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Monumental effort to map Alaska shorelines nearing completion

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder
A project attempting to map Alaska's vast coastlines that has spanned more than a decade is about 80 percent complete, and researchers recently managed to capture the shores of remote St. Lawrence Island. Courtesy ShoreZone

It’s taken more than a decade and millions of images, but the photo-mapping of Alaska’s varied and lengthy coastline is getting ever-closer to the end goal.

And with the completion of remote St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea last week, ShoreZone, the Canadian company spearheading the campaign, is one giant step closer.

The crew packed in its efforts Sunday after photographing and capturing video of nearly 600 miles of the island’s 700-mile coastline.

“We made one last try to complete today, but fog all along the south coast prevented us from finishing,” said John Harper, a geo-morphologist with Coastal and Ocean Resources, and one of two surveyors on the trip, in a written update last week.

High resolution photographs and video from the project are used by a variety of agencies and individuals for a variety of tasks, including oil-spill recovery efforts, climate change works, coastal erosion studies, and for individuals to scope out hunting and fishing camps, said ShoreZone coordinator Darren Stewart.

“The weather was a huge factor. (St. Lawrence Island) is known for inclement weather, so the window to get it done was very narrow.”

During the course of last week, crews were grounded several times due to low-lying fog, preventing them from getting the shots they needed, but managed to push through some long days of photographing when the weather was good.

The crew was also forced to land one day when a flock of sea birds started dropping from the clouds above the helicopter.

“It just got too dangerous,” Harper recalled. “I don’t know what they were even doing up there, we were at about 1,500 feet.”

Harper and biologist Mary Morris made up the St. Lawrence Island crew, along with a helicopter pilot from Bering Air out of Nome.

“It was a big deal for the helicopter to get there, they haven’t had one out there in a long time,” Harper said, adding that the original plan was to barge the helicopter out but one “kamikaze” pilot decided he could make the long flight to the island. 

Other agencies working on the island, including BLM and state geological crews, utilized the helicopter while it was there, Harper added.

The project to attain aerial images of Alaska’s entire coastline began in 2001 and is now about 80 percent complete.

And while St. Lawrence Island perhaps didn’t add a large number of miles to the massive project, its remote location alone made this one of the most challenging and rewarding sections.

Prior to the crew’s visit last week, Harper and others flew to the island in April to meet with locals from the communities of Savoonga and Gamble. At each village meeting, about 30 community members showed up to express ideas and show support.

Overall, said Harper, locals were very supportive of the project.

Mostly, their concerns focus on the increased shipping traffic through the Bering Straight and thus the rise in possible oil spills. 

“They are incredibly dependent on marine and coastal resources as well as coastal erosion issues and our program addresses that,” Harper said Tuesday morning.

ShoreZone spent months acquiring the necessary permits and permissions from Native Corporations and the villages to access the land.

“One thing that stood out is that you think these are such remote places but they are in fact, well used,” Harper said.

At a glance, “it looks like nobody lives on the coast, but there are camps all over the place and lots of fresh four-wheeler tracks. The people who live there know and utilize the coast really well.

“The coastline is completely natural. It’s a stretch where there’s no man-modified shoreline.”

St. Lawrence Island’s unique and complex terrain was awe-inspiring for the team what with volcanic lava flows, tundra, lagoons and wetlands; it is one of most unique landscapes on earth, Harper noted. 

“The wetlands all along the shore are really extensive. It’s an amazing coastline and it was a real privilege to get there. It’s really on the edge.” 

Next on the agenda of the plight to map Alaska’s coast are the Aleutian Islands. Norton Sound and a stretch on the Alaska Peninsula are also on the roster before the project is finished.

The St. Lawrence Island portion of ShoreZone’s ongoing mapping project was funded mostly by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Cordova and the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys in Fairbanks. Images are available online. For more information on the project visit shorezone.org.

This article originally appeared in the Bristol Bay Times and is republished here with permission.