Aircraft aids insight into ice loss

A custom-built aircraft conceived by an Edinburgh scientist is helping chart one of the world's most dangerous terrains.

The remotely operated device, a quadcopter built by Scottish Association for Marine Science, uses a mounted laser-range finder and a camera to measure and photograph glaciers in the Svalbard archipelago, Norway. Researchers are working alongside scientists from St Andrews and The University Centre in Svalbard as they seek to discover causes of ice loss in the Arctic.

Ice calving

Detailed pictures from the device will help create 3D images of glaciers for an investigation into glacier calving - when large sections of glaciers break off and fall into the sea - which is increasing with global warming.

Large crevasses open up in glaciers as they break, so the terrain is unsafe to survey on foot and the previously accepted, but costly, alternative is a helicopter.

Satellite imaging produces comparatively low resolution images.

The biggest increases to ice loss in the world’s major ice sheets are happening not because of increased melting, but because of increased iceberg calving. Glaciologists worldwide are trying to better understand the main mechanisms involved in the calving process and how it might accelerate if the climate continues to warm.

Dr Nick HultonSchool of GeoSciences

3D models

The mounted laser-range finder enabled researchers to photograph and measure the depth of every crevasse on the glacier.

Some 1,000 images were recorded on each of the aircraft’s 15 - 20-minute missions.

The scientists will now build up 3D virtual models of the glaciers, by using photographs from multiple angles to create the shape of a feature.

Forming crevasses

Researchers hope to use their findings to better understand how crevasses form and the role they have in iceberg calving.

The research was funded by the University of Edinburgh’s Innovation Initiative Fund, The Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and the CRIOS project at the University Centre in Svalbard.

The work was also supported by the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology Scotland and the Natural Environment Research Council's National Capability Funding for Technology Development.