29 May 2018

Using our Satellite Imagery Services to help the Australian Antarctic Division

By 1964, formerly abundant Southern Elephant Seal colonies had been decimated following a century of exploitation for their oil-rich blubber. Their recovery process has been a long but successful one, monitored by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) as part of the Australian Government’s Department of The Environment and Energy’s priority to understand and conserve Antarctica’s unique life forms.

In September 2017 Geoimage was approached by the AAD to assist in a project to find Southern Elephant Seal colonies using remotely sensed imagery, as an alternative to the traditional high-risk, high-cost method of on-site monitoring. Geoimage has been a trusted supplier of satellite imagery to the AAD for over a decade, leveraging the extensive archive of satellite imagery to collect new assets as required.

The project entailed collecting fresh 30cm satellite imagery over the Vestfold Hills Area, in Princess Elizabeth Land. Southern elephant seals visit sub-Antarctic islands to breed throughout September to November, and to moult their hair and skin between January and April. Collection of the imagery with minimal cloud was required to align with the breeding season of the elephant seal colonies. To ensure optimum monitoring results, these issues indicated the capture program had to fall within narrow 3-month window in the spring-summer of 2017.

Southern elephant seals (Elies) are named after the large proboscis (nose) of the adult males, which is used to make loud roaring sounds, especially during the mating season.
They are large ocean-going mammals with adult males weighing up to 3000 kg and adult females between 300 and 900 kg just prior to giving birth. Pups weigh about 40 kg at birth and are weaned after 24 days, by which time they weigh on average 120 kg. A large weaner may weigh in excess of 220 kg.
They are big and cumbersome on land, but are superb swimmers and divers. Biologists have recorded them diving up to 2 kilometres deep and holding their breath under water for up to 2 hours.
Southern elephant seals have a circumpolar distribution and visit sub-Antarctic islands to breed (September–November) and to moult their hair and skin (January to April). There are four main stock groups: South Georgia, Peninsula Valdez, Iles Kerguelen and Heard Island, and Macquarie Island.


The Project

Map of Vestfold Hills, Princess Elizabeth Land

Australian Antarctic Territory

The Vestfold Hills Area, Princess Elizabeth Land lies on the eastern coast of Antarctica and is accessed via Davis Station.

Davis is situated on the coast of the ice-free Vestfold Hills, a region discovered by Norwegian whalers and Australia’s Douglas Mawson in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The station is named after Captain John King Davis.

The complete 881 sq km Vestfold Hills area was collected by DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 satellite at a spatial resolution of 30cm in three swathes on 21 December 2017. WorldView-3 is one of only two spaceborne platforms capable of collecting imagery at such a high spatial resolution. The complete collection took under 30 seconds and the un-processed imagery as three individual swathes was delivered in a digital form to Geoimage within 2 days of collection.

Processing staff at Geoimage created a seamless mosaic of this digital data and delivered the final mosaic to AAD within their required timeframe.

In contrast to this, collection by manual, UAV or airborne means over such a large area and within the defined time constraints would be very difficult, due to extreme weather conditions and access.

The Results

The final WorldView-3 mosaic with its spatial resolution of 30cm, was visually assessed by the AAD to detect the extent and location of the elephant seal colonies.

At this time, this process is manual via on-site counting, however in the future, cost-effective automation may be possible, once definitive characteristics of the elephant seal colonies are established.

A remotely sensed solution will alleviate on-site safety issues and mobilization of staff, as well as allowing the AAD scientists to spend more time on interpretation and analysis of results, rather than collection of information.

Image of the full Vestfold Hills Area, Princess Elizabeth Land

Collected by WorldView-3 at 30cm Spatial Resolution

© DigitalGlobe 2017

Section of the Vestfold Hills Area, Princess Elizabeth Land

Coastal Section in the South of the Above

Collected by WorldView-3 at 30cm Spatial Resolution

© DigitalGlobe 2017

Section of the Vestfold Hills Area, Princess Elizabeth Land

Coastal Section in the North West of the Above

Collected by WorldView-3 at 30cm Spatial Resolution

© DigitalGlobe 2017

As new areas in Antarctica and the subantarctic region are investigated or areas previously investigated are re-assessed, satellite imagery, its collection and analysis, provides a very useful tool in the delivery of Australia’s Antarctic science strategic priorities.

In addition to this work, AAD have also utilized satellite imagery collected over a number of years to assess the movement and change in shape of glaciers and sea surface ice.

As new imagery is collected, it is added to the extensive archive, not only over Antarctica but anywhere in the world where that collection is made, and that archive can be accessed by anyone working in any industry.

About Geoimage

Geoimage was founded in 1988 as Australia’s first commercial Satellite Imagery specialist consultancy. Over thirty years on, Geoimage continues to service clients in Government and Industry as the worlds leading advisors on Earth Observation imagery and associated technology.

We are an independent consultancy and as such are able to recommend and access the imagery most suited to a client’s application and requirements. Our aim is to provide and deliver fit-for-purpose spatial solutions rather than making the application fit the imagery.

Our client base covers a number of vertical markets and industries including mineral exploration, agriculture, oil and gas, utilities, environment and natural resources and includes all sectors of commerce, education and tiers of government.

Satellite imagery is non-invasive, has unrestricted access to anywhere in the world, has an extensive archive of collected imagery, is programmable for fresh collection, has high inherent locational accuracy and its sensor designs are based on scientific principles.

The possibilities of use of this form of imagery are endless.

About the Australian Antarctic Division

The Australian Antarctic Division, based in Hobart, Tasmania, is part of the Australian Government's Department of the Environment and Energy and is responsible for Australia’s presence and activities in the Australian Antarctic Territory and the Southern Ocean. The Division leads Australia’s Antarctic Program.

The Australian Antarctic Program is highly collaborative, comprising partnerships across government and with more than 150 national and international research institutions. Together, these partnerships contribute to advancing Australia’s interests in Antarctica and the subantarctic region. Australia also works with other countries’ Antarctic programs to run joint international scientific and logistical support operations.

Antarctic science, aligned with our policy interests and integrated with our operational capabilities, is at the heart of the Australian Antarctic Program. Together, Australian and international scientists participating in the program, deliver world-class scientific research consistent with Australia’s Antarctic science strategic priorities.

These priorities include:

- Understanding the role of Antarctica in the global climate system;
- Understanding and conserving Antarctica’s unique life forms;
- Protecting the Antarctic environment; and
- Supporting sound environmental stewardship in the region, with a particular focus on fisheries.

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