Ghostly and Magical Map of Antarctica

May 3, 2018


Our planet is a cool and good planet. To prove this point, I would simply point you to the map above.

The ethereal black and white image shows the thickness of all of Antarctica’s ice. It speaks to both the grandeur of the seventh continent and human ingenuity. Why humanity is on a course to melt all that ice is beyond me.


The map comes courtesy of Kevin Pluck, a software engineer, statistician, and animator, who pulled a massive dataset of Antarctic ice known as Bedmap2 for a project he was working on (more on that in a moment). The dataset is the compilation of a number of different observing methods, including airborne radar and satellite measurements. It took scientists years to compile and is one of the most comprehensive datasets of Antarctica’s ice and underlying bedrock.

“After downloading the enormous data files, I needed a way to check that I had processed them correctly so I thought the simplest way to do it was to plot a grey pixel based on the thickness value,” Pluck told Earther via Twitter direct message. “Out popped what you see here. I was stunned, I had never seen something so beautiful come from pure data before.”


The white areas are where the ice is thickest, with the towering and stable ice sheet of East Antarctica standing out most prominently. The Antarctic Peninsula—home to the Larsen C ice shelf that calved a huge iceberg last year—drifts off in the ocean in the upper left corner, but it’s that ghostly patch of gray and black in the lower left that had Pluck downloading the data in the first place.

The glaciers that hold back West Antarctica are the weakest links in the icy armor ringing the continent. They could already be in a state of unstoppable collapse that will unfold over centuries, causing seas to rise by up to 10 feet. But some scientists are growing concerned that changes could happen even more rapidly due to something called marine ice cliff instability, where a quirk of geology could create enormous problems.

The bedrock slopes downward under some of West Antarctica’s glaciers the further inland it goes. That means as warm waters eat away at the front of glaciers, the ice cliffs that remain grow ever higher and more prone to collapse under their own weight.

Thwaites is one of those glaciers where this process could play out. In an effort to suss out what’s happening there, the British Antarctic Survey and the National Snow and Ice Data Center announced a new collaboration on Monday. The $25-million investment will fund eight projects aimed at getting a better handle on how the glacier has changed in the past and what the future may hold. Pluck and Marlo Garnsworthy, his partner at the science communication firm Pixel Movers and Makers, were working on graphics for the announcement when he made his inadvertent Antarctic artwork.

“Our motivation is to inform as many people as we can about our vital polar ice—and more generally to visualize science concepts and make animations and sci-art that illuminate and inspire action, and which are accessible to broad and diverse audiences, young and old,” Garnsworthy told Earther. “We believe difficult messages about our changing planet are best delivered with humor, hope, and appealing imagery.”

I’m not sure the Antarctic ice image qualifies as funny or hopeful, but it sure is appealing.


9 Responses to “Ghostly and Magical Map of Antarctica”

  1. mtpccl Says:

    Fascinating. To me it looks organic, like a heart or brain. Hopefully, our collective hearts and minds will prevail to preserve our beautiful, fragile, blue oasis.

  2. Sir Charles Says:

    Looking like increasing temperature variability with the changing climate…

    Pixel Movers and Makers

    • grindupbaker Says:

      Yes. I tried to explain what it is but the text is too long for this bloggy effort thing. Anyway, it’s +~1.0 m/s since 1990 that’s boosting it and the rest is just any El Nino.

    • grindupbaker Says:

