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OSU researchers using drones to study Peruvian glaciers

ALLISON SLONAKER
Special to the Legal News

Published: January 5, 2016

Researchers from The Ohio State University are using aerial drones high in the Peruvian Andes to study glaciers and wetlands with 10-centimeter precision.

They are gauging how climate change may affect those who rely on the glaciers for their water supply, which is around a half a million residents.

The study may have just started, but the scientists have already found that the Cordillera Blanca mountain range has a healthy groundwater system, said Oliver Wigmore, a doctoral student in geography at OSU.

“In this area, glacier melt provides 50 percent of the water during the dry season, and people use it for farms, hydroelectricity and to drink,” he explained. “We know the glaciers are disappearing, so there will be less water available for the dry season in the future. But what my colleagues and I have found is that the groundwater system is storing some of the glacier melt as well as precipitation.”

He said there will still be a significant drop in water supply eventually, but there may be some potential for the groundwater to buffer it.

Wigmore and his team collected measurements, which suggest the rapid changes of a key glacier in the Llaca Valley region, recording a 0.7 meter average of thinning in one year and a maximum of 18 meters in some locations.

Byran Mark, associate professor of geography from OSU, joined Wigmore, Jeffrey McKenzie, from Canada’s McGill University and their team to overcome the clouds, rough terrain and thin air, which make it difficult to access the ice on Cordillera Blanca, by using technology.

Mark said glaciers are important to obtain information on climate, but they are concerned about the water resource.

“All glaciers are a really important source of information about climate, whether it’s the amount that they are receding or past history from ice cores,” he said. “But right now, we’re acutely concerned for the water resource that they contain. All over the world, glaciers are close to rapidly expanding urban areas and extensive agriculture, both of which need water.”

Wigmore designed and built special high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles that, with the time-lapse thermal camera systems McKenzie developed, provide more information about the groundwater system that would otherwise have been difficult to obtain.

“UAVs offer some of the best technology available today for gathering data on a scale to inform local water management decisions,” Wigmore said.

The drones built by Wigmore have a 10-centimeter resolution, work in the cloudy conditions and only cost a few thousand dollars each.

That’s compared to satellites, which provide half meter resolutions, only work during the relatively cloud-free months and cost millions of dollars.

The drones fly about 100 meters over the ice and wetlands, taking hundreds of photographs that overlap, providing 3-D imaging in a way that compares to the human eye.

Wigmore controls a portion of every flight from a laptop, but lets the UAVs fly free while collecting data.

“It’s like hundreds of eyes looking from different perspectives all across this landscape,” Wigmore said.

The research team also has thermal infrared cameras, allowing them to see which sections melt the quickest.

“These new technologies, combined with the UAV mapping, are allowing us to observe glaciers in ways that we would never have thought possible even a couple of years ago. It is really an exciting time to be involved in this research,” McKenzie said.

Due to the advancements in computer vision, open source software and low-cost hardware, there have been a boom in scientist using custom drones, according to Wigmore.

The strategy created by the team provides a template for other research teams investigating water security in part of the world with larger populations, such as China and India, according to the researchers.

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