA-GSFC. Distributed via NASA Goddard on Flickr.

An international volunteer geohazards team mapped landslides triggered by the 2015 Nepal Gorkha earthquake and its aftershocks. The landslides were mapped using a range of different satellite products. Credit: Landslide mapping team/NASA-GSFC. Distributed via NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Simultaneously, scientists from the British Geological Survey and Durham University also began to build a database of known geohazards in the region. The data was shared between the two working groups.

“For no other major earthquakes have landslide inventories come from such a diverse range of datasets and organisations,” explained Dalia.

Neither had emergency remote sensing been undertaken so quickly.

I was interested in why the Nepal earthquakes in particular had inspired this, so far unique – but hopefully not the last – diverse international collaboration to better understand earthquake-induced geohazards.

Dan Shugar thinks it was because so many geoscientists have a deep personal connection with Nepal. Durham University scientists, for example, take geology students to the region on an annual field trip.

“Everybody loves Nepal! The nature of the country really lent itself to people wanting to help,” he added.

Field visit identifies light damage at Tsho (lake) Rolpa. Post-earthquake image of Tsho Rolpa appears identical to its appearance shortly before the earthquake. Two areas of fractures —believed formed by the May 12 2015 aftershock— were observed on the engineered part of the end moraine from a helicopter during an inspection undertaken by the U.S. Geological Survey at Tsho Rolpa. Photos from 27 May by Brian Collins/USGS, courtesy of USAID-OFDA (Office of Foreign Disaster Aid). Distributed via NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Field visit identifies light damage at Tsho (lake) Rolpa. Post-earthquake image of Tsho Rolpa appears identical to its appearance shortly before the earthquake. Two areas of fractures —believed formed by the May 12 2015 aftershock— were observed on the engineered part of the end moraine from a helicopter during an inspection undertaken by the U.S. Geological Survey at Tsho Rolpa. Photos from 27 May by Brian Collins/USGS, courtesy of USAID-OFDA (Office of Foreign Disaster Aid). Distributed via
NASA Goddard on Flickr.

For many, including Dan, it rose from a need to contribute to the humanitarian effort. Despite having trained as a geomorphologist and actively researching Alpine natural hazards, prior to the Gorkha earthquake he’d not had the opportunity to apply his knowledge and expertise to help others. It allowed him to offer help in the same way a medic might do by flying out to the scene of a disaster and offering medical expertise and treating the injured.

For Dalia, the positive impact made in the Nepal crisis by the international effort of quickly gathering, sharing and interpreting Earth observation data, was an important driver in keeping her linked to the project.

This effort is now seeing a life beyond the Nepal earthquakes. NASA satellites had previously been involved in the acquisition of data sets to aid in humanitarian crisis, such as in the aftermath of hurricanes. The successful approach taken during the Nepal earthquakes will now help coalesce NASA’s disaster programme and how NASA will respond to natural hazards in the future. It is leading to a more formalised disaster response programme.

The lessons learnt from the Nepal earthquake are ongoing, with much still being done in the scientific realms to better understand the hazards posed by the tectonics of the region, and associated geohazards triggered by the earthquakes. Many of the international collaborations fostered during the crisis are ongoing and will hopefully mean an improved response to future natural hazards in the region.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer. With many thanks to Dalia Kirschbaum and Dan Shugar.

References

Schwanghart, W., Bernhart, A., Stolle, A., et. al.,: Repeated catastrophic valley infill following medieval earthquakes in the Nepal Himalaya, Science, vol. 351, 6269, 147-150, doi: 10.1126/science.aac9865, 2016.

Kargel, J. S., Leonard, G. J., Shugar, D.H., et al.,: Geomorphic and geologic controls of geohazards induced by Nepal’s 2015 Gorkha earthquake, Science,vol. 351, 6269, 147-150, doi: 10.1126/science.aac8353, 2016.

Unfortunately, some of the publications referenced in this post are close access – but other links included in this post, as well as the post itself, hopefully convey the overall message of the research.