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Awesome New Maps Show Alaska in High-Resolution Detail

The ArcticDEMs are the first set of detailed elevation maps of the Great White North

(The White House)
smithsonian.com

A trip to the Arctic, while difficult, certainly isn't as challenging as a trip to the moon or Mars. Yet the moon and Mars have awesome maps that took decades and billions of dollars in research funding to produce. The Arctic? The maps there have been lacking. But not anymore. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency has released a new set of maps of Alaska’s Arctic on par with the best maps of the red planet, Joel K. Bourne, Jr. at National Geographic reports.

Historically, Alaska’s coast especially has been poorly mapped—some documents were based on maps originally created by British explorer Captain James Cook in the 1700s. Previous topographic maps of Alaska only resolved to about 100 feet across. But the new data, called Arctic Digital Elevation Models, or ArcticDEMs, based on satellite imagery, has a resolution of between 7 to 17 feet. They are currently available online.

Alaska isn’t the only place getting the high-res treatment. By the end of the 2017, the entire Arctic above 60 degrees of longitude will be available.

“This changes how science will be done in the Arctic,” Paul Morin, director of the University of Minnesota's Polar Geospatial Center, which is in charge of producing the maps tells Bourne. “It’s a biologist’s dream, a geologist’s dream, a geographer’s dream. Anybody who deals with the surface of the Earth needs these data.”

According to a press release, the maps were created after President Obama issued an executive order in January 2015 calling for “enhanced coordination of national efforts in the Arctic.” Most elevation maps are created by the USGS using low flying aircraft that take photos of the land below which is then translated into topographic maps. But much of Alaska is too remote and weather conditions too inhospitable to make this possible. So the ArcticDEMs rely on images made by Digital Globe commercial satellites with a 2 meter resolution.

“We have such resolution in this data that people can go in, look at an elevation data set from say two years ago and compare it with a data set from today and you can see individual trees being cut down,” Morin tells Zoe Sobel at Alaska Public Radio.

One major reason for the maps is climate change. The detailed maps will help track changes caused by melting ice and permafrost, coastal erosion and melting glaciers. It will also help local communities locate sources of fresh water and other resources. “The Arctic region is experiencing some of the most rapid and profound changes in the world,” Ambassador Mark Brzezinski, executive director of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee says in a press release. “These changes impact communities, as well as the ecosystems upon which they depend. Yet, much of Alaska and the Arctic lack even basic modern and reliable maps to help Arctic communities understand and manage these risks. The DEMs will address this gap.”

But there are likely other motives for the maps. As the ice melts, the Arctic is becoming open to oil and gas drilling as well as mining. It also has the potential to become a valuable shipping route as the Northwest Passage opens up. Tourism companies too have taken note—a commercial cruise liner is currently ferrying tourists through the high arctic for the first time, just one of many eager to traverse the world's "last frontier."

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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