Arctic images declassified

High-resolution photos could provide detailed information about changes in sea ice

Hundreds of high-resolution satellite photos of the Arctic sea ice taken during the past 10 years should be immediately declassified and released to the scientific research community, the National Research Council reported on July 15. Shortly after, the United States Geological Survey made about a thousand of the images available to the public through the Global Fiducials Library.

NEW PHOTOS Recently declassified high-resolution satellite photos, such as this one from the Canadian Fram Strait, could provide scientists with more detailed information about Arctic sea ice melting. Global Fiducials Library/USGS

“Most people from the scientific community are not aware that these images have been collected,” says Stephanie Pfirman, chair of the NRC committee that wrote the report. “They’ll be very excited to see these results.”

The photos could help scientists study the rapid changes taking place in the Arctic, the committee members say. Current research efforts that might benefit include studies of polar bear habitats, of the movement of ice floes and of the formation and evolution of melt ponds — bodies of water that form on ice sheets and accelerate their melting.

“There are a lot of processes that we still don’t have a good handle on,” such as why Arctic ice is melting faster than models predict it should, says geographer Mark Serreze of the University of Colorado at Boulder. High-resolution satellite imagery is “just the sort of thing we need” to answer these questions, he says.

The satellite project began in the mid-1990s when environmental scientists teamed up with members of the intelligence community to create a program that would see whether “classified assets”, which might include aircraft or satellites, could collect data useful for scientific purposes. Called Medea, the program approved the use of pre-existing satellites to take pictures beginning in 1999 at one-meter resolution of four Arctic sites. Two additional locations were added in 2005. The only catch was that the photographs could not be released until a committee had determined that they were scientifically useful.

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