(CN) — The White House Arctic initiative released the first 3-D topographic maps of Alaska, nearly a year after President Barack Obama’s announcement of a public-private collaboration to map the entire Arctic by 2017.
With the Sept. 1 release, 90 percent of Alaska is now mapped at the highest resolution possible and is satisfying a key element of this administration’s attempt to inform climate-change policy and national security.
Obama’s directive came on the last stop of his September 2015 whirlwind trip to Alaska in conjunction with the State Department’s Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic.
“To help Alaskans better plan for sustainable development,” Obama said of his plan while in Kotzebue, Alaska, a city on the northwestern edge of the largest — and only Arctic — state in the union.
The 3-D digital elevation models, or DEMs, are the first to come from the ArcticDEM project, created following a January 2015 executive order to increase national coordination in the Arctic.
“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 at the White House, said. “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.”
The models are based on 2-meter resolution images captured by Digital Globe commercial satellites and fed into a supercomputer nicknamed “Blue Water” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Blue Water computes the elevation of all landscape objects in each set of images.
Prior mapping of the Last Frontier and the Arctic region is more than 50 years old and was made using black-and-white photos shot from World War II reconnaissance aircraft and U-2 spy planes. The errors were many, according to a 2014 Washington Post article on the perils of flying in and mapping Alaska and how outdated its maps were compared to the rest of the United States.
“Locals tell of mountains as much as a mile out of place. Streams flow uphill, and ridges are missing because a cloud happened by as a photo was taken,” Washington Post reporter Lori Montgomery wrote.
Brzezinski noted that the highest resolution for publicly available maps of the Arctic region is 30 meters, “compared to less than one meter for the rest of the United States and the rest of the industrialized world.”
The maps are also completely open to the public on a Web portal that offers map viewers, DEM exploratory tools, nautical charts, sailing directions, infographics, and a downloadable Pan-Arctic map with mission-specific data layers.
With ArcticDem, more precise maps at a resolution of two meters are also now available to Alaskans so villages impacted by storm surges, shore erosion and rising sea levels from climate change can plan better.
“The ArcticDEMs are the benchmark against which future landscape-level changes due to, for instance, erosion, extreme events, or climate change can be measured. Satellite imagery can be collected and DEMs produced at regular intervals — weekly, monthly or annually — to observe and document changes as they occur,” according to a statement from the White House.
National Geospatial Intelligence Agency director Robert Cardillo said the maps will play an important roll in informing policy and national security.
“They may also provide critical data and context for decisions related to climate resilience, land management, sustainable development, safe recreation and scientific research,” Cardillo said.
The United States serves as the chair of the Arctic Council through spring 2017, when the position rotates to Finland for two years. The Obama administration will host the first White House Arctic Science Ministerial on Sept. 28 to advance the understanding of rapid changes affecting the Arctic and how they may impact the rest of the world.
“The first-ever White House Arctic Science Ministerial is part of an effort that seeks a higher level of cooperation in a region that is increasingly of global importance. We owe it to future generations to rise to that challenge today, Brzezinski said.”
The ArcticDEMs project and the maps are the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration between the defense and science and technology communities. The effort is being led by the National Science Foundation and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey, the state of Alaska, Ohio State University, the University of Illinois, Cornell University, the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota, and the Environmental Systems Research Institute.
The Arctic region consists of the Arctic Ocean and the northern territories of the United States, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. The region is experiencing some of the most rapid environmental changes in the world, warming at a rate that is twice as fast as the global average.
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