November 25, 2023

Researchers are using a new AI tool to detect icebergs in the Southern Ocean. This is the first step towards scientists being able to track the complete life cycle of most icebergs across Antarctica from satellite data.
This new approach can identify icebergs in environments where there is a lot of sea ice – something that has not previously been possible. Using this tool, scientists will be able to spot icebergs when they calve, and track them throughout their lifecycle until their demise, building a more complete picture of iceberg dynamics in the Southern Ocean. Crucially, researchers will be able to monitor icebergs in locations with lots of sea ice, and close to calving locations, where icebergs are densely clustered together.
To detect the icebergs, the tool uses data from Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), an instrument fitted on to the Sentinel-1 satellites, which transmits a microwave signal from space and measures the intensity of the reflected radiation. Icebergs are good reflectors of microwaves because of the crystalline structure of the ice and snow on their surface, so they show up as strong, bright signals in the satellite images. Using microwaves also means these images can be collected day or night and through cloud cover which is common over the Southern Ocean.
For the study, which was funded by The Alan Turing Institute, researchers demonstrated the AI algorithm’s performance on different satellite images, taken over a 12-month period between October 2019 and September 2020. The tool identified almost 30,000 icebergs; most of these were relatively small, measuring 1km2 or less.
The researchers chose the Amundsen Sea Embayment, in West Antarctica, close to the calving front of Thwaites Glacier as their study site.
(Source and image: British Antarctic Survey – Icebergs in the Southern Ocean)