EGU22-1294, updated on 27 Mar 2022
EGU General Assembly 2022
© Author(s) 2022. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

What determines the location of Antarctic blue ice areas? A deep learning approach

Veronica Tollenaar1,2, Harry Zekollari3,4,1, Devis Tuia2, Benjamin Kellenberger2, Marc Rußwurm2, Stef Lhermitte5, and Frank Pattyn1
Veronica Tollenaar et al.
  • 1Laboratoire de Glaciologie, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium (
  • 2Environmental Computational Science and Earth Observation Laboratory, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Sion, Switzerland
  • 3Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology (VAW), ETH Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland
  • 4Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), Birmensdorf, Switzerland
  • 5Department of Geoscience and Remote Sensing, Delft University of Technology, Delft, Netherlands

The vast majority of the Antarctic ice sheet is covered with snow that compacts under its own weight and transforms into ice below the surface. However, in some areas, this typically blue-colored ice is directly exposed at the surface. These so-called "blue ice areas" represent islands of negative surface mass balance through sublimation and/or melt. Moreover, blue ice areas expose old ice that is easily accessible in large quantities at the surface, and some areas contain ice that extends beyond the time scales of classic deep-drilling ice cores.

Observation and modeling efforts suggest that the location of blue ice areas is related to a specific combination of topographic and meteorological factors. In the literature, these factors are described as (i) enhanced katabatic winds that erode snow, due to an increase of the surface slope or a tunneling effect of topography, (ii) the increased albedo of blue ice (with respect to snow), which enhances ablative processes, and (iii) the presence of nunataks (mountains protruding the ice) that act as barriers to the ice flow upstream, and prevent deposition of blowing snow on the lee side of the mountain. However, it remains largely unknown which role the physical processes play in creating and/or maintaining  blue ice at the surface of the ice sheet.

Here, we study how a combination of environmental and topographic factors lead to the observation of blue ice. We also quantify the relevance of the single processes and build an interpretable model aiming at not only predicting blue ice presence, but also explaining why it is there. To do so, data is fed into a convolutional neural network, a machine learning algorithm which uses the spatial context of the data to generate a prediction on the presence of blue ice areas. More specifically, we use a U-Net architecture that through convolutions and linked up-convolutions allows to obtain a semantic segmentation (i.e., a pixel-level map) of the input data. Ground reference data is obtained from existing products of blue ice area outlines that are based on multispectral observations. These products contain considerable uncertainties, as (i) the horizontal change from snow to ice is gradual and a single threshold in this transition is not applicable uniformly over the continent, and (ii) the blue ice area extent is known to vary seasonally. Therefore, we train our deep learning model with a loss function with increasing weight towards the center of blue ice areas.

Our first results indicate that the neural network predicts the location of blue ice relatively well, and that surface elevation data plays an important role in determining the location of blue ice. In our ongoing work, we analyze both the predictions and the neural network itself to quantify which factors posses predictive capacity to explain the location of blue ice. Eventually this information may allow us to answer the simple yet important question of why blue ice areas are located where they are, with potentially important implications for their role as paleoclimate archives and for their evolution under changing climatic conditions.

How to cite: Tollenaar, V., Zekollari, H., Tuia, D., Kellenberger, B., Rußwurm, M., Lhermitte, S., and Pattyn, F.: What determines the location of Antarctic blue ice areas? A deep learning approach, EGU General Assembly 2022, Vienna, Austria, 23–27 May 2022, EGU22-1294,, 2022.


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