Mapping the bottom of the world

What's black and white and spreads red all over?

That would be a penguin. Thanks to pigments in the birds' krill and fish diets, penguin poo has a reddish tint that makes their colonies and trails stand out on satellite images.

That's a boon to researchers who want to identify and keep track of remote, inaccessible colonies. But to do so, they need somebody to turn satellite images into maps. That's when they call the University of Minnesota's Paul Morin, director of the National Science Foundation-funded Antarctic Geospatial Information Center (AGIC).

Based in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, Morin and his staff of 10, including some five undergrad and graduate students, produce tailor-made maps that researchers and logistics experts in the U.S. Antarctic Program depend on daily. Morin will use images from any satellite belonging to any country, and many of his team's maps are "firsts."

"We do reconnaissance mapping for places no one has ever been to," he says. "We map everything from rocks to rock hoppers [a type of penguin]."

Besides studying penguins or seals remotely, researchers and logisticians may need the help of maps to find interesting outcroppings of rocks, measure how far a glacier has receded, or learn whether a boulder is blocking a path. And, of course, to show where the crevasses are.

All they have to do is call AGIC.

For example, "People will ask us for a line-of-sight map so they can decide where to locate remote radio towers," says AGIC staffer Claire Porter, a geography graduate student who makes her first trip to Antarctica in December. The researchers, she explains, set up the towers so they can radio each other without the signals being blocked by landforms.

A knack for visuals

Paul Morin and Wind Sculpted RockIn 2007 Morin pulled off a rare feat. Although he held no academic degree--and still doesn't--he won the National Science Foundation grant that established the AGIC.

"I've always been in scientific visualization, making pretty pictures with a computer," he says. "I realized there was a need for mapping in Antarctica and wrote a proposal to the NSF, which is the main funding agency for work on the ground there."

Besides using satellite images, he also maps the rugged landscape the old-fashioned way: by going to Antarctica and surveying the terrain first hand.

Morin conducts his work in the McMurdo Dry Valleys region, a mountainous, rainless, 12,740-square-mile region whose rocky crags have been sculpted by wind for millions of years. Some of its valleys have lakes formed by glacial melt; these are of interest to Morin and other researchers because their levels reflect the amount of melting tied to global climate change.

Morin's field site lies 100 miles from McMurdo Station and is accessible only by helicopter. It's in one of several specially protected areas of the continent where everything brought in must be brought out. That includes not only equipment, but every trace of garbage, including--well, you know what we mean.

All of which explains why logistics people outnumber researchers by six or seven to one. They, as well as the researchers they support, make heavy use of AGIC maps.

"I'm most excited about how important our job is," says Brad Herried, also a geography graduate student. "We help with logistics and map-making for people in the most deserted spot in the world."

Morin will return to Antarctica in January, but before feeling sorry for him, remember the midnight sun.

"It gets up to about 35 degrees, warmer than a Minnesota winter," he says. "And it's always sunny in the summer."