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University of Minnesota researchers who map Antarctic are expanding work to include the Arctic

New NSF-funded Polar Geospatial Center will provide geospatial support for research in the most remote places on earth.

May 5, 2011

University of Minnesota researchers, who have gained international acclaim for their work mapping the rugged terrain in Antarctica, are now expanding their scope to include research in the Arctic. The work is part of a nearly $4 million, five-year cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

Led by geology and geophysics staff member Paul Morin in the universitys College of Science and Engineering, the Polar Geospatial Center (formerly the Antarctic Geospatial Information Center) will now provide logistical support and training for other researchers studying both of the Earth’s poles.

“Our work impacts everything from research on the movement of glaciers to the study of penguin colonies to the landing of military aircraft in remote locations,” said Morin. “We produce tailor-made solutions to help scientists do their job.”

NSF began funding Morin and his team of four in 2007 with $400,000 per year. The group has since grown to more than 10 members, and has also created a partnership with Google to keep polar data up-to-date in Google Earth and Google Maps for the Arctic and Antarctic. The Polar Geospatial Center is also contributing remote sensing expertise to David Attenborough’s upcoming BBC documentary “Frozen Planet.”

“Some of the maps we produce are the first of their kind of locations that no person has ever visited,” Morin said.

The imagery also provides innovative ways of studying polar animals. Using high-resolution satellite imagery, Morin’s and his staff have collaborated with researchers in the U.S. and around the world to complete the first-ever census of emperor penguins, and they’ve shown that the imagery can be used to count Weddell seals.

The Polar Geospatial Center staffs an office in the U.S. base, McMurdo Station, every year during the Antarctic summer. The center also provides support to research projects in Arctic Alaska, Siberia and Greenland.

“A real strength of the Polar Geospatial Center is its ability to address user needs using innovative and creative solutions,” said Alexandra Isern, program director for the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Earth Sciences in the Office of Polar Programs. “This approach has made the center an essential asset that the research, education and logistical communities rely on to get their work done.”

Morin said that one of the most unique things about his research team is that most of the team members are current University of Minnesota undergraduate and graduate students.

“With our work in Antarctica, students have been able to see first-hand that the bottom of the world is quite a beautiful place,” Morin said. “It is much more than just a blank, white wasteland. It is full of breath-taking peaks and rock-strewn valleys studded with cerulean lakes. It’s quite an experience just being there.” 

For more information about the Polar Geospatial Center, visit www.pgc.umn.edu.

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University of Minnesota Department of Geology and Geophysics undergraduate student Spencer Niebuhr stands on Grootes Peak in Antarctica during a research trip in December 2010. One of the most unique things about the Polar Geospatial Center is that current University of Minnesota students conduct much of the research.

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