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


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

Team Outputs to Date

A Timeline of Antarctic Exploration and Exploitation


Chelsea Tuohy

This Team in the News

Three Environmental Pathways Through Bass Connections

Meet the Members of the 2021-2022 Bass Connections Student Advisory Council

Summer Spotlights: How Four Ph.D. Students Advanced Their Research

Summer Research Snapshots 2021


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

/graduate Team Members

  • Chelsea Tuohy, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management
  • Hanna Varga, Civil & Environmental Engg-MS, Civil & Environmental Engg-PHD
  • Zoe Wong, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management
  • Ziya Zhou, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Catherine Brenner
  • Akash Mullick
  • Nigel Veach, Mechanical Engineering (BSE), Computer Science (BS2)
  • Aimi Wen, Mechanical Engineering (BSE)

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Megan Cimino, Institute of Marine Sciences, UC Santa Cruz
  • Ari Friedlaender, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UC Santa Cruz
  • Dulcinea Groff, Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Wyoming
  • Alex Simms, Department of Earth Science, UC Santa Barbara