In January 2008 I visited Alaska for the first time and had the opportunity to brief members of the Alaska Statewide Digital Mapping Initiative (SDMI) on Dewberry's experience in the production of Digital Elevation Models (DEMs), which would be critical for any new mapping of the state. They subsequently hired Dewberry to prepare the Alaska DEM Whitepaper. In July of that year, I participated in the Alaska DEM Workshop in Anchorage. The discussions held that week with local, state, and federal representatives were critical to Alaska's future. The state had no time to lose in resolving its decades-old challenge of obtaining current and accurate digital elevation data to update its maps.

Outdated Maps

At the time of the workshop, it had been more than 50 years since the last mapping initiatives were completed in the state. As of 2008, no maps of Alaska had ever been compiled, at any scale, to National Map Accuracy Standards. No digital orthophotos had ever been produced because they lacked the necessary DEMs. Most maps were deficient, resulting in perilous conditions for military pilots, civilian aviators, and first-responders, along with a high rate of Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) aviation accidents.

Some U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) topographic maps dating to the 1950s depicted mountains more than a mile from their actual locations. With no survey ground control, the technology of that era certainly didn't allow for more accurate mapping of such vast, diverse terrain, such as using airborne GPS or modern photogrammetric techniques used today. The rudimentary approach of the time for Alaska might be compared to trying to map the city of St. Louis with a plane flying from Virginia with no ground control or airborne GPS control. The St. Louis Arch might easily be mapped more than a mile off from its true location.

Alaska's deficient map data was daunting not only for aviators, it also hampered the work of government agencies attempting to manage natural resources, address shoreline erosion and the impacts of global warming, prepare for natural disasters, and plan and maintain infrastructure. Private industry initiatives, telecommunications, and economic development efforts were also limited.

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In this outdated Alaskan map, streams didn't flow through valleys because mountains were mapped in the wrong place.

The IFSAR Solution

That all-important workshop in the summer of 2008 sparked a new approach to resolving Alaska's map crisis. After decades of debate about the optimal approach to obtaining new map data, our Alaska DEM Whitepaper recommended interferometric synthetic aperture radar (IFSAR), a digital mapping technology that operates day and night to map rugged terrain through heavy fog and cloud coverage. This is a critical criterion in Alaska, where visibility is frequently very low.

Alaska has since progressed steadily in securing the new map data. After we created a funding and implementation plan, the USGS directed our team, which now includes Intermap Technologies and Fugro EarthData Inc., to begin mapping high-priority areas in early 2010. To date, IFSAR data has been acquired for more than 300,000 square miles. Pilots, civil engineers, emergency planners and rescue teams, geologists, forest and wildfire experts, coastal scientists, developers, and many other residents and government representatives at all levels have benefited from these updated maps. The anticipated safety and cost benefits have resulted in the U.S. Department of the Interior citing the Alaska SDMI as its top mapping priority.

Even mountain climbers have taken an interest in the results. The new maps have revealed that Mt. McKinley, while still the tallest peak in North America, is not as tall as previously thought. The summit elevation is now recorded as 20,237 feet rather than the 20,320 feet that had been cited since 1952. Interestingly, the IFSAR mapping has revealed several new ridgelines of nearby mountains for the first time - these did not appear at all in previous maps.

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A Career Capstone

My career in mapping has spanned more than 50 years, and it appears I may have saved the best for last. I have appreciated the opportunity to work with the strong coalition of agency representatives involved in the Alaska Statewide Digital Mapping Initiative and look forward to completing this vital effort to bring high-quality maps to the many citizens and professionals who rely on them every day. Alaskans will be well served by the updated data with its many applications today and for the future.

In a sense, this has been my own summit to climb, and we're still on the journey. It has been a great honor to help map "America's Last Frontier."

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