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Person walks through rocky area with backpack instrument.
Photo Credit: Jean Pennycook
PGC cartographer Cole Kelleher walks through the Adélie penguin colony at Cape Royds. A Google Street View camera is strapped onto his back. The Internet giant recently released a new series of Street View images of Antarctica shot by PGC.

Off road

PGC provides stunning new imagery for Google Street View

Google Street View has gone off road – way off road.

The Internet giant recently unveiled its latest batch of panoramic imagery for its Google Maps and Google Earth applications that include some remote and stunning areas of Antarctica.

The imagery was captured with the help of the Polar Geospatial Center (PGC) External Non-U.S. government site, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site to provide geospatial services, from mapmaking to high-resolution satellite imagery, for research activities in the Antarctic and Arctic.

“It’s very exciting because there’s so much more potential for it being useful to scientists,” said Cole Kelleher External Non-U.S. government site, cartographer and support coordinator at PGC, which is headquartered at the University of Minnesota External Non-U.S. government site and led by principal investigator Paul Morin External Non-U.S. government site.

A picturesque valley.
Photo Credit: Google Street View
Street View imagery of Bull Pass in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

Kelleher was responsible for capturing much of the imagery using Google’s Trekker, a modified backpack that carries a 42-pound camera and battery. The Trekker is operated by a smart phone and consists of 15 lenses angled in a different direction so the images can be stitched together into 360-degree panoramic views.

The mobile Trekker camera was introduced last year and first used in Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Photos are taken roughly every 2½ seconds while the walker is in motion. The basketball-sized ball that contains the camera sat about a foot above Kelleher’s head, making the device a bit awkward to carry at times.

“It’s very top heavy. … That was probably the toughest part – taking care of it and trying not to damage it,” Kelleher said. “I told [Google] it would probably not come back in the condition it goes out in. You’re out in the middle of nowhere. It’s tough terrain. I only fell about three times.”

Many of the Street View images released are from the McMurdo Dry Valleys External U.S. government site, a relatively ice-free area on a continent where ice covers more than 99 percent of the land. The terrain is often rocky and rough, with thick glaciers slumped over saddles like melted ice cream. Images like those of Arena Valley look like they could have been sent back from Mars.

A rocky landscape.
Photo Credit: Google Street View
A view of the Mars-like Arena Valley in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

“I think it is important that people will be able to see areas such as the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Google Street View because many people imagine Antarctica as a flat white continent when in fact there are extremely diverse landscapes here with tremendous beauty and power,” Kelleher said.

The imagery was shot during the course of field research by Kelleher and PGC geospatial analyst Spencer Niebuhr External Non-U.S. government site, who was doing analyses and mapping of the geology in the Dry Valleys.

“We were already doing research in the area,” said Kelleher during an interview at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site, which is also featured in some of the Street View imagery just released during the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union External Non-U.S. government site, along with its nearby neighbor, New Zealand’s Scott Base External Non-U.S. government site.

The informal partnership between PGC and Google took shape more than two years ago, facilitated by a former Google employee who worked a summer season at the South Pole Station External Non-U.S. government site. Since then, the PGC has advised Google about what Antarctic satellite imagery is most pertinent for its Google Maps and Google Earth applications.

Last year, Google released the first batch of Antarctic Street View imagery that had been shot by PGC, as well as the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust External Non-U.S. government site, which operates a conservation program to preserve the historic structures in the Ross Sea region. Pictures were shot using a specialized digital camera on a tripod. [See previous article — Virtual visit: PGC works with Google to provide online window to key Antarctic sites.]

A different type of Google camera will be flown this year by a Basler aircraft by a team from the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) External Non-U.S. government site, which uses radars and other instruments to measure ice sheets and glaciers.

The camera will be used to collect fine-resolution imagery of the ice surface along the plane’s flight path, as part of a pilot project, according to Carl Leuschen, CReSIS deputy director who oversees the development of the radar systems.

“We’ll see how the data looks,” Leuschen said.

Google Street View reportedly covers more than five million miles and includes about 40 countries – and one very cold continent.

“I’m excited to see it now live and out there,” Kelleher said.

NSF-funded research in this story: Paul Morin, University of Minnesota, Award No. 1043681 External U.S. government site.

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