This pair of images illustrates the ability of multi-parameter radar imaging sensors such as the Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C/X-band Synthetic Aperture radar to detect climate related changes on the Patagonian ice fields in the Andes Mountains of Chile and Argentina. The images show nearly the same area of the south Patagonian ice field as it was imaged during two space shuttle flights in 1994 that were conducted five-and-a-half months apart.
The images, centered at 49.0 degrees south latitude and 73.5 degrees west longitude, include several large outlet glaciers. The images were acquired by SIR-C/X-SAR on board the space shuttle Endeavour during April and October 1994. The top image was acquired on April 14, 1994, at 10:46 p.m. local time, while the bottom image was acquired on October 5,1994, at 10:57 p.m. local time. Both were acquired during the 77th orbit of the space shuttle. The area shown is approximately 100 kilometers by 58 kilometers (62 miles by 36 miles) with north toward the upper right. The colors in the images were obtained using the following radar channels: red represents the C-band (horizontally transmitted and received); green represents the L-band (horizontally transmitted and received); blue represents the L-band (horizontally transmitted and vertically received). The overall dark tone of the colors in the central portion of the April image indicates that the interior of the ice field is covered with thick wet snow. The outlet glaciers, consisting of rough bare ice, are the brightly colored yellow and purple lobes which terminate at calving fronts into the dark waters of lakes and fiords.
During the second mission the temperatures were colder and the corresponding change in snow and ice conditions is readily apparent by comparing the images. The interior of the ice field is brighter because of increased radar return from the dryer snow. The distinct green/orange boundary on the ice field indicates an abrupt change in the structure of the snowcap, a direct indication of the steep meteorological gradients known to exist in this region. The bluer color of the outlet glaciers is probably due to a thin snow cover. A portion of the terminus of the outlet glacier at the top left center of the images has advanced approximately 600 meters (1,970 feet) in the five-and-a- half months between the two missions. Because of the persistent cloud cover this observation was only possible by using the orbiting, remote imaging radar system.
Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C and X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR) is part of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth. The radars illuminate Earth with microwaves, allowing detailed observations at any time, regardless of weather or sunlight conditions. SIR-C/X-SAR uses three microwave wavelengths: L-band (24 cm), C-band (6 cm) and X-band (3 cm). The multi-frequency data will be used by the international scientific community to better understand the global environment and how it is changing. The SIR-C/X-SAR data, complemented by aircraft and ground studies, will give scientists clearer insights into those environmental changes which are caused by nature and those changes which are induced by human activity. SIR-C was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. X-SAR was developed by the Dornier and Alenia Spazio companies for the German space agency, Deutsche Agentur fuer Raumfahrtangelegenheiten (DARA), and the Italian space agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI), with the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt fuer Luft und Raumfahrt e.v.(DLR), the major partner in science, operations and data processing of X-SAR.