Tech to help map Alaska

Nearly $3.5 million in federal money will enable Alaskan state agencies, boroughs and academic institutions to use cutting-edge technology to map the state's topography and natural resources.

State officials announced that eight projects will benefit from NASA funds earmarked for air or space remote-sensing technology initiatives.

Paula Scavera, special assistant to Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, whose office reviewed the projects in partnership with NASA and the University of Alaska, described the state as a "predominantly roadless wilderness" where traditional ways of mapping and collecting data just don't work.

"I know this sounds cliche, but we're so different landwise. Take a little bit of Banff [National Park in Canada] and throw in the Everglades," she said, explaining the geographic diversity of Alaska, which is one-fifth the size of the continental United States.

Data collected from the remote-sensing technology, whether via plane, helicopter or satellite, would benefit residents and preserve resources in many ways.

For example, 3-D mapping of 11 mountain passes would improve air safety by providing digital imagery on CD-ROMs that can be used by pilots when they pass through these air corridors, Scavera said. The university's Geophysical Institute (www.gi.alaska.edu), along with Colorado-based Space Imaging Inc., won the $300,000 grant.

Two other projects would use the technology to monitor the spruce bark beetle infestation of forests in the Kenai Peninsula and Tanana Valley. The technology would be used to map forested areas to show areas with dead trees, which are wildfire hazards.

In the valley, where there are 15 communities, the state division would also inventory the existing infrastructure — such as airstrips, docks, trails and utility locations — so disaster response and search and rescue operations can be better coordinated, she said.

Other projects include:

    * Detecting driftnets, which are hazardous to marine life. The $1.2 million project was awarded to Airborne Technologies of Wasilla, Alaska.

    * Surveying the Pacific walrus population, which is important economically and culturally to natives. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will implement the $208,000 grant.

    * Performing stock assessments of three species of commercial kelp to develop a harvest management plan in southeast Alaska. The University of Alaska in partnership with Solana Beach, Calif.-based Ocean Imaging Corp. will use the $341,000 grant.

    * Creating an Earth System Science Education Alliance to foster public and student understanding of marine climate change. The $220,000 grant was awarded to the University of Alaska.

    * Mapping potential untapped gold reserves in northwest Alaska to generate income and employment for Seward Peninsula residents. The state Division of Geological and Geophysical Survey would administer the $325,000 grant.

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