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Map of Antarctic Glacier
Graphic Credit: Paul Morin
The newly created Antarctic Geospatial Information Center will become the primary repository and resource for mapmaking in the U.S. Antarctic Program. This map shows a typical product — a glacier in the Prince Albert Mountains.

Looking at new dimensions

Recently created mapping center will fill USAP needs for science and operations

A chance meeting between a digital cartography whiz and a geologist in need of a three-dimensional way to represent the McMurdo Dry Valleys has spawned a new map-making and archiving service for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP).

The Antarctic Geospatial Information Center (AGIC) will collect and create geospatial information for use by both sides of the USAP house — research and operations. Geospatial mapmaking combines special spatial software and analytical methods with geographic data to create visual representations of geologic features.

AGIC will have the tools to create everything from ordinary two-dimensional maps to stereoscopic maps that use polarized glasses so the topographic detail pops to three-dimensional, interactive models that can expose multiple geologic layers.

“It’s basically a full three-dimensional model. It’s the geologic version of modeling characters for a Hollywood movie,” explained Paul Morin of the latter mapping product that AGIC will produce. Morin, at the University of Minnesota, is the principal investigator (PI) on the project.

It was Morin who approached Bruce Marsh during a conference after the geologist made a pitch for a three-dimensional, interactive map to aid his work studying an exposed volcano magma plumbing system in the Dry Valleys. (See related story Breaking new ground.)

“I refer to the Dry Valleys as the apartment building of magma,” said Marsh, a geologist at Johns Hopkins University. The analogy refers to that multi-layered plumbing structure on display on some of the walls of the Dry Valleys. Magma eruptions millions of years ago pushed the liquid rock up, forming sills and dikes through the rock above.

The sills are sheet-like bodies of rock parallel to other rock strata, while the dikes are the remnant intrusions of magma across the layers — the elevator punching through to different floors of Marsh’s geologic apartment building.

“To really understand how it all fits together you have to have a three-dimensional, active presentation so you can work with it, dissect it,” Marsh said. “It’s more than a 3D map. It’s an active digital library.”

Marsh had been after such a model for years, one that would allow him to do things like run magma through the digital model system to see how the plumbing might have worked. Or input chemical profiles of the rock samples he and colleagues collected, the information becoming part of the interactive model.

Marsh readily accepted Morin’s offer of help.

“Before I knew it, we had a team together and were down on the Ice within 18 months,” Morin said.

That was during the 2006-07 summer field season in Antarctica. In the process of collecting the rock samples and data the team needed to create Marsh’s model, they discovered fundamental gaps in information. For example, no air photo mosaic existed that they could use to drape over digital elevation model of the Dry Valleys.

“That was sort of the genesis for putting this center together,” Morin explained. “The idea is that the operations and science needs for the U.S. Antarctic Program … pretty much have the same data needs.”

So not every project will be as data intensive as the one led by Marsh, who returns to the Ice in January to collect additional data and rock samples for his work. Scientists may need basic aerial maps or satellite imagery. Personnel who support the researchers in the field require similar data.

“This center brings both sides of that equation together,” Morin said, "hopefully in a way that makes it more efficient, and basically brings the expertise of both sides together.

“We can put together all kinds of products with the tools we have at hand,” he added.

The National Science Foundation funded the AGIC with a three-year grant, which also includes two field seasons. The main thrust of those deployments is to collect the data necessary for creating a high-resolution aerial photo mosaic of the Dry Valleys.

Tom Wagner, program manager for the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Earth Sciences Division in the Office of Polar Programs, said the idea for AGIC had been germinating in the science community for a while.

“We have fantastic resources — from geologic maps to space imagery — but too few people know about them or have the tools to use them,” Wagner said. “With the major developments in visualization tools that have occurred over the past few years, we realized that the time was right to try something new.”

In fact, the center will also serve as a repository for geospatial information, where all sorts of geographic information on Antarctica will be housed on AGIC’s nascent Web site (www.agic.umn.edu External Non-U.S. government site ), which is just now being developed. Morin said the AGIC archives would include everything from operation maps to field notebooks to maps made by graduate students. Other storehouses of this type of information only archive their own products and don’t accept material from outsiders, he noted.

“We basically won’t turn anything away,” he said.

And there is an outreach angle to the project as well, according to Morin. A textbook author (“Exploring Geology,” McGraw Hill) and PI on two education grants with the Science Museum of Minnesota, Morin said the AGIC products would likely appear in future materials for students.

“That’s always in the back of my mind: How can we reuse these science and operation products for education,” he said.

Wagner predicted AGIC’s legacy will be far reaching. “AGIC will become one of the most important resources for Antarctic information for scientists, logistics planners and educators in the U.S. and throughout the world,” he said. “It bodes well that it is established right at the start of the [International Polar Year].”

NSF-funded research in this story: Paul Morin, University of Minnesota; Bruce Marsh, Johns Hopkins University.

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