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Alaska's coastlines being mapped with state-of-the-art technology

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

When they first started to consider photo-mapping the entire coastline of Alaska, said John Harper of Coastal and Ocean Resources, more than a few scoffed at such a lofty chore.

"Doing the entire state of Alaska is an amazing thing," Harper said. "Because there is more shoreline length in Alaska than in the rest of the United States."

But after this summer's effort in Kotzebue, 10-plus years after the project's inception, anyone with an Internet connection will have access to high resolution images and maps of nearly 80 percent of the state's coastal zones.

The Canadian company's massive undertaking, dubbed ShoreZone, stops in Kotzebue next. The far-reaching project is supported financially through unique partnerships with scientists, GIS specialists, web specialists, nonprofit organizations, and governmental agencies.

On the Kotzebue Sound portion -- with data collection taking place July 18-24 --financial supporters include the National Parks Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

The Northwest Arctic Borough has also stood behind the project, said NWAB planning director Tom Okleasik, in spirit if not in funding.

"It's a great tool for the borough," Okleasik said. "It's a very expensive set of data to collect."

The images can be used for a variety of tasks -- from oil spill response to planning dock constructions -- and it's all available online.

"There's lots of applications," Okleasik said. "Nothing is prescribed, but it's like this data set that (will be) available that doesn't exist now."

He added that it can be very frustrating when different organizations or government entities are trying to work in the Arctic, and the only data available was collected decades before. When major developments are taking shape in the region, he said, current data and up-to-date knowledge of the land and habitats is essential.

"The group realizes that this isn't the picture to solve everything," Okleasik said. "But it's a gap that can be filled."

The Kotzebue Sound project is unique, Harper said, as they're creating a product they've never developed before, on top of their usual image collection.

"One of our products will be a coastal hazards map," Harper said. "Areas most sensitive to climate change and sea level rise."

This will alert map users to areas of erosion, storm surges and other natural hazards. Communities with especially high erosion issues, like Shishmaref, Harper said, will be able to identify problem areas with this map.

Harper has a PhD in marine science, for which he conducted studies on the Chukchi coast between Barrow and Wainwright.

"I'm going back to familiar territory," he said.

Harper and two other Coastal and Ocean Resources employees will be flying the Kotzebue Sound's coastline and doing ground checks starting Wednesday, all the while collecting massive amounts of images and measurements. They'll map eelgrass beds, wetlands, and high water lines -- among many other things -- to add to their online information.

"The University of Alaska in Fairbanks hosts all the images," Harper said, adding that NOAA in Juneau maintains the site. "We have over three million images on the web already. This summer in Kotzebue we'll probably collect another 120,000 photos and video clips during our survey there."

The cost of processing all of these images and getting them online and available for public use is included in their game plan from day one, Harper said, supported by the unique funding partnerships they've developed across the state.

"It's really amazing," Harper said. "Many programs are funded by a single agency, and ours is really different. I think that speaks to how widely the information is used."

For instance, he said, the Coast Guard in Kodiak has used ShoreZone imagery to help determine search and rescue landing spots. Others have used them to better manage coastal resources and community projects such as docks.

The borough will be hosting a meeting between cities and tribes the morning of July 20 at 10 a.m. at the borough offices, Okleasik said, to answer questions about ShoreZone and orient people to its possibilities.

So far, Okleasik said, he's been impressed with the company's mission in Alaska and what it means for Arctic communities.

"They're very professional," Okleasik said. "They're very community oriented. It's a big expense and it takes a lot of effort to collect this imagery, and they really like to show people how they can use this."

For more information on the ShoreZone project, visit http://www.coastalandoceans.com/shorezone.html.

Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch@reportalaska.com

This article originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.