The sinking of RMS Titanic seems like an event from the distant past, but still today, over 100 years after the disaster, icebergs continue to endanger shipping between Europe and North America. However, in contrast to earlier years, high-resolution satellite images can now be used to help monitor icebergs drifting in the ocean. In order to warn ships and route planers as rapidly as possible, scientists at DLR’s Earth Observation Center (EOC) have developed a new algorithm that automatically detects the position and size of icebergs in images collected by the TerraSAR-X radar satellite and makes this information available within minutes.
TerraSAR-X circles Earth in a near-polar orbit and thanks to its active radar antenna is able to form an image of oceans and icebergs through clouds and fog—in any kind of weather, day and night. This capability is a decisive advantage, particular for high-latitude locations.
In order to gain precise information about the performance of the algorithm, scientists mapped icebergs in the waters around Newfoundland during a “ground” campaign and compared the result with icebergs detected in the TerraSAR-X radar images. With a detection rate near 95% the scientists are already quite well satisfied with the algorithm. Even relatively small chunks of ice less than 15 m in diameter, so called “bergy bits”, can be detected in the radar image. Together with wind and wave information, which can also be extracted from the satellite images, an overview of the current situation can be compiled which helps navigators to avoid icebergs and other problems.
Most icebergs occurring in in northern latitudes are calved from Greenlandic glaciers and transported southward by ocean currents along the east coast of Canada until they reach Newfoundland some two years later.
EOC operates a Maritime Safety Research Department in Bremen and Neustrelitz that helps guarantee safe shipping, protect oceans and coastal waters, and support public authorities to combat illegal activities such as dumping hazardous material, illegal fishing, and piracy. Thematic processors developed in Bremen to detect ships or icebergs are incorporated into operational ground segment systems in Neustrelitz. With receiving stations in the Arctic (Inuvik) and the Antarctic (GARS O’Higgins) EOC will in the future be able to provide near-real-time services also for polar regions.