The new 3D topographical maps will be used to monitor global warming and rising sea levels.
Map of Alaska
Credit: Azer Koçulu

The White House has unveiled the first-ever 3D topographical maps of Alaska, which were created using commercial satellites.

The mapping project is a result of an executive order issued by President Barack Obama last year, when he asked the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to lead a collaborative effort to create the first-ever, high-res elevation maps of Alaska by 2016, and the entire Arctic by 2017.

The project, called ArcticDEM, is the first big international collaboration between the science, tech, and defense industries. In addition to the NSF and NGA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the state of Alaska, Ohio State University, the University of Illinois, Cornell University, the University of Minnesota, and the Environmental Systems Research Institute all partnered on the project.

New maps of Alaska.
Credit: Courtesy of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

In a post by the White House, Dr. France A. Córdova, the director of the National Science Foundation, said that the digital elevation maps are “so critical to the Arctic at a time of profound change.”

The new satellite images will be used to track evolving coastal landscapes that are threatened by global warming and changes to seasonal weather patterns, which have caused long-term glacial melting and irreversible erosion.

Rising sea levels pose severe danger to Alaska’s coastal towns, which Obama visited during a historic trip last September, when he became the first sitting president to travel above the Arctic Circle. He toured many coastal towns and cities that are at risk of being swallowed by rising waters as a result of global warming.

“A couple of days ago, I stood on rock where, just ten years ago, there was a glacier,” he wrote in a blog post during the trip. “Yesterday, I flew over Kivalina Island, an Arctic town that’s already losing land to the sea from erosion and further threatened by sea-level rise. I’ve seen shores that have been left battered by storm surges that used to be contained by ice. And now, that ice is gone.”

According to the White House, “better elevation maps can be used to quantify changes in sea level and monitor coastal erosion in order to identify buildings and critical infrastructure at high risk of storm-surge damage, and to identify safe places to shelter when storms come.”

New maps of Alaska.
Credit: Courtesy of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

The elevation maps are available online, along with exploratory tools, nautical charts, sailing directions, infographics, and a downloadable Pan-Arctic map, in ArcticDEM’s public portal.

Christopher Tkaczyk is the Senior News Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @ctkaczyk.