U.S. and British researchers unveiled an 1,100-image photo mosaic of Antarctica on Tuesday that they say will change how scientists -- and desktop travelers alike -- will explore and learn about the icy continent at the bottom of the world.
The images were captured by the Landsat 7 satellite orbiting 400 miles above the Earth. Researchers from NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Science Foundation and the British Antarctic Survey digitally "stitched" together thousands of pictures to complete the mosaic.
The finished picture -- which has a resolution 10 times greater than ever before -- will help scientists study changing conditions in Antarctica. For example, the pictures will be used over time to track changes to the extent and thickness of ice sheets and glaciers, said NASA scientist Robert Bindschadler.
Bindschadler -- an Antarctic specialist who conceived the project -- calls the mosaic "a dream come true."
"It has changed my views of Antarctica and has influenced the science questions that I ask myself," Bindschadler said Tuesday at a press conference.
The Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica -- or LIMA -- shows features as small as half the size of a basketball court. Scientists say it will be especially useful in planning expeditions on the giant landmass -- the size of the continental United States and Mexico combined -- where clear images have been hard to come by.
Facilitates New Research
"Being able to see where we couldn't see before will lead to new ideas for research. And these new ideas for research will in turn lead to more knowledge about the continent," said Scott Borg, who directs Antarctic science programs for the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.
Scientists also hope the new image will help the public better understand what is at stake in the world's polar regions as temperatures rise due to human-created global warming.
"As society wrestles with the proper stewardship of the planet, it's really important to have an appreciation of what it is we're trying to preserve," Borg said.
An interactive version of the map can be found here, allowing anyone to zoom in and explore any part of the continent.
"It's like giving them a helicopter to explore Antarctica," said Bindschadler, who has led 14 expeditions there.
Antarctica is warming 10 times faster than the global average, said Andrew Fleming of the British Antarctic Survey. In recent years, scientists have seen collapsing ice sheets, changing coastlines, and retreating glaciers as the climate has warmed there, according to Fleming.
The LIMA effort is part of the International Polar Year, a multination research endeavor to explore and understand the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
"The climate of our world is changing no faster than in the polar regions," Bindschadler said. "In the future, we have to be better stewards of our environment."