U.S. spy agency to release high-resolution 3-D maps of the entire Arctic

Share
The Gulkana Glacier and river valley region is one of three long-term U.S. Geological Survey glacial monitoring sites. These new digital elevation model images will help anticipate future landscape-level changes, due to, for instance, erosion, extreme events, or climate change. (NGA)
The Gulkana Glacier and river valley region is one of three long-term U.S. Geological Survey glacial monitoring sites. These new digital elevation model images will help anticipate future landscape-level changes, due to, for instance, erosion, extreme events, or climate change. (NGA)
Following the public release of super-detailed 3-D topographic maps of Alaska last week, the United States government plans to gradually release similar maps covering the entire Arctic by the end of 2017, say officials with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

The 3-D digital elevation models, or DEMs, released by the NGA, which usually provides geospatial intelligence for the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, were the first batch of maps to come from the ArcticDEM project created following an executive order by President Barack Obama in January 2015.

“We will be producing a second round of products that will include areas outside of Alaska, and I believe as far as Canada goes you’ll see some of the larger Queen Elizabeth islands in that release,” said Brian Bates, NGA Liaison to the National Science Foundation’s Polar Geospatial Center. “And then you will see a series of releases every couple of months until we have managed to circumnavigate the entire North Pole as well.”

The plan is to collect and produce in collaboration with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota over the next year the first iteration of the entire polar region, Bates said. Researchers will then take another year to make additions and revisit certain areas of interest, he said.

The winding Koyukuk River in Western Alaska is a 425 mile-long tributary of the Yukon River. The digital elevation models show the unique boreal forest vegetation patterns that surround the river region in greater detail than ever before, bringing the unique Arctic landscape into focus. (NGA)
The winding Koyukuk River in Western Alaska is a 425 mile-long tributary of the Yukon River. The digital elevation models show the unique boreal forest vegetation patterns that surround the river region in greater detail than ever before, bringing the unique Arctic landscape into focus.
(NGA)

These high-resolution topographic maps available for public use at an open, unclassified Arctic portal, will help researchers and policy makers to monitor the rapidly changing Arctic environment – from rising sea levels, melting ice and glaciers to soil erosion, Bates said.

“These products will make not only excellent sources for scientific discovery and exploration but they are also practical for planning purposes for the folks living in the Arctic, folks looking in developing the Arctic,” Bates said. “As the ice changes, as the soil thaws, we’ve seen examples of erosion and soil giving away and so these products will capture some of that.”

The maps are the result of collaboration with the NSF, which funded the project, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota, University of Illinois, Ohio State University and Cornell University, Bates said.

Wolverine Glacier is a valley glacier in the coastal mountains of south-central Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. For climate change monitoring, satellite imagery can be collected and DEMs produced at regular intervals—weekly, monthly or annually —to observe and document changes as they occur. (NGA)
Wolverine Glacier is a valley glacier in the coastal mountains of south-central Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. For climate change monitoring, satellite imagery can be collected and DEMs produced at regular intervals—weekly, monthly or annually —to observe and document changes as they occur. (NGA)

The models are based on 2-metre resolution images captured by Digital Globe commercial satellite, using an algorithm developed at Ohio State University.

In lower latitudes, researchers usually use air planes to gather imagery for mapping, but the vast Arctic with its harsh climate creates huge challenges for such traditional methods, and large areas of the Arctic had remained poorly mapped, Bates said.

Instead, U.S. researchers have had to rely on satellites to collect the necessary data, he said.

“This project, of course, aims to be for the entire Arctic region above 60 degrees latitude north and also include the Alaskan peninsula, the peninsula of Kamchatka, and southern Greenland and all of Iceland as well,” Bates said.

Over the last six years, researchers have collected data on most of the Arctic, Bates said.

“We still have some areas to go, some difficult challenging areas due to cloud cover,” he said. “But we are optimistic: if we haven’t collected them this season, which runs roughly from March to September, we will collect them next season.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Ice, shipping and the Northwest Passage, Radio Canada International

Iceland:  Germany, Iceland cooperate on new transpolar port, Barents Observer

Russia: Rosneft prepares seismic mapping of east Arctic waters, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Swedish icebreaker to help Canada map Arctic shelf, Radio Sweden

United States: Blog: Mapping the Arctic’s future while erasing its past, Blog by Mia Bennett

Share
Levon Sevunts

Levon Sevunts, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Armenia, Levon started his journalistic career in 1990, covering wars and civil strife in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1992, after the government in Armenia shut down the TV program he was working for, Levon immigrated to Canada. He learned English and eventually went back to journalism, working first in print and then in broadcasting. Levon’s journalistic assignments have taken him from the High Arctic to Sahara and the killing fields of Darfur, from the streets of Montreal to the snow-capped mountaintops of Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. He says, “But best of all, I’ve been privileged to tell the stories of hundreds of people who’ve generously opened up their homes, refugee tents and their hearts to me.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *