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B403: Studying Antarctic ice seals by remote sensing (Priority project with CASE partner) (Lead Supervisor: Peter Fretwell, British Antarctic Survey)

Supervisors: Peter Fretwell (British Antarctic Survey), Gareth Rees (Geography/SPRI) and Iain Staniland (British Antarctic Survey)

Importance of the area of research:

Antarctic ice seals i.e., crabeater, Weddell, Ross and leopard, are abundant top predators in the Southern Ocean and are an important part of the ecosystem. Crabeater seals alone are thought to be one of the most numerous higher predators on earth. Like many Southern Ocean predators krill is a key prey for all these species and knowledge of their abundance and distribution is crucial to our understanding of the Antarctic marine ecosystem and in managing the effects of human activities. However, traditional survey techniques are logistically difficult and costly due to the extent of the areas that need to be covered and the dynamic nature of the ice. As a result surveys are temporally and spatially limited and resulting population estimates vary considerably with no reliable information on population trajectories. This is critical in the Antarctic Peninsula, which is both the most heavily exploited region in the Antarctic and an area of recent rapid warming. Such climatic change leads to sea ice loss, directly reducing suitable breeding and resting habitat for ice seals increasing the risk of predation and travel costs to foraging areas.

Project summary:

This project will explore a variety of remote sensing technologies to help resolve the distribution, abundance and habitat preference of ice seals in the Antarctic Peninsula region. Several international projects have highlighted the ability of aerial and satellite imagery to identify seals that live and breed on sea ice. Very High Resolution satellite images, but, due to difficulties in ground truthing, the accuracy of the method is undetermined. This project will use long range UAVs  to test the accuracy of satellite counts, quantify errors, and use this technology to develop our understanding of the populations and distribution of ice seals. These data, combined with remotely sensed oceanographic parameters and ice characteristics, will inform habitat models enabling us to understand current distribution patterns and to predict how ice seals will react to future climate scenarios.

What the student will do:

The student will use a variety of remote sensing and modelling techniques to estimate ice seal populations. They will analyse thermal and photographic data from BAS's newly acquired Prion long range UAV to test the accuracy of VHR satellite counts. They will map the distribution of seals, quantifying density and population variations, in relation to sea ice characteristics (ice density, distance to ice edge etc.) and oceanographic variables (bathymetry, surface temperature, seabed slope, chlorophyll concentration etc.) to construct habitat models. They will work closely with UAV operators to develop experimental protocols and survey techniques to best answer these questions.

Working with the WWF (a minimum of 3 days per year) the student will communicate the project through electronic media with interviews, blogs and tweets on ice seals, and related topics.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Follow this link to find out about applying for this project.

Other projects available from the Lead Supervisor can be viewed here.

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