Biogeographic Assessment of Antarctic Coastal Habitats (2021-2022)


Polar ecosystems are changing rapidly amid global climate change. Major shifts are unfolding across physical environments and biological and social communities, through the critical influence of polar ecosystems in regulating global weather patterns, carbon sequestration, sea-level control, fisheries health and other pressing concerns. 

Near Palmer Station, Antarctica, weather patterns are shifting from cold, dry, predictable patterns toward a wetter, more variable environment, and species are responding accordingly. Adélie penguins and Antarctic silverfish have declined rapidly, while subpolar gentoo penguins and Antarctic fur seals arrive in greater numbers each year. Glacial recession and precipitation allow mosses to flourish and unveil terrain that has been hidden under ice for millennia. Scientists are studying aspects of this ecological shift at Palmer Station, targeting select species and processes for lab and field research. 

New remote sensing techniques can expand these efforts by integrating current studies into a more holistic context of regional biogeography. Unoccupied aircraft systems (UASs or drones) provide ultra-high-resolution spatial data to describe entire landscapes, capturing species presence, land cover and changes over time in this shifting polar ecosystem. 

Project Description

By exploring high-frequency, high-resolution UAS mapping products in coordination with leading scientists, this project can help establish baselines for current and future research in a warming ecosystem. The project team will use imagery from UASs to characterize variance and trends in Antarctic coastal habitats over the summer season, applying these findings to establish a remotely sensed baseline biogeographic assessment of dynamic and changing Antarctic coastal habitats. 

The project builds on data collected at Palmer Station through the Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing lab and the NSF Palmer Antarctica Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site. 

Team members will derive critical baseline measurements from UAS imagery to characterize coastal habitats and their biological communities in the Palmer Archipelago, contextualizing ecosystem processes and enabling future comparisons to understand climatic changes. Topics from the dataset will be grouped into five categories: geomorphology, vegetation, glaciology, avifauna and seals. 

The team will analyze data, characterize aspects of the ecosystem and explore hypotheses, then develop a synthesis paper on the use of UAS data to establish baselines for studying ecological change.

Learn more about this project team by viewing the team's video.

Anticipated Outputs

Publications; story maps; open-access datasets; synthesis paper; recorded webinar

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 3-5 graduate students and 3-5 undergraduate students. 

Graduate students should have exposure to GIS, and some familiarity with environmental remote sensing or statistics, with an interest in research and communication in the service of ecosystem science, conservation and management. Interest in coastal/marine ecosystems and polar environments is relevant but not required. Mentorship and teaching opportunities will be available and facilitated to graduate students, if desired. 

Undergraduate students should have an interest in drone technology, remote sensing methods, geospatial analyses, polar science or topics of environmental, geophysical or ecological research. 

Strong skills in writing and coding would be beneficial for all students but are not required and can be developed through this project. All students should have an interest in engaging with active, established environmental researchers to participate in the scientific research process. They must be comfortable learning new software methods, handling data files with backups and organizational systems, and working with others in a team of diverse backgrounds and interests.

Team members will participate in a course on Antarctic history and research, contribute to individual and group projects, and work with leading scientists from a variety of institutions who conduct related research in the Antarctic Peninsula. Students will share their work by publishing a publicly accessible online story map and submitting a final written report of findings. Students may also be able to publish a collaborative synthesis paper and hold a public webinar.

Students will learn how to process drone imagery using the latest photogrammetric software, how to derive specialized geospatial data products using GIS, and how to aggregate statistics using GIS and R programming language. All students will be required to participate nominally in collaborative writing, with the option of contributing as a full coauthor.

Students will engage in a hybrid of personal mentorship and team-based collaboration to advance their understanding of polar ecosystem change and how UAS methods can support polar research and conservation. Graduate students will have opportunities to mentor undergraduates, and faculty will facilitate teamwork between students. 

The team will meet weekly during the project to share updates and troubleshoot challenges together. The team will also meet regularly in the fall for the course on Antarctica, and in the spring for weekly writing workshops.

Gregory Larsen will serve as project manager.


Fall 2021 – Summer 2022

  • Fall 2021: Take part in course on science and history of Antarctic Peninsula; participate in weekly meetings for dataset introduction; learn drone imagery software; begin exploring dataset; connect with expert mentors 
  • Spring 2022: Derive environmental data with GIS; discuss findings and potential hypotheses; summarize findings; contribute to synthesis paper
  • Summer 2022 (optional): Publish findings; hold public webinar


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available


Image: Antarctica: Open Water at McMurdo Station, by Eli Duke, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Antarctica: Open Water at McMurdo Station.

Team Leaders

  • David Johnston, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Gregory Larsen, Nicholas School of the Environment–Marine Science and Conservation–Ph.D. Student

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Megan Cimino, Institute of Marine Sciences, UC Santa Cruz
  • Ari Friedlaender, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UC Santa Cruz
  • Dulcinea Groff, Lehigh University
  • Jim McClintock, Polar and Marine Biology, University of Alabama Birmingham
  • Alex Simms, UC Santa Cruz