Seeing the effects of climate change on Bear Glacier. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

New elevation map details Alaska like never before

One year ago, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Alaskan Arctic. His visit was meant to emphasize that the ongoing impacts of climate change in the Arctic are a tangible preview of the global climate change crisis.

It was also meant to spur us into action — the time to act is now.

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 and profound environmental changes in the world, as it warms twice as fast as the rate of the global average temperature.

Despite the dramatic threats posed by climate change to communities and the ecosystems upon which they depend, much of Alaska and the Arctic lack modern and reliable topographic maps to help communities understand and manage those risks.

Touring the Kotzebue Shore Avenue Project. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

During his trip last year above the Arctic Circle, President Obama visited the small Alaskan town of Kotzebue, where he said:

“If another country threatened to wipe out an American town, we’d do everything in our power to protect it. Well, climate change poses the same threat right now. And that’s why I care so deeply about this.”

To enhance the ability of Alaskans to plan for a better future, President Obama directed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to lead a collaborative effort to create the “first-ever, publicly available, high-resolution, satellite-based, elevation maps of Alaska” by 2016 and the entire Arctic by 2017.

The resulting Arctic Digital Elevation Models, or ArcticDEMs, project, which responds specifically to the President’s Executive Order on Enhancing Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic, brings together critical knowledge and capabilities from the scientific, research, academic, technical, and intelligence communities. Today, NGA and NSF publicly released 3-D topographic maps that show Alaska’s terrain in greater detail than ever before, bringing the unique Arctic landscape into focus.

New Digital Elevation Maps of the Seward Peninsula and the city of Kotzebue, which President Obama visited a year ago. Kotzebue is located in the Northwest Arctic Borough right above the Arctic Circle.

The elevation maps, along with tools to explore them, are available on an open public portal.

The ArcticDEMs project represents an unprecedented achievement in the world of digital mapping. It is a great example of leveraging open data, public-private partnership, and innovation to produce the information that communities need to become more resilient and better preserve their traditional way of life.

This Arctic digital elevation model image centers on Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport, a public and military airport located five miles southwest of the city of Kodiak. The image highlights the rugged relief surrounding the three runways of the airport and clearly depicts vegetation, buildings, coastal features and the drainage network of the area. Elevation transitions smoothly from blue (low elevations) to green (medium to higher elevations) to red (peaks).

Better elevation maps can be used to quantify changes in sea level and monitor coastal erosion in order to identify buildings and critical infrastructure at high risk of storm-surge damage, and to identify safe places to shelter when storms come. This capability will be particularly important as the Arctic warms and sea ice shrinks. That shrinkage causes increases in the areas of open water, enhances the potential for storm-surge effects, and puts many Arctic coastal communities at greater risk.

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. Elevation transitions smoothly from dark blue (low elevations) to light blue (medium to higher elevations) to red (highest elevation).

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.

To continue to advance understanding the rapid changes that are affecting the Arctic — as well as the impacts of these changes on the rest of the world — the Obama Administration will host the first-ever White House Arctic Science Ministerial on September 28, 2016. This event will bring together ministers of science, chief science advisors, and other high-level officials from countries around the world, as well as representatives from indigenous groups, to expand collaborations focused on Arctic science, research, observations, monitoring, and data-sharing. Among the goals are to advance promising, near-term science initiatives and create a context for increased international scientific collaboration on the Arctic over the longer term.

The image on the left shows an elevation map of Anchorage Alaska produced with the current National Elevation Dataset; the image on the left shows the same map based on the new elevation data. The higher resolution DEM allows viewers to see an unprecedented level of details, including planes parked at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Here’s what you need to know:

  1. The ArcticDEMs project and the maps are the result of a unique interdisciplinary collaboration between the defense and science and technology communities. In addition to NSF and NGA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the state of Alaska, Ohio State University, University of Illinois, Cornell University, the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota, and ESRI all partnered on the project.
“NSF is delighted that this partnership between the university community we support, NGA, USGS, the private sector and international counterparts resulted in the innovation to deliver unprecedented digital elevation maps so critical to the Arctic at a time of profound change.”
 — Dr. France A. Córdova, Director, National Science Foundation

2. The ArcticDEMs project was formed following an Executive Order in January 2015 calling for “enhanced coordination of national efforts in the Arctic.” The project is scheduled to release 3-D digital elevation models of the entire Arctic in 2017.

“For the United States, the Arctic is simultaneously a strategic challenge and a human challenge. These maps will allow all of our Arctic stakeholders, ranging from Native and Tribal, state and local, the Federal family, our international partners and the business community, to develop the best responses to the changing Arctic‎.”— Dr. Fabien Laurier, Senior Policy Advisory, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

3. The models are based on 2-meter resolution images captured by Digital Globe commercial satellites. Such detailed mapping of the Arctic was not possible previously due to the inhospitable and remote polar region.

“This technology and resulting contributions are game changers for the Arctic region. Traditionally, our capabilities for imagery collection were limited to the availability and frequency of low flying aircraft. With this renewed effort involving the U.S. government, universities, and the commercial imagery and scientific communities, the possibilities for understanding this part of the world are practically limitless.” 
 — Robert Cardillo, Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
Mount Aniakchak is a volcanic caldera located in the Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve in the Aleutian Range of Alaska. Aniakchak is one of the wildest and least visited places in the National Park System. The area was proclaimed a National Monument on December 1, 1978.

4. The open, public Web portal offers Webmaps, map viewers, DEM exploratory tools, nautical charts, sailing directions, infographics, and a downloadable Pan-Arctic map with mission-specific data layers.

“We have no choice but to gain a deeper understanding of the Arctic. Whether from a scientific, economic or military context, more countries than ever before are taking a greater interest in the Arctic. It’s incumbent on us to advance our insight and tools for understanding this part of the world, including safety of navigation and polar mapping.” 
 — Robert Cardillo, Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

5. The United States serves as the chair of the Arctic Council through spring 2017 when the position rotates to Finland for 2 years. The White House Arctic Executive Steering Committee supports efforts to understand the Arctic, engage with residents, and develop tools, products and services that improve Federal, state and local activities in the Arctic including convening the first-ever Arctic Science Ministerial on September 28, 2016.

“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.” — Ambassador Mark Brzezinski, Executive Director of the White House’s Arctic Executive Steering Committee

Find out more at the ArcticDEMs Project’s public site at http://nga.maps.arcgis.com/home/index.html.