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Preserving Svalbard’s Delicate Geology Digitally


A dark cliff next to a group of people with snowmobiles

Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the High Arctic, boasts remarkable geology that is unobstructed by tall plants, making it an ideal location for studying rock formations. However, the landscape is constantly changing due to rapid glacier movement and landslides, which can obscure valuable geological data. To preserve this information for future research and students, scientists are working quickly to document Svalbard’s terrain.

“We have a limited amount of daylight for our work, only six months.”

Digital outcrop models (DOMs) are created by stitching together thousands of overlapping photographs of a rock outcrop into a three-dimensional image. The advent of low-cost drones, which can be programmed to fly automated grid patterns and take photographs of the ground from different angles, has made DOMs easier to create, allowing geologists to study outcrops from the comfort of an office computer. That’s particularly useful in Svalbard, which is plunged into darkness during the winter months.

Peter Betlem from the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) stated that they have a limited amount of daylight for their work, only six months. Betlem is responsible for managing digital data for a project that stores and shares DOMs (digital objects models) of Svalbard’s outcrops through an online platform called Svalbox. Their efforts were recently featured in Geosphere.

Two people outdoors in snow gear look at a small handheld computer screen.

Peter Betlem and Nil Rodés are discussing the procurement of aerial images as shown on the controller for the drone. This is credited to Will Hartz.

Exploring lesser-known areas of the archipelago via boat, the group has currently created models for 135 outcrops. One notable outcrop is Festningen, a 7-kilometer-long cliff composed of sediment layers deposited over a span of 400 million years.

The creation of Svalbox was primarily for educational purposes, according to Betlem. He explained that during the dark season, students were unable to see the rocks, but by utilizing DOMs, they are able to view the outcrop from various perspectives and better understand the information. This helps familiarize them with the outcrop before going into the field. Additionally, the digital outcrops are now being used for research on carbon capture and storage in the Norwegian Continental Shelf.

According to Betlem, DOMs provide a unique viewpoint that is difficult to obtain from the ground. He states that it is often impossible to observe faults, structures, and sediment deposition from the ground, making the aerial perspective provided by DOMs incredibly valuable.

Documenting a Changing Landscape

The formations on Svalbard are often changed by ice floes. According to Nil Rodés, a marine geoscientist and coauthor of the study, the island’s landscape is rapidly evolving due to its numerous surging glaciers.

Betlem stated that numerous locations they have visited have been deteriorated by glaciers and are now non-existent.

According to Rodés, Svalbard is greatly affected by climate change as the melting permafrost leads to landslides that can cover outcrops. A key objective is to create a digital representation of the outcrop as it was during data collection in case this information is lost.

The Svalbox initiative serves as a model project for the global community.

The team is sharing their models, including the corresponding raw photos, supplemental data, and metadata, with the public through open-source repositories such as Zenodo and the Norwegian National e-Infrastructure for Research Data.

According to Clare Bond, a scientist at the University of Aberdeen, the Svalbox project is arriving at a crucial moment where researchers are realizing the importance of their work beyond individual papers. They are now focused on making their own data openly accessible to others. Bond, who was one of the pioneers in studying the use of drones for virtual outcrops, believes that this type of database is still in its early stages of becoming widely used. She is not directly involved in the Svalbox project.

According to Stefano Tavani, a geologist from the University of Naples Federico II who is not involved in the Svalbox project, Svalbox is a pioneering project that sets the course for the future. He explained that while the process of constructing a DOM is well-known, the large amount of data involved makes it impractical to make them accessible to the world. This is due to the high cost of server maintenance once the data is archived.

A screenshot of colorful, tilted layers of rock

Scientists can use Svalbox digital outcrop models to virtually explore rock formations throughout Svalbard. This technology allows for remote examination of outcrops in the region. Credit: Svalbox

According to Tavani, there are several publicly accessible repositories. However, only the final model, which is often reduced in size, can be accessed from these repositories. The Svalbox team is currently working on creating a platform to share the complete data set.

Betlem’s goal is to share publicly funded data sets on an open-source platform in order to promote collaboration and ensure their continued accessibility for researchers. This is in contrast to the common occurrence of resources being limited to one’s own career and ending when it does, if the source code or imagery is not made available.

Betlem stated that they will not live indefinitely and will likely not remain in academia for an extended period of time. The open source availability of Svalbox is intended to prevent the need for someone to recreate the same data collection process.

—Bill Morris, Science Writer

Reference: Morris, B. (2023), Preserving the Fragile Geology of Svalbard Through Digital Means, Eos, 104, https://doi.org/10.1029/2023EO230398. Published on October 18, 2023.

Text © 2023. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

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