Monitoring Climate Changes at the Gorner Glacier

Monitoring Climate Changes at the Gorner Glacier with the Leica BLK Imaging Laser Scanners

Author: Michelle Byrne, Principal Marketing Manager Reality Capture

Since 2017, Tommaso Santagata, co-founder of Vigea and member of La Venta Esplorazioni Geografiche association, has been involved in a long-term topographic survey and monitoring project on one of the largest and most extraordinary glaciers in the Alpine region – the Gorner Glacier. With his team, Santagata embarks on an underworld exploration to acquire data on the glacier’s health for climate change monitoring.

Santagata explains how his time inside the glacier led to critical discoveries about its lifespan, using 3D laser scanning technology to open new possibilities for glacier monitoring in the Alpine and beyond.

Objectives

Putting laser scanning technology to the test in harsh conditions

Vigea carries out topographic surveys and monitoring using innovative technologies for three-dimensional surveying. The team needed to test new 3D mapping technologies in harsh environments. Particularly for monitoring climate changes, geology and glacier evolutions.

The La Venta Esplorazioni Geografiche association has been studying the Gorner Glacier as part of a project named ‘Inside the Glaciers’. They have been analysing the subglacial melt, showcasing new perspectives to current models, including from the Alps and in other temperate glacier environments such as Greenland, Iceland, Kyrgyzstan and Patagonia.

Since the end of the 19th century, the Gorner Glacier’s front has been retreating drastically. This has been accelerating with climate change and has been of significant interest to the scientific community. Universities and research institutions such as the University of Bologna in Italy, the ETH Zürich in Switzerland and the Arctic University of Norway use these caves to study geological evolution, hydrology and microbiology of environments.

Santagata’s team visit the Gorner Glacier at least twice a year in the summer and winter seasons to obtain data for comparisons. This is because different 3D models between the seasons enable the team to calculate the glacier’s melting from within and study its evolution. For each expedition, the visualisation of the contact cave system is essential for Santagata’s team.

Solution

Reality capture that’s only possible with Leica Geosystems’ technology

The perfect reality capture solutions for capturing the Gorner Glacier consisted of two laser scanners from the Leica BLK product range – the Leica BLK2GO handheld imaging laser scanner and the Leica BLK360 imaging laser scanner, as well as Leica Cyclone REGISTER industry-leading point cloud registration software. Santagata required not only ease of use but the possibility of obtaining excellent quality data in a short space of time. The solution also needed to be easy to transport and maintain due to the extreme environment.

The team used the BLK2GO and BLK360 to scan the glacier cave and used UAVs to capture the external surface and completely inaccessible areas. The BLK2GO is the perfect technology for acquiring data inside the cave. With never-seen-before mobility, the team could scan the environment by holding the device in their hand like a torch. With increased agility and efficiency, the team were able to capture 3D objects and spaces within a glacier cave that would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible.

The team identified four main melt rivers, three fed by the now-hanging Gorner front that’s heated by the sun for most of the day. This is among other discoveries within the glacier cave, including a steep meltwater stream fed by overhanging seracs (pinnacles of ice), and glacial tongues (floating patches of ice) throughout.

Showcasing the evolution of underground caves using data

The team were able to not only conduct the 3D scans inside the ice caves but produce 3D point clouds and 360-degree photographs. This is critical for monitoring climate change and to show the glacier’s evolution. The data processing is conducted using two software solutions, including Cyclone REGISTER, to create complete three-dimensional models of the interior and external environment. Researchers take this data to study the evolution of underground caves and look at the trend in temperatures and quantity of water drained into the glacier.

Santagata commented: “By carrying out several surveys of the same caves at different times over the last two years, this has made it possible to carry out scientific comparisons, which gave the researchers involved the opportunity to study the evolution of the glacier.”

Benefits

Opening new possibilities for monitoring glaciers around the world

For the Gorner Glacier, the datasets and insights achieved using the BLK2GO, BLK360 and Cyclone REGISTER have informed how subsurface processes speed up the demise of the Gorner Glacier. This provides crucial information about its collapse over considerably shorter time scales than current models predict. The data will be used to create 3D and 2D maps, interactive models, scientific comparisons and virtual reality models – sharing the wonder of the Gorner Glacier to the public, and the risk it’s currently under.

“Using Leica Geosystems laser scanning technology, we were able to obtain useful data for making comparisons inside glacial caves that would not have been possible to obtain with other instruments,” commented Santagata.

Santagata and his team have opened new possibilities for the monitoring of glaciers around the world. They are using the exact solutions for other businesses and training employees to use laser scanning solutions for future expeditions. By establishing a standard data capture method for projects such as these, researchers can uncover scientific and historical information about our fascinating natural heritage and ultimately, our planet.

Obtain data to make comparisons that would not have been possible with any other equipment

Ability to track glaciers around the world

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