High resolution, satellite based elevation maps help track changes in the state caused by climate change
New digital elevation maps of Alaska have now been released publically. These are the most accurate topographic map of the region ever and chart the elevations of the entire state in a remarkably detailed manner.
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Exactly one year ago, President Barack Obama visited the far-off state of Alaska and announced to create a better 3D map of Alaska using satellite imagery, depicting its all major features and now we have 3D elevation maps of the state within our reach.
Alaska is one of the most poorly mapped places on the Earth. The state is known for its diverse terrain: open spaces, mountains and forests but always lacked detailed elevation map. Previous topographical maps of Alaska were unable to illustrate features smaller than 100 feet across but new maps have a horizontal resolution of around 7 to 17 feet and are capable of depicting height differences smaller than 2 feet. These maps are sharp enough to detect changes in features of Alaska caused by climate change and can assist researchers, land users and managers in understanding glaciers, permafrost collapses, and coastline shrinking and how they respond to ever rising temperature. Moreover, the information can provide an importnat role in crafting future stragtegies and policies.
“With these digital elevation models we can see detailed topography of the land, including individual trees, lakes, roads and buildings,” said Paul Morin, director of the University of Minnesota’s Polar Geospatial Center. “This high-resolution data is invaluable. For example, researchers and land managers can use the data to “digitally rain” on a surface and watch where the rain goes to analyze watersheds.”
New maps of Alaska are based on stereo imaging – a technique in which two images of the same location are taken at slightly different times to create the illusion of depth. This technique results in clearly defined models which enables people to see the depth of a location.
Conventional mapping technique involves data collection by low-flying aircraft, followed by on ground verification. But this technique was far more expensive for mapping vast, remote region of Alaska. So, satellite imagery has been used for building 3D models of Alaska which allows a better and wider coverage than regular technique.
“We used sub-meter optical satellites to collect stereo imagery from space. We broke the Arctic up into 20 trillion two-meter-by-two-meter squares and then used one of the most powerful computers to measure the height of each of those squares,” said Morin. “We are measuring the surface of the Earth at a resolution and geographic scale and spatial resolution that no one has ever done before.”