Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

Cryospheric and Polar Processes Seminar

An Embarrassment of Riches; We now have better topography for the ice on Earth than the land by Paul Morin, Polar Geospatial Center, University of Minnesota

For years, those of us that made maps of the Poles apologised.  We apologised for the blank spaces on the maps, we apologized for mountains being in the wrong place and out-of-date information.  Over the past 10 years the situation improved. An image mosaic of Antarctica was built, airborne RADAR produced an improving view under the Antarctic ice sheet and a constellation of satellites started to stream data at ever higher resolution, at an increasing tempo and even during the long Polar winters. Now a diverse collaboration of US science and intelligence agencies, universities and a geospatial software company has produced REMA - the Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica - and ArcticDEM, using open source software to extract Digital Elevation Models (DEM), or digital topography, from licensed imagery on Blue Waters at a resolution of 2m.  The data have an accuracy of a foot and repeat coverage of 90% of the poles an average of 10 times over 6 years. This project was too large for any one agency, university or company.  It required a large allocation on Blue Waters, 4 satellites that continuously collected sub-meter optical imagery for 5 years, two satellites that produced ground truth, 100Gbit networking and petabytes of storage.  

We never thought that we would ever see a time when the science community has better topography for ice than land and better topography for the Transantarctic Mountains than the Rocky Mountains.  Even we, the creators of REMA, are having a difficult time understanding what we have made. The use of it in logistics and facilities management was a surprise. We are as dumbfounded as anyone at the degree to which subsurface topography is expressed in ice sheet surface features.  Incredibly, the volume of data and temporal depth of the DEM coverage is causing all of us to reassess how we manage and analyze geospatial in general.  We now apologise to the polar science community for a different reason.  They have to keep up. And the current DEMs are only the beginning. We now face an avalanche of imagery and derived products in an increasingly complex landscape of small-sats launched by the dozen.  It is a complex, exciting time.

Morin leads a team of two dozen responsible for imaging, mapping and monitoring the Earth’s polar regions for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs. Morin is the liaison between the National Science Foundation and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s commercial imagery program.Before founding PGC, Morin was at the National Center for Earth-Surface Dynamics at the University of Minnesota, and he has worked at the University of Minnesota since 1988. Morin serves as the National Academy of Sciences–appointed U.S. representative to the Standing Committee on Antarctic Geographic Information under the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (ie, the Antarctic Treaty System). One of his current projects is ArcticDEM, a White House initiative to produce a high-resolution, time-dependent elevation model of the Arctic using Blue Waters. Morin’s professional interests include mapping areas of the Earth that are difficult to reach, scientific visualization and using scientific art for formal and informal education. Morin has dozens of publications in a variety of fields including remote sensing, geoscience education, the carbon cycle, and scientific visualization. In 2015 Morin was awarded an honorary doctorate at Colorado College for his outstanding contributions in the Geoscience field. Morin’s art/visualizations have been in numerous publications including National Geographic, Nature and Wired. He has contributed to the BBC/David Attenborough production “Frozen Planet” and is spearheading the effort with Google to improve polar geospatial data, imagery and Street View in Google Earth and Maps. 


Wednesday, May 8, 2019
11:00 am to 12:00 pm





  • CIRES employees
  • CU Boulder employees
  • General Public
  • NOAA employees
  • Science collaborators
  • Open to Public



Mistia Zuckerman


Research Lab #2, Rooms 153 & 155