"I feel like an eagle," said Mike Jackson, a Kake elder, watching the ShoreZone imagery flash across the screen. He knew the nooks and crannies of the shoreline. But no one had seen them like this before.
Twisted filigrees of glacial water, spitting their plumes of gray into the turquoise sea. Curtain-like cliffs, striped by bands of colorful lichen and algae. Fractured polygons of arctic tundra, outlined by shining channels of water. Witness the whole coast at low tide, from an eagle's-eye view.
Three sides of Alaska — north, west, and south — are bordered by ocean. By some measures, we have more than 49,000 miles of coastline, more than the Lower 48 states combined. The closer you look, the longer the shore gets. It's possible to zoom in until every barnacle and pebble stands out in sharp relief.
38,000 miles mapped
No one zooms in quite that far. But ShoreZone gets close. Cobbling together funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and more than two dozen other organizations (including such local groups as the Regional Citizen's Advisory Councils from Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound), ShoreZone has mapped and imaged more than 38,000 miles of Alaska coastline — at a cost of $10 million. Another $2 million will be needed to complete Alaska's shoreline.
A few of the images show the buildings and muddy tidal channels visible from Anchorage's coastal trail, but most images are of remote areas. Sometimes, they are places even locals rarely see.
One summer, my husband, Bretwood Higman, worked on one of ShoreZone's Arctic projects as its field geologist, touching down in a helicopter across the Beaufort and Chukchi coasts, taking a measuring tape to the beach.
"I'm used to balancing goals and logistics, but it really got extreme," Higman said. "First we balanced each barrel of helicopter fuel against each scientific objective. Then we got into the field, and had to contend with multiple severe storms, fog and a coastline that was totally changed since it had last been mapped."
ShoreZone was initially developed for oil spill response. For example, when the Shell oil rig Kulluk ran aground on an island off of Kodiak in late 2012, incident managers brought in ShoreZone images to plan for a potential spill (which fortunately never happened).
But once a tool exists, it tends to get used for other things. Huge swaths of remote and inaccessible Alaska land make it a perfect target for mapping projects. ShoreZone's mapping of driftwood logs has helped cleanup crews search for debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
In Southeast Alaska, archaeologist Martin Sanford and U.S. Forest Service volunteer Dave Richards have used the images for more than six years in planning their summer expeditions. The kayak camping beaches they find today may have been campsites of the past, and the 1,500-year-old fish weirs they've located could have been easily missed at high tide.
Just the other day, I pored over the shots of the Seward Peninsula, guesstimating whether its driftwood will feed our stove for an upcoming winter expedition.
There's another side of ShoreZone. Paired with the beautiful images are spreadsheets full of convoluted acronyms such as Uipo*Bl/Bpoz (Inundated tundra plain with thaw ponds, logs on frozen peat and organic litter). There might be a dozen such codes for a single 1,000-yard section of coast, delineating each observable feature at every level of the beach. Shore Zone technicians didn't just film the coast. Someone puzzled over every picture to code exactly how that beach was built.
We have good reason to puzzle over how Arctic beaches are built. They're changing at a phenomenal rate.
My husband came back with stories of storm waves licking icy cliffs, eating great caves beneath the permafrost, and of pieces of coastline so deeply eroded that it was hard to line up the old map with current reality.
Another large project — the USGS National Assessment of Shoreline Change — has attempted to tackle this question, measuring the location of the shoreline in designated places across a span of 50 years. Some are eroding at nearly 60 feet per year. A few are growing, adding as much as 30 feet a year of beach sediment that the rest of the coast has lost. Most are shrinking slowly,— just a few feet per year, but at rates that have nonetheless been speeding up.
If you're a village or an oil facility, the difference between those rates matters a lot. It matters especially to people in places like Kivalina and Shishmaref — villages perched on arcing spits of sand beside the sea. And while many predictions have been made for sea level rise, erosion is a much more immediate threat, one that is entangled in the geologic details of each piece of beach.
The combination of these two datasets — the National Assessment of Shoreline Change's erosion-rate measurements with ShoreZone's characterizations — may allow us to correlate the details of the coastline with how it is changing.
Looking through the striking ShoreZone images, maybe the most important thing isn't what they show us about the current shoreline, but what they might tell us about the future one.
Erin McKittrick is a writer, adventurer and scientist based in Seldovia, and author of "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski" and "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska." You can find her at GroundTruthTrekking.org.