      A very interesting aspect of this “global warming” thing induced by the +CO2+CH4 the last 50 years and presumably the next 450 years, second only to “Arctic Amplification” in my estimation, is that ENSO appears to have “strengthened” since 1990 due to Pacific trade winds (Easterlies) having started increasing in average speed since 1990 and now 1 m/s faster than before 1990 ? Apparently, caused by warming of the Atlantic Ocean. This was the main cause of the “hiatus” or “pause” between 1997/98 huge El Nino and very large 2015/16 El Nino. The El Nino years seem to be “pulling away from” the La Nina years somewhat. ENSO is a massive feature of Earth’s climate and the GMST trends have been:
      +0.13 degrees / decade: UAH lower troposphere 1979-2017
      +0.17 degrees / decade: RSS lower troposphere 1979-2017
      +0.165 degrees / decade: Surface La Nina & ENSO-neutral years 1970-2014 (me from GISTEMP)
      +0.20 degrees / decade: Surface El Nino years 1966-1990 (me from GISTEMP)
      +0.23 degrees / decade: Surface El Nino years 1990-2014 (me from GISTEMP, high uncertainty, sparse & varied data points)
      +0.18 degrees / decade: Surface average 1966-2014 (GISTEMP)
      +0.11 degrees / decade: Ocean surface 1966-2014 (GISTEMP)
      +0.047 degrees / decade: Ocean 0-300M depth 1966-2010 89 / 432 = 0.206 (me from various, Hadley, ORAS4, talk plots etc.)
      +0.030 degrees / decade: Ocean 300-700M depth 1966-2010 76 / 576 = 0.132 (me from various, Hadley, ORAS4, talk plots etc.)
      +0.009 degrees / decade: Ocean 700-2000M depth 1966-2010 77 / 1872 = 0.0411 (me from various, Hadley, ORAS4, talk plots etc.)
      Note the +0.23 degrees / decade for El Nino years since 1990 and only +0.165 degrees / decade for La Nina & ENSO-neutral years. A big difference.

    • grindupbaker Says:

      The record-breaking increase in Pacific Equatorial trade winds over the past 20 years had, until now, baffled researchers. Originally, this trade wind intensification was considered to be a response to Pacific decadal variability. However, the strength of the winds was much more powerful than expected due to the changes in Pacific sea surface temperature. Another riddle was that previous research indicated that under global warming scenarios Pacific Equatorial Trade winds would slow down over the coming century. The solution was found in the rapid warming of the Atlantic Ocean basin, which has created unexpected pressure differences between the Atlantic and Pacific. This has produced wind anomalies that have given Pacific Equatorial trade winds an additional big push. “The rapid warming of the Atlantic Ocean created high pressure zones in the upper atmosphere over that basin and low pressure zones close to the surface of the ocean,” says Professor Axel Timmermann, co-lead and corresponding author from the University of Hawaii. “The rising air parcels, over the Atlantic eventually sink over the eastern tropical Pacific, thus creating higher surface pressure there. The enormous pressure see-saw with high pressure in the Pacific and low pressure in the Atlantic gave the Pacific trade winds an extra kick, amplifying their strength. It’s like giving a playground roundabout an extra push as it spins past.” Many climate models appear to have underestimated the magnitude of the coupling between the two ocean basins, which may explain why they struggled to produce the recent increase in Pacific Equatorial trade wind trends. While active, the stronger Equatorial trade winds have caused far greater overturning of ocean water in the West Pacific, pushing more atmospheric heat into the ocean, as shown by co-author and ARCCSS Chief Investigator Professor Matthew England earlier this year. This increased overturning appears to explain much of the recent slowdown in the rise of global average surface temperatures. Importantly, the researchers don’t expect the current pressure difference between the two ocean basins to last. When it does end, they expect to see some rapid changes, including a sudden acceleration of global average surface temperatures. “It will be difficult to predict when the Pacific cooling trend and its contribution to the global hiatus in surface temperatures will come to an end,” Professor England says.

      • L RACINE Says:

        excellent!!! Thank you

        As Shrek would say “That explains a lot” (seriously)

        When was this info published and do you have links and cites?

  3. L RACINE Says:

    Beautiful,, simply beautiful.

  4. Sir Charles Says:

    ‘Foehn winds’ causing Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf to melt in winter

    Parts of Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf are melting in the depths of winter, when temperatures typically stay well below freezing, research finds.

    Between 2015 and 2017, around 23% of the annual surface melt across the ice shelf occured in the winter months, according to results taken from field and satellite observations.

    Melting during the winter months is largely being driven by strong and gusty winds, known as “foehn winds”, which bring spells of relatively warm and dry weather, the study says.

    The research questions the long-held assumption that surface melt in Antarctica is confined to the summer season, the lead author tells Carbon Brief.

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