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When seals can’t be seen, cameras feel the heat

Infrared images help scientists find hard-to-spot Arctic animals from the air
May 6, 2016 Ice seals and their polar bear predators in the Arctic have the perfect disguise — their light-colored fur against the north’s sea ice and snow. That makes it difficult for scientists to spot them from the air to study them and get accurate estimates of just how many there are.
Infrared images (on left) can help scientists spot some animals, circled in red, more easily than visual images (on right).

But in a joint international venture with Russia’s State Research and Design Institute for the Fishing Fleet, NOAA scientists are using infrared cameras that measure heat to detect the warm-blooded animals. The cameras also allow the scientists to fly higher, with less of a chance of disturbing the animals.

In the photo composite above, with two images of the same area, the white spots on the left side are ice seals, circled in red, as seen through an infrared camera. On the right, using just a visual image, they’re hard to spot against the snow. Scienists use the visual images to verify their infrared findings.

Spotters on NOAA aircraft can pick out visual images of an ice seal, left, but they're often hard to see against the Arctic sea ice and snow. A type of ice seal, called spotted seal, is at right.
Spotters on NOAA aircraft can pick out visual images of an ice seal, left, but they're often hard to see against the Arctic sea ice and snow. A closer look at a type of ice seal, called a spotted seal, is at right. (NOAA)

Read more about how scientists use the animals’ own heat to find them.