Imaging Alaska Coast to Coast: From oil spill response to climate change, Alaska ShoreZone provides essential insights.

Author:Simonelli, Isaac Stone

A single high-resolution, attribute-rich dataset created from Alaska's coastline has become much bigger than its original purpose to support oil spill response efforts. In addition to helping with such environmental crises, Alaska ShoreZone data is also assisting with fisheries research, providing reconnaissance for recreation, establishing a base point for climate change, inspiring artists, and even helping calibrate drone software for NASA.

The estimated shoreline of the Last Frontier measures more than 46,600 miles, far more than the entire combined coastline of the Lower 48. To map and classify such an enormous, remote swath of land seems nearly impossible, yet the value in the geomorphic and biological data that can be derived from doing so has driven scientists, GIS specialists, web specialists, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies to work together to create the Alaska ShoreZone project. The imagery can be extremely useful for anybody who may need to make decisions about accessing shorelines--for grounded vessels, oil spill response, and search-and-rescue operations," explains Susan Saupe, the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council director of science and research. "If a ship goes aground and you have its location, before responders even head out, they can see whether a helicopter could land nearby, what the substrate is like, whether a landing craft could get into shore, and whether there are sensitive shorelines nearby."

ShoreZone photos and beach habitat descriptions have been some of the first pieces of information used by incident commanders during several high profile events--including when the drilling rig Kulluk went aground near Kodiak. New uses for ShoreZone data have continued to crop up since the project was first launched in Alaska in 2001, says Saupe.

"Since then we've had other ships run aground, had other events that ShoreZone has helped with, many we never imagined it could help with," explains NOAA Fisheries Research Biologist Mandy Lindeberg, who has been part of the project since its early beginnings in Alaska.

Mapping Alaska's Coast

When Saupe first approached Dr. John Harper, founder of Coastal and Ocean Resources Inc., about bringing the ShoreZone project up from British Columbia to Alaska, he wanted to know what her long-term goals were.

"Knowing that we had more coastline than the rest of the country combined, it was a half-joke when I told him I wanted to see all of Alaska completed," Saupe says.

About eighteen years later, nearly 94 percent has been imaged, mapped, and is available online through an interactive website to the public.

Saupe's interest in the ShoreZone system stemmed from how it could be used by Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council to tackle some of the tasks outlined by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which was put in place following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Most notably was the program's ability to create high-quality shoreline information to better understand Cook Inlet's environments and its most sensitive habitats.

"We found that existing information was sparse, of low quality, and was often collected at higher tides, missing much of the intertidal habitat... areas at risk from any oil spill that reaches the coast," Saupe says. "We found that ShoreZone survey and mapping methods would be relatively low cost for how much area can be covered in a survey--and ShoreZone...

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