University of Minnesota Polar Geospatial Center to lead effort on mapping Alaska and arctic

Much of Alaska and the arctic lack modern, reliable maps needed to support modern activities including ground and air transportation, safe recreation, land management, sustainable development, and scientific studies.

To solve this problem, the University of Minnesota’s Polar Geospatial Center, with support from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and National Science Foundation (NSF), will create the first-ever publicly available, high-resolution, satellite-based elevation map of Alaska by mid-2016, and of the entire Arctic by mid-2017.

The digital elevation models will allow researchers to see in detail how warming in the region is affecting the landscape in remote areas and to compare changes over time. President Barack Obama announced the project today during a trip Alaska to discuss climate change issues.

The new arctic digital elevation models will be made available to researchers and will allow for comparison of physical features in the landscape over time to observe patterns of erosion and other natural processes, some of which are accelerating as the arctic warms. The completed maps will serve as a benchmark for researchers studying such features as glaciers and thermokarst features, or depressions that develop in the landscape due to the melting of permafrost, as well as the effects of wildfires.

The project will begin with a mapping of Alaska and proceed to other arctic regions and is expected to create a complete map of the arctic within the two-year term of the nation's chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for arctic nations. The U.S. assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council in April. Secretary of State John Kerry serves as the council chair.

The NSF's Division of Polar Programs in the agency's Geosciences Division awarded a $420,000 grant to the Polar Geospatial Center in the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering. University of Minnesota researchers will work with partners from Ohio State and Cornell universities.

The University of Minnesota Polar Geospatial Center, with NSF support, has previously produced digital elevation models for specially managed and specially protected areas in Antarctica as well as for areas of focused research interest in both polar regions. 

In this new effort, the three universities will work with NSF-funded computing resources to produce the elevation models from data provided by NGA, using algorithms originally developed by NASA for mapping planetary features and glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica.

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