Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Alaska’s outdated maps make flying a peril, but high-tech fix is gaining ground

MYSTIC PASS, Alaska -- In the age of Google Earth, it’s tempting to think human knowledge of the world is complete, with no frontiers to be charted. Which is why Alex Stack thought modern technology could get him through the mighty Alaska Range after a successful 2006 moose hunt.

Stack and his buddies Aric Beane and James Eule hit bad weather as they flew home through Mystic Pass, a narrow valley winding through 8,000-foot peaks southwest of Mount McKinley. One minute, the weather was fine; the next, clouds were rolling down the snow-streaked ridges.

“Have you ever been in 100 percent fog? That’s exactly what it’s like,” recalled Eule, an Anchorage surgeon. “You’re flying blind, knowing there’s mountains all around you.”

Alone in a nimble Cessna, Eule was able to turn around. Stack and Beane, in a larger plane carrying most of the 1,000-pound moose, were forced to press on, eyes glued to a handheld GPS screen, praying its fusion of satellite signals and government terrain maps would guide them to safety.

Unfortunately, the maps were wrong.

Alaska, it turns out, has never been mapped to modern standards. While the U.S. Geological Survey is constantly refining its work in the lower 48 states, the terrain data in Alaska is more than 50 years old, much of it hand-sketched from black-and-white stereo photos shot from World War II reconnaissance craft and U-2 spy planes.

Errors abound. Locals tell of mountains as much as a mile out of place. Streams flow uphill, and ridges are missing because a cloud happened by when the photo was taken.

“Mars is better mapped than the state of Alaska,” said Steve Colligan, president of E-Terra, an Anchorage mapping firm that specializes in aviation safety. Thanks to the Pentagon, the wilds of Asia and the Middle East are better mapped, too.

“We have this amazing map of Afghanistan. It’s the most modern geological map ever made,” said Kevin Gallagher, associate director for USGS Core Science Systems. “I would love to invest in America like this.”

Now, Gallagher is getting the chance. The USGS, along with numerous state and federal partners, has launched the 3D Elevation Program, an effort to chart all 50 states with airborne lasers (lidar) or radar (ifsar). The new technology permits astonishingly precise measurements of terrain, buildings and roads, waterways, coastline, even vegetation, right down to individual plants.

“It’s not an image; it’s data. That’s what makes it so powerful,” Gallagher said. “Lidar is like looking at the world through a new set of glasses.”

The technology is transforming archaeology and geology, revealing lost cities in the jungles of Cambodia and Belize and new fault lines under the streets of Seattle. It has guided rescuers after the Oso, Wash., landslide; gauged flood risk in North Carolina; and helped residents decide whether to install solar panels on Manhattan rooftops.

Lidar also has countless commercial applications. A 2012 report on the benefits of better elevation data drew support from Idaho’s J.R. Simplot Co. (precision agriculture), the Mendocino Redwood Co. (timber inventory and landslide avoidance), TomTom (vehicle guidance) and an array of energy firms (windmills, solar farms and oil-well siting).

Gallagher predicts the 3-D program will be as “transformational” to the U.S. economy as the original Army Corps surveys that fueled the Westward expansion in the 1800s. For about $150 million a year, the USGS estimates the new maps could boost government savings and private investment by as much as $13 billion annually.

Because Alaska is so badly mapped, the project kicked off there in the summer of 2010 using ifsar, which is slightly less accurate than lidar but cheaper and able to penetrate clouds. Within months, however, Republicans had won the U.S. House and begun squabbling with President Obama over government spending. The 3-D program has since struggled to gain a toehold in the federal budget as gridlocked policymakers have repeatedly rubber-stamped old spending priorities in quickie budget bills, known as continuing resolutions, or CRs.

The USGS has persevered, cobbling together existing federal funds and money appropriated by desperate Alaska officials. Still, four years later, just half of the state has been mapped and impatient contractors have been flying extra territory on spec in hopes that Congress will finally boost the program’s budget.

“We lobby. I’m sure Fugro lobbies. But as soon as they go to a CR, you’re screwed,” said Ian Wosiski, sales director at Intermap Technologies, which, along with Fugro EarthData, is flying the planes that collect the ifsar data.

“We’re talking about $30 million to finish the state. Thirty million dollars,” Wosiski said. “When you consider all the benefits of the program, it seems like a no-brainer.”

Some argue the project has already paid for itself. A few months after the project’s “skybreaking” at an Anchorage airport, an F-22 Raptor crashed while training in remote territory near Denali National Park. The pilot died on impact, and the plane -- by then a $150 million hunk of hazardous material -- was submerged in a 20-foot crater in a streambed between two ridges.

It was just before Thanksgiving. The mountains were covered with snow, and the days were short, with six hours of sunlight. As the military readied a 33-person recovery team, Army contractor Mike Davis remembered the skybreaking and called to see whether ifsar had been collected over the crash site.

It had. Fugro rushed the raw data to Anchorage, where Davis used it to plot a course for helicopters to land safely without touching off an avalanche.

A mapping specialist from Colorado State University, Davis had been campaigning for better elevation data for at least four years, since the Army began moving Kiowa helicopters to Fort ­Wainwright outside Fairbanks. Though the Pentagon had aerial images of its vast Alaska training fields, Davis said, they were useless to the Kiowas without accurate information about the lay of the land.

“We realized we had elevation errors in the hundreds of feet in our maps,” Davis said. “And now we’ve got all these guys coming in, expecting to train at night and fly map-of-the-earth-type stuff. And the answer was just no.”

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