A Digital Elevation Model of Yunaska Island, Alaska, an area that would have previously required costly logistics to map.
Polar Geospatial Center, Ohio State University, Cornell University, DigitalGlobe Inc.
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Jason Plautz
Sept. 4, 2015, 5:54 a.m.

Armed with a selfie stick, Pres­id­ent Obama went to Alaska this week in part to bring new visu­al angles to his ap­peal to save the Arc­tic from cli­mate change. And now he’s adding a high-tech map to that ef­fort.

As part of a slew of cli­mate-change ini­ti­at­ives un­veiled dur­ing the Alaska trip, the White House an­nounced a plan to cre­ate the first high-res­ol­u­tion, satel­lite-based el­ev­a­tion map of the Arc­tic. When com­pleted (es­tim­ated for some­time in 2017), the to­po­graph­ic map will be pub­licly avail­able, of­fer­ing sci­ent­ists and the pub­lic a real-time look at how the re­gion is shift­ing due to cli­mate change.

Right now, there’s no com­pre­hens­ive, uni­form map of the Arc­tic at this level—it’s a patch­work of data that’s in­con­sist­ent or, in some areas, in­com­plete. Be­cause vast areas of the Arc­tic are so re­mote, it’s been nearly im­possible to cre­ate the more ad­vanced to­po­graph­ic­al maps from plane fly­overs, and in some of the more isol­ated places, the best data comes from ground sur­vey­ing.

To cre­ate the new maps, satel­lite data will be used to cre­ate a com­pre­hens­ive map of the Arc­tic with a res­ol­u­tion of between 2 and 8 meters, fine enough to see in­di­vidu­al build­ings or subtle shifts in the coast­line.

“We can see changes with the per­ma­frost, we can clearly see the re­treat of gla­ciers,” said Paul Mor­in, dir­ect­or of the Po­lar Geo­spa­tial Cen­ter, a part­ner­ship between the Uni­versity of Min­nesota and the Na­tion­al Sci­ence Found­a­tion. “We’ve got a tool that can look at the Columbia Gla­ci­er [a fast-mov­ing gla­ci­er in Prince Wil­li­am Sound] and you can not only see it re­treat­ing it ho­ri­zont­ally, you can see it drop.”

Data from the Arc­tic­DEM (Di­git­al El­ev­a­tion Mod­els) pro­ject will be open to the pub­lic and will be loaded in­to Google Earth’s en­gine pro­gram. That will make it easi­er for sci­ent­ists to track the changes in the land­scape over time, es­pe­cially as warm­ing tem­per­at­ures ac­cel­er­ate changes in the coast­line and phys­ic­al fea­tures.

The pro­ject is a part­ner­ship between the NSF, the Na­tion­al Geo­spa­tial-In­tel­li­gence Agency, and Cor­nell and Ohio State Uni­versit­ies, us­ing the NSF’s su­per­com­puters to pro­cess ex­ist­ing satel­lite data to cre­ate the map. The In­teri­or De­part­ment and U.S. Geo­lo­gic­al Sur­vey will also fly through the Alaskan arc­tic with new sensors to cre­ate an even finer map as part of the pro­gram.

But re­search­ers said the new pro­ject won’t just be about com­par­ing the land­scape over time—it can of­fer valu­able in­form­a­tion that simply hasn’t been col­lec­ted in the Arc­tic re­gions. The map will in­clude lay­ers with data on Arc­tic cur­rents, oil and gas re­serves, and Arc­tic routes, up­dated to ac­count for the rap­id changes in the re­gion, which is feel­ing the brunt of cli­mate change.

That means that fire­fight­ers bat­tling Alaskan wild­fires—which are melt­ing the lay­ers of ground known as per­ma­frost be­cause it’s not sup­posed to get above freez­ing—could have more ac­cur­ate land­scape data. The maps could show trans­port­a­tion routes across land or through Arc­tic wa­ters.

Coastal vil­la­gers, some of whom are already be­ing forced to re­lo­cate their homes be­cause of sea-level rise, could use the more ac­cur­ate ima­ging to pre­pare for cli­mate change. For ex­ample, this im­age shows the defin­i­tion for Point Hope, Alaska, a vil­lage of less than 700 people where every house is with­in a few ver­tic­al feet of the cur­rent sea level.

A Digital Elevation Model of Point Hope, Alaska. Polar Geospatial Center, Ohio State University, Cornell University, DigitalGlobe Inc.

“The Arc­tic is warm­ing faster than any­where else, but we haven’t had this kind of hol­ist­ic meth­od of look­ing at everything all at once in this way,” said Mi­chael Wil­lis, a re­search as­so­ci­ate at Cor­nell Uni­versity who has used el­ev­a­tion map­ping to study ice sheets in the Arc­tic. “Any­one, any­where can be look­ing at any­thing re­lated to to­po­graphy and they’ll have a phe­nom­en­al base map to com­pare it to.”

It’s sim­il­ar to a hy­per­de­tailed 3D map­ping pro­ject of the United States by USGS, which has also been fun­ded un­der the um­brella of cli­mate change. Both pro­jects are meant to use the most ad­vanced car­to­graphy to rad­ic­ally im­prove sci­ent­ists’ un­der­stand­ing of how cli­mate change is af­fect­ing the land­scape and how its im­pacts could play out. The res­ult, said Mor­in, is that re­search that was pre­vi­ously un­think­able could soon be avail­able with the click of a mouse.

“With per­ma­frost, you used to fly an air­plane or lit­er­ally have someone walk the ground,” Mor­in said. “We’re meas­ur­ing things in an ef­fi­cient and cost-ef­fect­ive way that were once im­possible.”

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