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Drone Photos Reveal Iceland’s Glaciers Are Melting at an Accelerated Pace Due to Climate Change

BY Isabella Lee
31 October 2019

Many striking and award-winning drone photographs come from Iceland. Like this gallery of aerial photos that placed second in the 2019 Minimalist Photography Awards and this drone video that won People’s Choice in the 2018 AirVūz Drone Video Awards. People are captivated by the dramatic landscapes and colors that can be captured on the Nordic island.

But aside from the beauty, drones have another story to tell in Iceland. Climate scientists from the University of Dundee, University of Iceland, and the Icelandic Meteorological Office are using drones to monitor glacier changes on the island. The resulting photographs tell a bleak story of consequential ice-loss and climate change.

Iceland Drone Research

A drone used to observe and document glacier changes in southeastern Iceland. Source: Dr. Kieran Baxter, University of Dundee

Researcher’s Drone Photos Speak to the Consequences of Global Warming

Changes in the area and volume of ice and snow are strong indicators of global warming and nowhere are such changes more visible than in the Arctic, where the warming rate is presently twice as high as the global average, according to the Icelandic Meteorological Office.

A new 3D process that involves old aerial photos and modern-day drone photography has shed light on accelerated ice-loss from some of Iceland’s largest glaciers.

Dr. Kieran Baxter from the University of Dundee has created composite images that compare views from 1980s aerial surveys to modern-day photos captured with the help of state-of-the-art technology.

The photos were taken within Vatnajökull National Park, where drone flying is usually prohibited. Dr. Baxter and his team carried out their work under permit from the National Park and a height limit exemption from the Icelandic Transport Authority that allowed for the high-level flying required to take in the vast landscapes.

Ice Caps Drone Climate Change

Photogrammetry Iceland Ice Loss

3D composites of aerial photography from the National Land Survey of Iceland; UAV photography by Dr. Kieran Baxter, University of Dundee

The side-by-side comparisons show accelerated ice-loss on a group of outlet glaciers on the south side of Vatnajökull, Iceland. The melting of these glaciers is contributing to an increasing rate of sea level rise, together with the expansion of the warmer ocean.

The Icelandic Meteorological Office publicly shared the images to coincide with the IPCC’s ‘Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate’. It is hoped that they will help promote public outreach for climate science and glaciology in Iceland.

We have been working to produce images that are both engaging and easy to understand. It is important to show how climate change is physically and visibly affecting the region.

— Dr. Baxter, University of Dundee

How the Images Were Created: Using Photogrammetry to Create 3D Models

Dr. Baxter used state-of-the-art drone technology to created composite images that compare views from 1980s aerial surveys to modern-day photos. The drone of choice was a DJI Inspire, selected because it was portable enough to carry over challenging terrain and yet still large enough to lift a decent camera.

Dr Kieran flying a drone

Dr. Kieran flying over the Hoffellsjökull, an outlet glacier that flows from the ice cap of Vatnajökull. Source: Dr. Alice Watterson, University of Dundee

“The 1980s comparison images are 3D composites based on aerial photographs from the National Land Survey of Iceland. These were taken looking vertically down from high altitude but are very high resolution as they were taken with specialist large format film,” Dr. Baxter explained in a statement to UAV Coach. “We used structure-from-motion photogrammetry to turn these photographs into a 3D model, from which we can retrospectively frame oblique angle views of the 1980s landscape aligned with our current day UAV photographs.”

This revolutionary technique has allowed Dr. Baxter to document the dramatic ice-loss on a group of outlet glaciers on the south side of Vatnajökull, one of the largest ice caps in Europe.

Using photogrammetry software, the same method can be applied to old aerial photographs as well to see how they have changed over the last 30 to 40 years.

“While we have a fantastic resource of mapping photographs from the 1980s, this method can also be applied to aerial photographs that are even older. The archives are huge and we have barely scratched the surface in terms of using them to better show how the warming climate is revealed in our landscapes,” said Dr. Baxter.

Recently, Dr. Baxter’s photogrammetry has also revealed the shrinking glaciers of Mont Blanc, Europe’s tallest peak — by comparing aerial photographs taken 100 years apart.

Drones Used in Conservation Efforts Around the World

Drones aren’t only being put to work over the mountains and glaciers of Iceland, but in other environments as well. They have been a part of conservation efforts among forests, lakes, and oceans:

Conservation Media uses drones to create stories about wildlife and nature. They work with organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon, and the National Wildlife Federation to produce high-quality professional products for their digital outreach campaigns. Recently they told the story of climate change’s impact on oceans, causing them to become more acidic and adversely affect fish populations.

Ocean Alliance is using drones to study whales in a non-invasive way. They use a drone called SnotBot to collect DNA, microbiomes, pregnancy hormones, stress hormones, and ketones contained in whale blow. SnotBot’s video camera collects behavioral data and also provides beautiful imagery of whales in their natural habitat.

DroneSeed is reforesting areas affected by wildfires using drone swarms to plant new trees. They use swarms of drones in groups of up to five to cover large areas of land faster than could be covered by a single drone. And these drones are big—to give you an idea of how big, each one can carry up to 57 pounds of seeds.

These are just a few examples of ways drones are being used to help the environment. Learn more about drones doing good in this post.

Share your reactions to Dr. Kieran’s work and the resulting photos in this thread on our community forum.

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