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The University of Southampton
Geography and Environmental Science

Bird’s eye view gives a better understanding of how glaciers are moving

Published: 8 November 2013
Alex Clayton & colleague Tom Bishop

Glaciologist Alex Clayton is using a state-of-the-art remote controlled plane to capture unique pictures of the movement of glaciers in Iceland.

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is programmed to fly in a pattern over the Skalafellsjökull glacier and take thousands of photographs of the surface; they are then combined using innovative photogrammetry software to produce 3D models to help scientists understand more about the glacial processes (click the images below to see an example of a UAV image and 3D rendering in detail). Uniquely, data from probes sunk under the surface in the University of Southampton's Glacsweb project is added to the models. Alex believes this is the first time a remote controlled plane has been used to obtain such images in the extreme Icelandic environment.

The PhD student visited the area in June and August 2013 with technical colleague Tom Bishop and managed to get useful data for his thesis. "If we know more about how glaciers move now, it will help us understand how they're going to move later this century in a warmer climate," he explains. "The models also tell us about the effects of climate change, we estimate this glacier is losing up to four metres of ice a year from its surface."

Alex's interest in glaciers was sparked by his undergraduate and masters research projects in the UK Lake District and the Himalayas while he was studying physical geography. He aims to carry on with this work: "My ambition is to use the UAV to carry out research in Antarctica," he adds.

Southampton geographers led by Dr Julian Leyland and Dr Gareth Roberts bought the £12,000 plane with a grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; it is available to all researchers in the subject who need aerial perspectives for their investigations. The UAV is in high demand; its next deployment is to Cambodia where it will be used to image river environments.

Follow Alex's progress on Twitter: @glaciologist

3D rendering of the glacier
Birdseye view of glacier from UAV
UAV image
On location in Iceland
Skalafellsjokull glacier
Setting up the UAV
UAV launch and take off
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