The arctic landscape of Axel Heiberg Island, Canada. Captured by a Planet Dove-R on August 15, 2019. ©2019 Planet Labs, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Planet’s Data Helps Geologists Efficiently Monitor the Melting Arctic


For geologists like Dr. Anna Grau Galofre of Arizona State University, just getting to Axel Heiberg Island in the Canadian High Arctic to do research is a time-consuming and expensive endeavor due to weather conditions. High above the Arctic Circle, snow can be present one day and gone the next, while sunny 17 degrees Celcius days can give way to freezing rain with little notice.

Because of this, Grau Galofre has to take multiple flights aboard a series of commercial jets and Twin Otter propeller-powered airplanes, which can amount to costs of thousands of dollars. But with the aid of Planet’s data, Grau Galofre is able to monitor the real-time conditions of the island and make better decisions about how to spend time and resources.

“If we fly out to an area and it’s covered in snow, we’ve wasted time and money because we can’t see the landscape once we get there,” Grau Galofre says. “Planet gives us the ability to see up-to-date images so we can tell what areas are clear for us to visit. It’s incredibly valuable.”

PlanetScope imagery is also useful for Grau Galofre’s team as they research changes in the Earth’s surface triggered by permafrost melting. Permafrost occurs in the Arctic in places where the ground has remained frozen for at least two years, making the ground as tough as concrete.

Tracking and researching permafrost locations is increasingly necessary due to the effects of climate change, which are causing permafrost to melt at a rapid rate.

The above image shows the aftermath of permafrost melting. In Axel Island, ground that was once frozen and hard as concrete is now a pond of mud. Photo by Anna Grau Galofre

The above image shows the aftermath of permafrost melting. In Axel Island, ground that was once frozen and hard as concrete is now a pond of mud. Photo by Anna Grau Galofre

When permafrost melts, it can lead to dramatic effects such as landslides, sinkholes, severe flooding, and even the release of large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. In some cases, grave infrastructure problems have affected entire Arctic communities due to their homes sinking into the ground. This is especially concerning in places like Russia and Alaska, where permafrost provides crucial protection against coastal erosion when savage winter storms crash in from the seas. As the climate is warming, other communities remain at high risk and will likely require relocation over the next decade.

Other than attempting to mitigate the effects of climate change as a whole, there’s little in the way of preventative measures that can be taken to deal with permafrost melting—beyond getting people to safety. Identifying where and how quickly permafrost is melting could play a key role in saving Arctic communities.

Grau Galofre’s work aims to help scientists in their efforts to recognize signs of melting and devise strategies to mitigate risk as early as possible, giving communities and governments time to take action to avoid any loss of lives from the impending hazards.

“Access to Planet’s daily imagery of Axel Heiberg Island allowed my team to visit more of our target sites with increased confidence than in previous years, optimizing the scientific return of our expedition,” Grau Galofre says. “Planet’s data has been a valuable component to our research.”