If no-one is there when an iceberg is born, does anyone see it?

Larsen C ice Shelf including A68 iceberg. Image acquired by MODIS Aqua satellite on 12th July 2017. Image courtesy of NASA.

The titular paraphrasing of the famous falling tree in the forest riddle was well and truly answered this week, and shows just how far satellite remote sensing has come in recent years.

Last week sometime between Monday 10th July and Wednesday 12th July 2017, a huge iceberg was created by splitting off the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica. It is one of the biggest icebergs every recorded according to scientists from Project MIDAS, a UK-based Antarctic research project, who estimate its area of be 5,800 sq km and to have a weight of more a trillion tonnes. It has reduced the Larsen C ice Shelf by more than twelve percent.

The iceberg has been named A68, which is a pretty boring name for such a huge iceberg. However, icebergs are named by the US National Ice Centre and the letter comes from where the iceberg was originally sited – in this case the A represents area zero degrees to ninety degrees west covering the Bellingshausen and Weddell Seas. The number is simply the order that they are discovered, which I assume means there have been 67 previous icebergs!

After satisfying my curiosity on the iceberg names, the other element that caught our interest was the host of Earth observation satellites that captured images of either the creation, or the newly birthed, iceberg. The ones we’ve spotted so far, although there may be others, are:

  • ESA’s Sentinel-1 has been monitoring the area for the last year as an iceberg splitting from Larsen C was expected. Sentinel-1’s SAR imagery has been crucial to this monitoring as the winter clouds and polar darkness would have made optical imagery difficult to regularly collect.
  • Whilst Sentinel-1 was monitoring the area, it was actually NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument onboard the Aqua satellite which confirmed the ‘birth’ on the 12th July with a false colour image at 1 km spatial resolution using band 31 which measures infrared signals. This image is at the top of the blog and the dark blue shows where the surface is warmest and lighter blue indicates a cooler surface. The new iceberg can be seen in the centre of the image.
  • Longwave infrared imagery was also captured by the NOAA/NASA Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite on July 13th.
  • Similarly, NASA also reported that Landsat 8 captured a false-colour image from its Thermal Infrared Sensor on the 12th July showing the relative warmth or coolness of the Larsen C ice shelf – with the area around the new iceberg being the warmest giving an indication of the energy involved in its creation.
  • Finally, Sentinel-3A has also got in on the thermal infrared measurement using the bands of its Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer (SLSTR).
  • ESA’s Cryosat has been used to calculate the size of iceberg by using its Synthetic Aperture Interferometric Radar Altimeter (SIRAL) which measured height of the iceberg out of the water. Using this data, it has been estimated that the iceberg contains around 1.155 cubic km of ice.
  • The only optical imagery we’ve seen so far is from the DEMIOS1 satellite which is owned by Deimos Imaging, an UrtheCast company. This is from the 14th July and revealed that the giant iceberg was already breaking up into smaller pieces.

It’s clear this is a huge iceberg, so huge in fact that most news agencies don’t think that readers can comprehend its vastness, and to help they give a comparison. Some of the ones I came across to explain its vastness were:

  • Size of the US State of Delaware
  • Twice the size of Luxembourg
  • Four times the size of greater London
  • Quarter of the size of Wales – UK people will know that Wales is almost an unofficial unit of size measurement in this country!
  • Has the volume of Lake Michigan
  • Has the twice the volume of Lake Erie
  • Has the volume of the 463 million Olympic-sized swimming pools; and
  • My favourite compares its size to the A68 road in the UK, which runs from Darlington to Edinburgh.

This event shows how satellites are monitoring the planet, and the different ways we can see the world changing.

Differences Between Optical & Radar Satellite Data

Ankgor Wat, Cambodia. Sentinel-2A image courtesy of ESA.

Ankgor Wat, Cambodia. Sentinel-2A image courtesy of ESA.

The two main types of satellite data are optical and radar used in remote sensing. We’re going to take a closer look at each type using the Ankgor Wat site in Cambodia, which was the location of the competition we ran on last week’s blog as part of World Space Week. We had lots of entries, and thanks to everyone who took part!

Constructed in the 12th Century, Ankgor Wat is a temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world. It lies 5.5 kilometres north of the modern town of Siem Reap and is popular with the remote sensing community due to its distinctive features. The site is surrounded by a 190m-wide moat, forming a 1.5km by 1.3km border around the temples and forested areas.

Optical Image
The picture at the top, which was used for the competition, is an optical image taken by a Multi-Spectral Imager (MSI) carried aboard ESA’s Sentinel-2A satellite. Optical data includes the visible wavebands and therefore can produce images, like this one, which is similar to how the human eye sees the world.

The green square in the centre of the image is the moat surrounding the temple complex; on the east side is Ta Kou Entrance, and the west side is the sandstone causeway which leads to the Angkor Wat gateway. The temples can be clearly seen in the centre of the moat, together with some of the paths through the forest within the complex.

To the south-east are the outskirts of Siem Reap, and the square moat of Angkor Thom can be seen just above the site. To the right are large forested areas and to the left are a variety of fields.
In addition to the three visible bands at 10 m resolution, Sentinel-2A also has:

  • A near-infrared band at 10 m resolution,
  • Six shortwave-infrared bands at 20 m resolution, and
  • Three atmospheric correction bands at 60 m resolution.

Radar Image
As a comparison we’ve produced this image from the twin Sentinel-1 satellites using the C-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) instrument they carry aboard. This has a spatial resolution of 20 m, and so we’ve not zoomed as much as with the optical data; in addition, radar data is noisy which can be distracting.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. SAR image from Sentinel-1 courtesy of ESA.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. SAR image from Sentinel-1 courtesy of ESA.

The biggest advantage of radar data over optical data is that it is not affected by weather conditions and can see through clouds, and to some degree vegetation. This coloured Sentinel-1 SAR image is produced by showing the two polarisations (VV and VH i.e. vertical polarisation send for the radar signal and vertical or horizontal receive) alongside a ratio of them as red, green and blue.

Angkor Wat is shown just below centre, with its wide moat, and other archaeological structures surrounding it to the west, north and east. The variety of different landscape features around Angkor Wat show up more clearly in this image. The light pink to the south is the Cambodian city of Siem Reap with roads appearing as lines and an airport visible below the West Baray reservoir, which also dates from the Khmer civilization. The flatter ground that includes fields are purple, and the land with significant tree cover is shown as pale green.

Conclusion
The different types of satellite data have different uses, and different drawbacks. Optical imagery is great if you want to see the world as the human eye does, but radar imagery offers better options when the site can be cloudy and where you want an emphasis on the roughness of the surfaces.