Researchers study climate change in Antarctic with drone data

WingtraOne in Antarctica

Due to its extreme location and climate, Antarctica is a place we have little long-term data on weather and snow accumulation processes. As scientists confirm the reality of climate change, they are eager to address this by measuring the local “mass balance,” basically the accounting of changes in snow and ice. 

Hendrik Huwald is a scientist at the Laboratory of Cryospheric Science, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, EPFL. He’s focused on “surface mass and energy balance in alpine and polar environments.” 

Since 2016, we’ve measured with terrestrial laser scanning. But to cover larger areas we decided to go with photogrammetry to obtain the 3D surface topography using ‘structure from motion’. WingtraOne has all the features for getting high-accuracy data and broad coverage.

Hendrik Huwald
Scientist at the Laboratory of Cryospheric Science, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, EPFL

A main focus of the team’s work is snow. Because the Antarctic atmosphere is very dry and Antarctic snow typically doesn’t melt, the team is specifically measuring drift and sublimation — i.e., the loss of snow mass to the atmosphere by a direct transition from the solid (ice) to the gas phase (vapor). 

“We use the drone for photogrammetry and collect data to address questions at different time scales,” Huwald said. “On the short term, we are interested in the topography of the surface, which interacts with local winds and atmospheric turbulence and influences the turbulent heat fluxes. Over time, we’ll look at changes from year to year, i.e., whether there is a net accumulation or a net erosion in certain areas.”

Together with photogrammetry specialists from the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF in Davos, Huwald’s team is now analyzing the WingtraOne data. Flying in -15C (5F) at the edge of the drone’s wind limits at times, and at an altitude of 2300 meters above sea level, his first impression of WingtraOne and its RX1R II PPK payloads is positive:

“Everything about the system is intuitive and works reliably,” he said. My experience was really good. It’s easy to handle. My expectation of the ease of using WingtraOne was certainly fulfilled. The pictures look good. We’ll see now how well we can derive the surface topography from the mostly low-contrast images; perhaps shadows can help us in this context.”

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