Let's Talk Science: What is "remote sensing?"

Welcome to our new blog series, “Let’s Talk Science,” where we break down the science behind our team’s work. We’ll first start in mapping, the first “M” of our acronym. One way we map the Arctic is through remote sensing.


In order to study how ice sheets changed in the past, we have to know what they look like in the present. Here’s the problem: it would take us forever to map out Antarctica by hand. We’d probably get frost bite and cabin fever!

So instead, we use remote sensing. But what is that?

Remote sensing uses satellites to help us see a big chunk of land from a bird’s-eye-view. When the sun shines on the land, radiation bounces off of rocks, ice, and anything else it finds. Then, like a basketball player getting a rebound, the satellite catches all that bouncing radiation. As it does, it can create a picture of the land below. Then we can find areas of exposed rocks, also known as nunataks.

I bet this sounds familiar. Have you ever taken a picture with a film camera before? Our satellites are like big cameras in the sky that let us see the Antarctic land without freezing our tails off! But unlike a camera, we don’t have to be in Antarctica to do it. Members of our team all around the world can work with the satellites to make models of the land.

With remote sensing, we can learn about how the ice sheet is changing now. When we know that, we can make scientific guesses at how it may have changed in the past!

Got a science question for us? Leave it here and we can answer it for you. Maybe we’ll even feature it in our blog!

#LetsTalkScience #Mapping #RemoteSensing

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