Article image

AI can identify giant icebergs 10,000 times faster than humans

In a significant leap for environmental monitoring technology, scientists have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) system capable of mapping the surface area and contours of massive icebergs in a mere fraction of a second.

This advancement enables rapid and precise analyses of satellite imagery, surpassing the capabilities of existing automated systems which often falter when differentiating between icebergs and other similar features.

AI and iceberg delineation

Traditionally, the identification and mapping of icebergs in satellite images have been a slow and meticulous task requiring manual interpretation.

While human analysts are adept at discerning icebergs with greater accuracy, the process is time-intensive. It can take several minutes to outline just one iceberg. When faced with numerous icebergs, this task becomes exceedingly laborious and inefficient.

Monitoring icebergs is not merely a scientific endeavor but a critical aspect of maritime safety and environmental research. These floating ice giants, sometimes as large as small nations, pose navigational hazards to ships. In addition, they significantly influence marine ecosystems as they release fresh water and nutrients while melting.

Dr. Anne Braakmann-Folgmann was at the forefront of this study during her doctoral research at the University of Leeds. She emphasizes the utility of satellites for observing remote icebergs.

Braakmann-Folgmann notes, “Icebergs exist in hard-to-reach parts of the world and satellites are not only a fantastic tool to observe where they are, they can help scientists  understand the process of how they melt and eventually begin to break apart. 

“Using the new AI system overcomes some of the problems with existing automated approaches, which can struggle to distinguish between icebergs and other ice floating on the sea or even a nearby coastline which are present in the same image.” 

U-net algorithm outperforms others

The research team employed a neural network algorithm known as U-net to “train” computers to map iceberg outlines accurately. This technique was benchmarked against two other advanced algorithms, k-means and Otsu, revealing U-net’s superior ability to identify and delineate icebergs under various environmental conditions.

Supporting images and animations included in the study illustrate U-net’s proficiency in correctly identifying icebergs, while other algorithms mistakenly classify clusters of smaller ice fragments or confuse icebergs with surrounding sea ice.

Dr. Braakmann-Folgmann, now based at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, said the technology could result in new services which provide information about the shape and size of giant icebergs. Current mapping services show only the midpoint or central location and length of icebergs. Interpretation by this new approach means their outline and area can be calculated.   

She added, “Being able to automatically map iceberg extent with enhanced speed and accuracy paves the way for an operational service providing iceberg outlines on a regular, automated basis. Combining them with measurements of iceberg thickness, also enables scientists to monitor where giant icebergs are releasing vast quantities of freshwater into the oceans. There are services that give data on the location of icebergs – but not their outline or area.”

The successful implementation of this AI system paves the way for operational services that could regularly provide detailed information on iceberg shapes and sizes, a significant improvement over current services that only indicate an iceberg’s midpoint and length.

Using AI monitoring beyond icebergs

Tested on images of seven large icebergs, the U-net algorithm consistently outperformed its counterparts, even in challenging conditions with multiple ice structures present. It maintained a high degree of accuracy, as evidenced by an F1 score of 0.84, compared to the 0.62 scored by the other algorithms.

Professor Andrew Shepherd, co-author of the study, highlights the transformative potential of machine learning in monitoring remote areas. With each iteration and learning opportunity, these algorithms refine their accuracy, offering the promise of near real-time analysis capabilities.

Shepherd said, “This study shows that machine learning will enable scientists to monitor remote and inaccessible parts of the world in almost real-time. And with machine learning, the algorithm will become more accurate as it learns from errors in the way it interprets a satellite image.”

In summary, this AI development marks a monumental step in satellite imagery analysis, offering faster, more precise, and scalable solutions for iceberg mapping. It signifies a technological triumph with vast implications for maritime safety, ecological research, and our understanding of the polar environment.

More about icebergs

Icebergs begin their life as part of glaciers or polar ice sheets. Due to the natural process of calving, chunks of ice break off and start their journey across the ocean waters.

These floating ice masses, composed of freshwater, vary widely in size, shape, and color, often displaying hues of white and blue due to the absorption of light at red wavelengths.

Characteristics and lifespan

Icebergs come in various classifications based on their size. The smallest, known as growlers or bergy bits, can be as big as a piano or as small as a car, respectively. The largest, called tabular icebergs, resemble floating islands and can stretch for miles in length.

The lifespan of an iceberg is governed by the interplay of the ocean’s temperature, waves, and the iceberg’s journey through different climates. As they drift into warmer waters, icebergs undergo melting and erosion. This process can last for several years depending on the iceberg’s size and the water temperatures it encounters.

Hazards to navigation and marine ecosystems

One of the most infamous events associated with icebergs is the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912.This tragedy underscores the danger icebergs pose to maritime travel. As discussed in depth above, they remain a significant concern for ships, especially in the North Atlantic and near the coasts of Antarctica.

Scientists study icebergs to gain insights into climate change and oceanography. By analyzing the freshwater released from melting icebergs, researchers can infer patterns of ocean circulation and the distribution of nutrients that support marine life.

As icebergs melt, they release freshwater and trapped nutrients into the ocean, which can lead to the flourishing of phytoplankton. These tiny organisms are at the base of the marine food web and play a significant role in the global carbon cycle by absorbing carbon dioxide during photosynthesis.

Future of AI iceberg research

Ongoing research into iceberg dynamics, melting patterns, and their role in the global ecosystem continues to be a vital aspect of understanding our planet’s changing climate. As technology advances, we can expect even more detailed and real-time data to emerge from these natural wonders of the world.

Icebergs are not merely captivating natural phenomena, but also critical components of the Earth’s oceans, influencing global water systems, climate, and marine life. Through continuous observation and study, we gain a clearer picture of our planet’s health and the changes we may need to prepare for in the future.

The full study was published in the journal The Cryosphere.

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day