Recovery of 1960s sea-ice satellite images wins dark data contest

by Timothy Oleson
Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Visualization of 2010 Arctic sea ice maximum. Credit: NASA.

As part of the Nimbus Data Rescue Project, the NSIDC/NASA team processed and digitized data and images from NASA’s early Nimbus satellites. The earliest images were collected by Nimbus 1 in 1964 as it circled Earth in August and September — the time of year when sea ice reaches its annual minimum and maximum extent in the Arctic and Antarctic, respectively — equipped with little more than a camera. That camera transmitted still photographs of Earth’s surface back to scientists, who filmed the images as they appeared on a TV screen. After being archived for decades, the team was able to scan tens of thousands of photographs, originally used for weather research, and stitch them together with modern software to produce maps of the sea-ice extent surrounding both poles. Resurrection of the Nimbus data thus extended the satellite record of sea-ice extent, which had previously only dated back to 1979, an additional 15 years.

NSIDC researcher Dave Gallaher accepted the first-place prize on behalf of the team at an awards reception held last December during the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, Calif. Other “dark data” projects that transcribed weather data from old ships' logs, digitized seismic data from Soviet magnetic tape recordings of Cold War-era nuclear tests, and facilitated accessibility of images collected by the Landsat satellites received honorary mentions. For more information on the Nimbus Data Rescue Project, go to

Read more in EARTH’s September 2013 story at:

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