US: A team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota Polar Geospatial Center, has released the first-ever publicly available set of high-resolution, three-dimensional topographic maps of the entire state of Alaska. These digital elevation models (DEMs) serve as a benchmark for measuring future climate changes in the Arctic by assisting scientists studying glaciers, permafrost collapse, and coastal retreat.
The DEMs also provide critical new information for ground and air transportation safety, land management, sustainable development, and scientific research. Based on 50-cm resolution images, the DEMs are captured by DigitalGlobe commercial satellites and licensed by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
“With these digital elevation models we can see detailed topography of the land, including individual trees, lakes, roads and buildings,” said Paul Morin, director of the University of Minnesota’s Polar Geospatial Center. “This high-resolution data is invaluable. For example, researchers and land managers can use the data to “digitally rain” on a surface and watch where the rain goes to analyze watersheds.”
“We used sub-meter optical satellites to collect stereo imagery from space. We broke the Arctic up into 20 trillion two-meter-by-two-meter squares and then used one of the most powerful computers to measure the height of each of those squares,” Morin said. “We are measuring the surface of the Earth at a resolution and geographic scale and spatial resolution that no one has ever done before. It is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen in my career.”
This technology is significant in polar mapping because it allows for a wider coverage of the Arctic than did traditional data collection by aircraft, which is limited in the inhospitable and remote polar region. The data can also be collected again in the future to watch ice, permafrost and vegetation change over time.
Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), researchers at the University of Minnesota, Ohio State University and Cornell University have been using the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) Blue Waters supercomputer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. The U.S. Geological Survey and the State of Alaska were also key partners in coordinating the project internationally.