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Effort to update digital map of Alaska passes halfway point

  • Author: Kamala Kelkar
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 18, 2015

Alaska officials on Tuesday were eager to celebrate pushing halfway through a long-standing mission to upgrade a dated and often erroneous digital map of the state.

While standing in front of a jet that uses radar to map Alaska's landscapes inside a hangar at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Sen. Lisa Murkowski acknowledged that the halfway point is a strange commemoration. But since Alaska is one-fifth the size of the U.S. and covered with treacherous terrain, Murkowski said it is worth the milestone because it means the state is finally catching up with the rest of the country.

"Where else in America would you have several hundred people gather for lunch to celebrate the fact that we're halfway done with mapping?" Murkowski asked the audience. "Everywhere else in the United States that I can think of, they've been there, done that … and here we are … because we're close to 60 percent done. It speaks a lot about where we are, about what we have dealt with as a state."

The new digital map is being created with Interferometric synthetic aperture radar technology, or IfSAR. Called the IfSAR Elevation Project, the effort is now 60 percent finished, officials said Tuesday, and is already helping pilots fly and engineers design infrastructure blueprints. Without the new map, they would have to rely on faulty information, putting people in danger, officials said Tuesday.

The project has roots dating back to 2006, but it didn't get the bulk of its funding until about 2010, when officials said the Obama administration showed more political interest in the project. Federal agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Department of Interior and the National Park Service, as well as the state, have contributed about $41.4 million in funding since then. Officials estimated it will cost another $26 million and a few more years to complete it.

Digital mapping is arduous in Alaska. Three private companies have been awarded contracts to do it, including Intermap Technologies Inc., which is mapping about 70 percent of the state. Ian Wosiski, the company's sales director, said after the conference that sometimes crews spend several days setting up aluminum sensors along the landscape in preparation for the flyover. When the radar or remote sensing technology from the jet beams down and hits these sensors, they transmit elevation information back to the plane.

Given Alaska's relative lack of roads, accessing the sites for the sensors is more costly.

"It's just much bigger and harsher and more remote and less developed," Wosiski said. "You can't jump in a pickup truck with these sensors and place them. You have to spend money on the helicopter."

It was a different company that was in charge of mapping the area covering Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in Northern America. The mountain's recorded height in 2013 clashed with the existing one and cut its elevation by 83 feet, a dispute that could be settled with the results of another survey, expected to be released soon.

The halfway mark inspired Gov. Bill Walker to sign a proclamation Tuesday declaring September Aviation Appreciation Month. Walker said that aviation is a $1 billion business in the state and that there are 9,000 registered aircraft in Alaska, and many places that can only be accessed by air.

"You live in Alaska, you fly and you fly a lot," he said. "What we do in the air traffic world has become safer because of what this program represents."

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