Icebergs, seemingly remote and exotic, play a significant role in our world, impacting ecosystems, ocean circulation, sea ice dynamics, and even global sea levels. Their colossal presence can dramatically affect maritime activities, posing risks to shipping routes. Just recently, the world witnessed the release of the massive iceberg A23a, twice the size of Greater London, after nearly three decades of being stranded in the Antarctic Ocean. While such monumental events garner attention, it’s the thousands of smaller icebergs constantly calving from Antarctic ice shelves and drifting to sea that demand a closer look.
Understanding the life cycle and environmental consequences of these icebergs is crucial. To tackle this challenge, scientists are turning to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to analyze satellite radar data, aiming to detect and track icebergs in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.
The mysterious World of Icebergs
Icebergs are far from stationary. They move chaotically, making them challenging to identify and track. As they gradually melt over decades, they release cold freshwater and vital nutrients that can profoundly influence local ecosystems and the intricate dynamics of ocean circulation, sea ice breakup, and even global sea levels. To unravel these mysteries, researchers are leveraging cutting-edge technology and AI algorithms.
AI meets Satellite Radar Data
A team of scientists, backed by the Alan Turing Institute, has harnessed the power of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellites. These satellites offer the capability to scan icebergs day and night, regardless of weather conditions. While SAR data has been in use for some time, the groundbreaking aspect of this research lies in the application of an unsupervised AI algorithm.
From October 2019 to September 2020, this AI algorithm analyzed the SAR readings, uncovering nearly 30,000 icebergs measuring approximately 1 square kilometer (0.4 square miles) or less. The study focused on the Amundsen Sea Embayment in West Antarctica, specifically the calving front of the Thwaites Glacier.
Creating a digital twin of the Antarctic Sea
The ultimate goal of this endeavor is to accurately detect and monitor icebergs, paving the way for the development of a digital twin of the Antarctic sea. This digital twin will serve as a virtual replica, providing scientists with invaluable insights into the intricate interactions between the ocean, ice, and atmosphere. Understanding these complex physics is essential for unraveling the full impact of icebergs on the environment.
Ben Evans of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) AI Lab highlighted the significance of this technological breakthrough: “The technology we used to develop this tool is already used quite commonly for medical imaging, and so we are excited to apply the same technology to the complex features seen in SAR satellite images of the polar oceans.” He further noted, “The method we used is as accurate as the other alternative iceberg-detection methods and outperforms most, without the need for human input. This means it can be easily scaled up beyond our study area and even provide near real-time monitoring.”
The marriage of AI and SAR satellite data represents a game-changing approach to tracking icebergs in the Southern Ocean. Beyond the captivating spectacle of massive icebergs breaking free, the broader implications of their movements and melting demand our attention. They hold the keys to understanding climate change, ocean dynamics, and the delicate balance of our planet’s ecosystems.
As AI continues to advance, its application in environmental monitoring becomes increasingly valuable. The insights gained from this research not only enhance our comprehension of icebergs’ impact but also underscore the potential for AI to unravel complex environmental challenges, paving the way for more informed decision-making in an era of climate uncertainty.