See Antarctica like never before with this mind-blowingly detailed map

Antarctica has been, for a very long time, a largely unknown continent. Despite all the expeditions to and across the continent, little is really known about what it actually looks like. Until now.

Thanks to researchers from Ohio State University and the University of Minnesota, we now have the most detailed terrain map of Antarctica. Called the Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (or REMA for short), the map is both the highest-resolution map of Antarctic ice shelves and the most detailed terrain map of any continent on the planet.

For comparison’s sake, this map has a resolution of around two to eight metres while most other continent maps are only around 1,000 metres in resolution. As the research team point out, we’ve had better maps of Mars than we have of Antarctica.

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“It is the highest-resolution terrain map by far of any continent,” said Ian Howat, professor of earth sciences and director of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at The Ohio State University. “Up until now, we’ve had a better map of Mars than we’ve had of Antarctica. Now it is the best-mapped continent.”

With a resolution this high, researchers using REMA can see Antarctica in incredible detail, evening spotting variations in the snow over time. By updating the map regularly, researchers can see the movement of ice, the discharge of rivers, flooding levels and volcanic activity. It’ll also be able to monitor the effects of global warming through surface changes. “We will be able to measure changes in the surface of the continent over time,” Howat explained. “It will be possible to actually see the thinning of glaciers”.

REMA will also aid explorers heading out into the Antarctic wastes as it’ll allow them to plan expedition routes across the continent. As there are no roads out there, and it’s dangerously easy to become stranded in the cold, this map is an invaluable tool.

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This new map was only made possible thanks to the advancements in imaging technologies on satellites. Built from a constellation of polar-orbiting satellites that passed over regions of Antarctica, researchers repeatedly took photographs at around ten-times per satellite to build up the images needed for the map.

“We had to start from scratch to build this,” explained Howatt. “The software had to filter the data, process it, and turn it into a refined product for the scientific and broader community to use.”

It’s no small download to your smartphone or tablet though. The entire map files take up around 150TB of storage space, far bigger than anyone will have access to on a personal device. Still, if you’re able to access just a fraction of the map that you need, or if the technology advances on to make it accessible to those outside of research and education institutions, it could really be an incredible way to explore a part of the world almost nobody has seen properly.

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