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Fall 2004
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Access Antarctica-The New Zealand Antarctic GIS

By Paul Barr, GIS Technician, Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Looking through dusty filing cabinets for Antarctic aerial photographs will become a thing of the past, thanks to the New Zealand Antarctic GIS. Users can simply zoom to their area of interest and click on the nearest flight line with the hyperlink tool to see flight line information and preview images.

The Internet now extends its reach over the entire planet, and that includes Antarctica. Antarctica may be a vast expanse of snow, ice, rock, and yet more ice, but it is also a hotbed of international science, with many nations having research programs and bases on the Antarctic continent.

Where the Internet and Antarctica come together is in the need for data display management, and Internet mapping tools allow this to take place in a user-friendly and effective manner, accessible to anyone, anywhere.

Access Antarctica is the Web site ( through which Gateway Antarctica, the Centre for Antarctic Studies and Research at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, is making Antarctic data and information resources available online via Internet mapping tools.

The New Zealand (NZ) Antarctic GIS provides a basemap using data from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research's Antarctic Digital Database. This allows a myriad of other Antarctic-related, digitally stored information to be presented in its geographic context, opening up a powerful, interactive geographic search using a point and click interface. Users can search for publications by drawing a box around their area of interest and at the same time find related aerial photographs, automatic weather station locations, protected area maps, documents, and much more.

The ArcIMS platform was chosen to implement the online GIS system because it integrates well with existing Esri GIS resources and ensures compatibility with other emerging Antarctic Internet map server-based systems.

Thanks to ArcIMS, this pipe dream of data management can now be a reality and is quickly spreading around the world. The NZ Antarctic GIS is just one example of this. In the Antarctic realm, there are many GIS systems already established. New Zealand has two more, Landcare Research's Ross Sea Region Soils GIS and the Ministry of Fisheries GIS, which covers New Zealand and the Southern Ocean. Further afield there is the United States Geological Survey's Atlas of Antarctic Research, the Australian Antarctica Division Atlas, and the online Chinese Antarctic geodatabase, run from the Chinese Antarctic Center of Surveying and Mapping. The long-term goal, and subject of much discussion, is the integration of these different systems using a distributed model to provide a complete Antarctic data system to the end user, meaning that Antarctica will no longer be out of reach, despite its location at the end of the world.

Although the NZ Antarctic GIS holds some layers for the entire continent, the focus remains on the Ross Sea region in keeping with New Zealand's Antarctic policy. This also means there is more Ross detail in the NZ Antarctic GIS, including digitized aerial photography flight lines and the location of New Zealand science events on the ice.

Maximizing Aerial Photos and Flight Lines With GIS

Aerial photography in a region so remote and inaccessible as Antarctica does not come cheap, and since the major United States Navy photographic missions of the 60s and 70s, there has been little increase in aerial photography of Antarctica.

Because most of these photos were acquired 30 to 40 years ago, there is no easy-to-use method for searching the imagery. The best is a series of flight lines drawn on multiple maps and transparencies for each area. Researchers may try to find the original photograph among thousands, only to find the study site had been missed.

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The New Zealand Antarctic GIS provides a portal for environmental managers in Antarctica. Here hyperlinks from the ArcIMS viewer provide ready access to protected area maps.

New aerial photographs are seldom taken in Antarctica because of the high cost. Therefore, satellite imagery is by far the most convenient way to gather new topographic and visual information across terrain of such vast expanse. The resolution of these satellite images is fast approaching that of the original aerial photos.

So why bother organizing old aerial photographs at all? The answer lies in the extremely topical issue of climate change. The photos provide an invaluable historical record of the environment 30 to 40 years ago. Comparing the record provided by these old aerial photographs with satellite imagery of the present-day environment is a boon to investigation into changes in the distribution and extent of ice and the associated climate change.

Therefore, we are back to the original issue of finding a way to access these images quickly, easily, and efficiently. This is where the NZ Antarctic GIS using ArcIMS comes in. The flight lines and photo centers are digitized into ArcGIS Desktop (ArcInfo) using shapefiles, and this information is then transferred to ArcIMS. From here, using the hyperlink functionality of ArcIMS, users can zoom into their region of interest; select the relevant area using the select tool; and then, with one more mouse click (using the hyperlink tool), users can view photo information, availability, acquisition date, etc., and even preview the image itself. All this can be done from their own computer anywhere in the world with Internet access.

Environmental Management at the Bottom of the World

Environmental management is difficult under the best of conditions. Imagine protecting an area that is thousands of kilometers away, dark for half the year, and nearly completely frozen and covers millions of square kilometers.

Coping with vast and disparate information sources, which are all required to inform the management process, is not an easy task.

As Antarctica is designated a "natural reserve," environmental protection of the vast area is vital. Accurately identifying unique items, such as Antarctic species and sensitive ecosystems, is vital for environmental managers.

With ice covering 98 percent of the Antarctic continent, keeping track of the 2 percent fragment of ice-free land is difficult. On Ross Island alone, there are more than one-half dozen Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs), and GIS has proven itself to be a great tool for enabling management of these ASPAs.

Existing vector and new GPS data points were transformed, using ArcGIS Desktop (ArcInfo) and its ArcMap application, into a series of maps of different scales that illustrates important sites for management across Ross Island from the emperor penguin colony at Cape Crozier to the historic huts at Cape Evans and Cape Royds.

Indeed, the NZ Antarctic GIS is able to serve information about this protected area at the click of a button across the Internet. This includes downloadable copies of the protected area maps and text of the management plans. It is also a user-friendly forum that allows policy makers to easily obtain important geographic information.

In addition, the NZ Antarctic GIS is also capable of performing a bibliographic search using a quick query or buffer feature: for example, find all the records for papers published about sites within 50 km of Ross Island. This is possible because of the inclusion of the Geo-Referenced Layer of the Antarctic Papers Bibliography, which is maintained by Antarctica New Zealand.

Begin a Personalized Journey

GIS has layers for all kinds of users from scientists to primary school students and everyone in between. The Webcam layer is an example of this diverse content range, providing a layer of links to cameras at different sites around the frozen continent allowing users to begin their own virtual tour. To begin your own journey, visit Access Antarctica at

For more information, contact Paul Barr, GIS technician, Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand (e-mail:; tel.: 64-3-364-2987, ext. 4980; fax: 64-3-364-2197).

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