Natural Resource Development
Where It’s At
Mapping Alaska is good business
By Hillary Palmer & Ed Fogels

laska is big and remote, so it’s no surprise that it lags the rest of the country in the accuracy and detail of its maps. Mapping can be expensive, but the good news is that mapping in Alaska has taken a huge leap forward over the last decade, benefiting the Alaska public, government, and private sector businesses, such as the resource development industry.

It was just ten years ago that pilots in Alaska were at risk of being forbidden to fly by instrument. The best available elevation data at that time was generated in the ‘60s using older methods which sometimes resulted in mountains being out of place by a half mile or more. This posed serious risks to aviation safety and other industries that require accurate information. The State of Alaska initiated an effort to create an accurate digital basemap of the entire state.

This effort, which would eventually become the Alaska Geospatial Council (AGC), was initially a partnership among state and federal agencies to acquire statewide, high-resolution satellite imagery and digital elevation data. This data acquisition was no simple task. The state government worked with Dewberry to host a series of workshops, which enabled partners and stakeholders to reach consensus on issues, such as data resolution and which type of sensor to use. The state then coordinated with federal agencies to contract with several companies, including Dewberry, to start collecting the imagery and elevation data. This new data provided the foundation for building a statewide geospatial data infrastructure, where other mapping data—such as wetlands, vegetation, and transportation—can be stored, maintained, and accessed by everyone.

The AGC serves as a framework for the coordination and collaboration of mapping-related activities. The AGC executive board is chaired by Alaska’s Geospatial Information Officer Leslie Jones and includes representatives from state and local governments, tribal entities, and federal agencies. Overall, the AGC is helping improve Alaska’s spatial data infrastructure by coordinating mapping activities and fostering collaboration at all levels, all of which benefit the resource development sector.

Mapping Natural Resources
For preliminary feasibility assessments, this new elevation and imagery data is great, but site planning and permitting for natural resource development projects need higher resolution data. Knowing where to find existing data or how to leverage funding partnerships could potentially save businesses millions of dollars.

Strong statewide coordination is critical to the evolution of Alaska’s mapping. The AGC seeks to simplify sourcing existing mapping data and minimize duplicative mapping efforts. Ultimately, the goal is to create a series of statewide basemaps that are accessible, accurate, and maintained. State leadership has already provided new digital elevation models and imagery for the state, but there are other data layers that still need to be added:

  • Hydrography. Alaska is a water-wealthy state with millions of lakes, streams, and glaciers. New imagery and elevation data are being used to create more accurate maps of these resources, using elevation-derived hydrographic mapping technology.
  • Wetlands. Any development activity in Alaska is likely to have some impact on wetlands, which are regulated by the federal government. Detailed wetland mapping allows prospective resource developers to see what wetlands are within their project area and can provide more information as to the level of permitting needed for the project. Approximately 42 percent of Alaska has been sufficiently mapped to National Wetlands Inventory standards.
  • Infrastructure. An accurate picture of our state’s infrastructure is key to prospective resource developers. The ideal would be an interactive web application showing road and trail systems; road dimensions and weight capacities; bridge capacities and overhead clearances; locations of ports, railroads, and electric grids; and airport runway lengths. This data currently exists in various forms but is not yet compiled into a central, easily discoverable, interactive format.
  • Coastline. Alaska has more than 66,000 miles of coastline, most of which is poorly mapped. Any resource development project close to the coast will benefit from accurate coastal mapping, which is more difficult due to requirements for coordinating mapping with tide stages. Better delineated administrative boundaries among federal landowners bring more money for land management to the state. The 2022 Alaska Coastal and Ocean Mapping Summit takes place virtually this month and is a great place to learn more about the status of coastal and ocean mapping initiatives active in Alaska.
  • Vegetation. An accurate statewide basemap of Alaska’s vegetation will aid in infrastructure and community planning and land and wildfire management. The AGC vegetation technical working group is collaborating to advance vegetation mapping production and standards statewide.

Before investing in Alaska, prospective mineral and natural resource development organizations must have access to basic information regarding site conditions, the level of permitting required, and existing infrastructure that can be leveraged. If detailed information doesn’t exist, the cost of performing mapping activities is deferred to the investors and can make or break a project. Having statewide, detailed mapping data is good business for Alaska.

Where Is the Data?
Before collecting new elevation or imagery data, it’s helpful to determine if suitable data already exists. Several helpful resources are available:

  • Elevation. The United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) The National Map platform is a great starting place for finding contours, place names, hydrography, and other essential datasets. Using interactive tools, the data for an area of interest can be identified and downloaded.
  • Bathymetry. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) is helpful for bathymetric data or information regarding the surface of the seafloor. The NCEI bathymetry archive houses more than 65 terabytes of data, most of which is in raw format but also includes processed data products and ancillary data. NOAA’s Christie Reiser points out that anyone with data to share can easily contribute to the NCEI. “We work closely with our data partners to help make the process as easy as possible,” Reiser states. Simply visit the NCEI site to find the point of contact for a given data type.
  • Imagery. NOAA’s Digital Coast website provides access to hundreds of miles of oblique aerial imagery of various ages for coastal Alaska. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ imagery and elevation portal also hosts high-resolution imagery and elevation data available for access in a variety of ways, such as streaming via web browser or for download.

Furthermore, through close coordination between the Alaska Coastal Mapping Strategy and the National Ocean Mapping, Exploration, and Characterization Council, several helpful tools have been developed this year. First, the Data Acquisition Tracking Dashboard inventories existing data and planned mapping activities for coastal and ocean areas. Also, results from the 2021 Alaska coastal and ocean mapping prioritization survey are available for use through an interactive dashboard.

Partnerships for the Cost-Share Win
When the time comes to collect high-resolution data, it’s worthwhile to investigate whether a mapping cost-share program might be a good fit.

The Brennan Matching Fund invites non-federal entities to partner with NOAA to map coastal and ocean areas, including lidar, sonar, subsurface feature investigations, and sediment sampling. Earth MRI is a program funded by the USGS, directed to states and awarded to private industry for the development of geological, geophysical, geochemical, and topographic information. This program aims to identify critical minerals deposits that can help the United States become less reliant on foreign sources. The Alaska Coastal and Ocean Mapping Partner Finder Tool is a great way to find a potential mapping partner, which may also help alleviate the cost of a mapping project.

If these programs or tools are not sufficient, please consider getting involved in the Alaska Geospatial Council’s technical working groups to help advocate for mapping modernization across the state.

Hillary Palmer
Hillary Palmer is a project manager for Dewberry in Alaska and is currently serving as the coordinator for the Alaska Coastal Mapping Strategy. With more than thirteen years of GIS experience in Alaska, she co-chairs the Alaska Geospatial Council’s Coastal and Ocean technical working group. Palmer can be reached at [email protected].
Ed Fogels
Jade North
Ed Fogels recently completed a thirty-year career with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, where he served most recently as deputy commissioner. He was instrumental in creating the Alaska Statewide Digital Mapping Initiative and served as its chair since its inception in 2006, through its reformation to the Alaska Geospatial Council. Fogels is currently a partner with Jade North, a consulting firm specializing in natural resource management.