Parsing Polar Bears With Polar Orbiting Satellites

Can you see the polar bears?  The USGS is comparing the baseline image (B) with (A) to count the bears.  Image hosted on

Here’s a method of counting polar bears that’s probably safer than knocking on their doors.  According to this US Geological Survey (USGS) post, satellites may be quite useful for counting, tracking, and observing polar bears.  The USGS and Canadians are comparing aerial survey pictures against the satellite pictures.

They are using imagery taken by DigitalGlobe satellites of parts of the Canadian High Arctic to count the polar bears in the region.  Why are they doing this tedious task?  They want to know how the polar bears are reacting towards the loss of sea ice as things warm up.  In this Science Daily blurb, both the Canadians and USGS think the comparisons between the aerial photographs and the satellite images provide the nearly the same polar bear population counts.

Such apparent successes are prompting the USGS to give the DigitalGlobe satellites more polar bear counting tasks over bigger and less accessible areas.  What isn’t known is whether the USGS and Canadians were able to get higher resolution images from DigitalGlobe.  Before June 11, 2014, the satellite imagery company wasn’t allowed to sell higher resolution images of less than 50 cm (19 in) to non-US government customers.  Current in-orbit DigitalGlobe satellite resolutions are 41 cm (16 in) and 46 cm (18 in).

Perhaps the USGS will be even happier when DigitalGlobe launches their latest and greatest satellite this August:  WorldView-3.  WorldView-3 will provide image resolutions down to 31 cm (12 in), which means objects slightly bigger than a foot have a good chance of being detected when the satellite’s images are analyzed.  This might provide more fidelity with the counting of polar bears.  I’m sure they’ll compare the images of WorldView-3 with the ones from their other satellites.

Perhaps other satellite imagery operators, like SkyBox, will try to get in the game.  But they’re going to have to up their game first.  SkyBox’ SkySat-produced images only go as low as 90 cm (35 in) in resolution.  And as of this writing, there are only two of the SkySat satellites in orbit.  But perhaps they will iterate faster?  Especially if their new owner, Google, incorporates more of their DNA into the company.  There also may be ways to use their HD video capability to help, too.

But for now, DigitalGlobe looks to be helping to “save the polar bears” by helping people count them, safely.


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