The Agribotix glacier monitoring team is en route to New Zealand for a field campaign that is cooler -- literally -- than agricultural monitoring. Upon arriving in Christchurch on Saturday morning, we'll be heading straight to Tasman Glacier with two drones and a few cameras in tow. There, we'll spend up to two weeks creating a digital elevation model, or DEM, of the lower 10-15km of the glacier from aerial photography. The goal of the project, planned and executed in conjunction with Brian Anderson at Victoria University of Wellington, is to prototype a method for producing accurate yet affordable DEMs of mountain glaciers.
Mountain glaciers tend to be sensitive indicators of climatic change, but they are often under-monitored, so it can be hard to say just how much their area and volume have changed in the recent past. Unlike ice sheets, their scale is small compared to the scale of satellite measurements, and there simply are not many resources to support on-the-ground measurements. Smaller-scale aerial surveys have primarily been done by helicopter or plane, and can be too expensive to perform regularly.
Drone surveys have the advantage of providing the aerial perspective without the costs associated with helicopters or planes, so could be performed on a regular basis. The change in the elevation and extent of the glacier -- quantified with the DEMs -- with respect to time can be translated into changes in the glacier volume.* This dataset has the potential to provide a large amount of new information about the sensitivity of mountain glaciers to changes in the climate.
Stay tuned for more updates as the campaign begins!
*This assumes that the glacier bed (where the bottom of the glacier meets the earth surface) is not changing its shape or elevation, which is probably a safe assumption on decadal to centennial timescales, but not necessarily on very long ones!