Researcher Short Articles

A different perspective on Icelandic glaciers

By Alex Clayton - University of Southampton

Aerial images are often bizarrely abstract and seem to lie somewhere between conventional landscape photography and modern art.  We struggle to identify elements of the image, the baffling unfamiliarity caused by the unusual perspective. Iceland’s landscape seems to accentuate this with peculiarly shaped and coloured landscapes dominating the country. Often they’re unrecognisable to the layman from the ground, never mind from the air.

But in an odd juxtaposition sometimes the very reason I collect imagery with UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) is to help people understand the landscape I work in.  The UAVs camera allows me to collect a series of overlapping photos of the area I’m surveying. From these I can create a very detailed 3-D model of the area surveyed via a process called photogrammetry.

Throughout my years studying geography I’ve often found that when describing a location to friends conventional maps have been totally useless. Doing that 2-D to 3-D conversion from endless contours is just a skill lots of people aren’t trained in.  But in today’s media rich environment 3-D models are utterly ubiquitous. So when I can show a 3-D model of a field site I’m working at people can quickly understand where I’m doing my research and so also what I’m hoping to achieve.

Of course there are other more scientific objectives for these models as well.  In my PhD I’m particularly interested in how glaciers move. Using these 3-D models I can track how the ice is moving day to day. UAVs are crucial in this research. There are other methods for getting 3D models but none of them give me the flexibility and resolution to collect models day after day in the field across a relatively flat expanse of ice.

Having data on how ice movement varies across an area of a couple of kilometres in very high detail then helps another area of my work.  I’m part of a larger research group that places sensors, intelligent pebbles if you like, under the ice.  Unfortunately the data these sensors send back about their movement is nigh on impossible to understand in isolation. Only with data on the ice surface movement can I make sense of it and start to pick apart the relationships that make glaciers tick.

The ice margin of Skalafellsjökull glacier in south east Iceland taken from an unmanned aerial vehicle. Dirty ice has retreated back to leave an expanse of chaotic sand that contrasts against the clear blue meltwater flowing into the murky lake. Few physical environments showcase so many processes.