ICESat-2: Highest Resolution Laser Altimeter

Caitlin Dempsey


ICESat-2 (Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite) was launched in September 2018, carrying onboard the highest resolution laser altimeter.  ICESat-2’s purpose is to collect detailed measurements of the Earth’s surface using its Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).

Collecting Elevation Data with Satellite

Elevation data is acquired by sending pulses of light from ATLAS to the Earth and measuring how fast those photons return to the satellite.  In this elevation profile acquired by ICESat-2, topographical changes along the orbital path from north to south in Mexico are shown.  

Each dot on the graph represents one photon.  The elevation profile shows the detail collected by ICESat-2 from the tree tops to the forest floor along the hillside.  

ICESat-2 is also able to take bathymetry measurements up to 80 feet (25 meters) in clear coastal waters.

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Graph showing ICESat-2 elevation data near Punta Flor, Mexico accompanied by a Landsat image of the area for reference.
ICESat-2 elevation data near Punta Flor, Mexico. Landsat imagery for reference. Sources: NASA and USGS. Visualization by Joshua Stevens.

Mapping Elevation Data in Antarctica

This ICESat-2 elevation data acquired over Antartica highlights how smooth the terrain is for much of the continent.  The elevation climbs steeply with Queen Maud Mountains, a subdivision of the Transantarctic Mountains which divide East and West Antarctica.  

Filling in Data Gaps in Antarctica

ICESat-2’s orbit is helping to fill in previous gaps in coverage from other satellites, particularly in the southern latitudes.  Comparing ICESat-2’s data with legacy data from ICESat, which operated from 2003 to 2010, will allow researchers the ability to detect subtle changes in the Antarctic Plateau, particularly toward’s the center of Antarctica.  

Given the large area of this region, even small reductions in ice height can mean significant increases in sea level.

Elevation profile and map of the Ross Ice Shelf near Queen Maud Mountains, Antarctica.
Elevation profile of the Ross Ice Shelf near Queen Maud Mountains, Antarctica. Data from ICESat-2. Natural color image (November 23, 2018) from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Source: NASA. Visualization by Joshua Stevens.

Accessing ICESat-2 Data

ICESat-2 products from ATLAS are outlined on NASA’s ICESat-2 web site.  Data from ICESat-2 will be posted with the NASA Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC) at NSIDC.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.