Antarctica

Mapping Antarctica

Cartographers help unlock the continent’s secrets

January 23, 2014
©COLE KELLEHER—POLAR GEOSPATIAL CENTER

Cole Kelleher, a cartographer with the Polar Geospatial Center, stands near an Adelie penguin colony at Cape Royds on Ross Island, about 20 miles from McMurdo Station.

Antarctica was on the map long before anyone ever laid eyes on it. Nearly 2,400 years ago, ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle believed that a great continent must exist at the bottom of the world. They thought it was needed to balance out the continents at the top of the world. In the 1500s, mapmakers often included a fanciful continent they referred to as Terra Incognita (Latin for “unknown land”) at the bottom of their maps. But it was not until the 1800s—after explorers had sighted and set foot on Antarctica—that mapmakers got down to the business of really mapping the continent, which is one-and-a-half times the size of than the U.S.

Kelleher carries a Trekker camera as he stands near a glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

©COLE KELLEHER—POLAR GEOSPATIAL CENTER
Kelleher carries a Trekker camera as he stands near a glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

While the coastline could be mapped by ships sailing around the continent, it took airplanes—and later, satellites—to chart Antarctica’s vast interior. That job continues today. And it is a job that can still require a mapmaker, or cartographer, to put on boots and head out into the wild.

Cole Kelleher is familiar with that. He is a cartographer with the Polar Geospatial Center (PGC), which is based at the University of Minnesota and has a staff at McMurdo Station. PGC teamed up with Google to use the company’s Trekker technology to capture images of Antarctica for the Internet giant’s popular feature, Street View. A Trekker camera, which is the size of a basketball, is perched about two feet above a backpack. The camera records images in all directions. “It weighs about 50 pounds. I was out for two and a half days, hiking 10 to 12 hours each day,” says Kelleher. It was hard work, but really an incredible experience.” According to Kelleher there are plans to use the technology to create educational apps for museums.

A Mapmaking Service for Scientists

A high-tech balloon used to carry scientific instruments high into the atmosphere is filled with helium near McMurdo Station.

BRIEN BARNETT—NSF
A high-tech balloon used to carry scientific instruments high into the atmosphere is filled with helium near McMurdo Station.

The PGC staff at McMurdo Station provides highly specialized mapmaking services for the U.S. Antarctic Program. For one project, Kelleher used satellite images to map huge cracks in the ice, called crevasses. That helped a team of seal researchers know whether they could safely approach their field camp on snowmobiles. Another recent project was to help recover a giant, high-tech helium balloon used to carry scientific instruments high into the atmosphere. These balloons are launched in Antarctica because there is no danger that they will hurt anyone when they fall back down to Earth. Using satellite images, Kelleher and colleagues created maps of where the balloon could be found.

Antarctica may no longer be Terra Incognita, but it still holds countless mysteries. Cartographers and the maps they make will continue to be essential in helping scientists unlock those secrets.

David Bjerklie is filing reports while traveling to Antarctica with the National Science Foundation. Tomorrow, he'll report on his visit to the South Pole! Track his progress and learn all about the icy continent at TFK’s Antarctica Mini-Site.


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