Fingerprinting Glacier Bay

Scientists are mapping 1,100 miles of beaches to make better decisions during an oil spill

Posted: Sunday, May 21, 2000

Gayle Neufeld's summer job is a walk on the beach.

Then park managers and researchers trace her steps through Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve all winter, from their desks.

If a cruise ship hit a rock and oil were spilling into the water, they would know with a mouse click what kind of shore is nearby and where to place booms to protect seaweed beds, bird nests and salmon streams.

Every plant, animal and stream Neufeld's path crosses is added to a computerized map of Glacier Bay. The National Park Service embarked on the 1,100-mile mapping project in 1997 to help protect and restore the bay if it is ever threatened by an oil spill or other disaster. It's also a model project being replicated in at least seven other Alaska parks and soon in other states.


On the front lines are Neufeld and other CoastWalkers, as the Park Service calls the scientists who survey the beaches in their unofficial uniform, Helly Hansen rain gear and rubber boots. Neufeld and her partner for the day take pictures and check off all the plants and animals they find.

``We flip over rocks and look in all the nooks and crannies, way down from the water level and as far up as we can get,'' Neufeld said.

The entire shoreline is divided into 25,000 segments, each 0.1 to 0.25 miles long. CoastWalkers spend eight minutes to an hour on each stretch of beach, depending on how large and complex it is.

``One of our favorite sayings was, `May your segments be long and typical,''' said Dan VanLeeuwen, one of the original CoastWalkers. ``Then you could walk a while before you had to work again. Then it was just a walk on the beach.''

Occasionally they found something unusual on the beach -- moose antlers or a giant squid that washed ashore the first year. Its head was 3 feet long.

After a week on the beach, Neufeld and the other CoastWalkers return to the National Park Service headquarters in Gustavus to enter the information into a computer database.

``Anyone, in two or three mouse clicks, can enter this database and they can literally walk the beach,'' said coastal ecologist Lewis Sharman, who manages the coastal mapping project. ``You don't even need to know how to type.''

Seconds after booting up the program, Sharman was looking at a map of Glacier Bay. He clicked in on a portion of the beach. There were photos and descriptions of everything, from the slope and soil to what kind of animals live in the tide pools.

``You can actually see individual barnacles,'' Sharman said. ``We've gone, in a couple mouse clicks, from a map of Glacier Bay to an actual square of beach.''

Other agencies are interested in the database, including the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

``It will dovetail perfectly with our maps,'' said John Whitney, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator. ``All of our maps are computer- and GIS-compatible, but they're at a scale that is much smaller than what they (Sharman and the National Park Service) are talking about.''

NOAA will use the data for biological sensitivity maps preparing for oil spills. The maps assign a level of sensitivity to all the beaches, from 1 for rock cliffs that clean themselves to 10 for marshes and tideland that soak up contaminants like a sponge.


``You can decide in advance which beaches you want to protect by booming or some other means so oil doesn't get there,'' Whitney said. ``You would protect a marshy, swampy tide land much more so than a rocky headland.''

Many of the beaches in Southeast Alaska are sheltered and harbor a great number of plants and animals, putting them near the top of the sensitivity scale, Whitney said. There's also the scenic and aesthetic value to protect.

``People tend to be pretty, shall I say, pretty emotional about oil spills,'' Whitney said. ``Decisions tend to be difficult to make in the heat of the battle. If you've made those decisions in advance, it's easier.''

Though the CoastWalkers are scientists, Sharman insisted the information they collect is written in standard English rather than scientific jargon, so anyone can read it. Measurements are given as comparisons to heads, billiard balls, peas or other common items rather than in metrics. Each animal also has a description page, with a photo as well as common and Tlingit names alongside the scientific name.

Eventually Sharman plans to put the information on the Internet, so anybody can enjoy a virtual visit to Glacier Bay.

``We've tried to design it so it has maximum utility,'' Sharman said. ``We hope it will be interesting to, say, the community of Gustavus as they go through the project of doing coastal zone planning.''

Sharman expects researchers will be the most interested, since the original data provides an excellent starting point for monitoring changes in selected areas of the park. Already about 24 intertidal monitoring sites were set up in Glacier Bay in the past two years. The number will probably be scaled back for long-term monitoring.

``The whole issue there is to separate just natural change from human impact,'' Sharman said.

The CoastWalkers also note specific details for researchers working in the park now, such as stumps left by trees toppled the last time glaciers filled the park. The 10,000-year-old stumps are used by a researcher studying glacial rebound.

``This area of Southeast is rebounding faster than any other place in the world,'' Sharman said, ``maybe an inch a year.''

The first three years the CoastWalkers mapped about 400 miles of Glacier Bay coastline and the entire beach of Gustavus. They have 700 miles to go. The park's outer coast will be mapped by air, since it is mostly a long, sandy beach, Sharman said.

The mapping project, now in its fourth year, costs $80,000 to $100,000 a year. The $270,000 needed to complete the project is coming from $2 million in fines Royal Caribbean Cruises had to pay the nonprofit National Park Foundation as part of an $18 million settlement for polluting Southeast waters in the mid-1990s.

The Royal Caribbean settlement is also providing $520,000 to begin similar inventories this summer at Sitka National Historical Park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Kenai Fjord National Park, Lake Clark National Park, Bering Land Bridge National Park, Cape Krusenstern National Monument and Aniakchak National Monument.


``We're kind of the people who invented this, so we're trying to help them do their parks as well,'' Sharman said. ``The approach is useful anywhere in the world.''

Last summer the same techniques were used in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway.

``It's wonderful for me to have the coastal inventory as a tool,'' said Elaine Furbish, natural resource specialist for the Park Service in Skagway.

While talking she called up the database on her computer terminal. In moments, she was glancing at photos and reading the list of plants and animals found on the sandy beach: seaweed, limpets, barnacles, amphipods and isopods.

``As a manager, it's a very useful, easy-to-use tool for me so I can understand what that beach area is like,'' Furbish said.

Next the Park Service can use the data and photos to create maps showing where specific animal habitats are in relation to roads and trails.

``Suddenly the information that you can absorb and process in a single display is multiplied,'' said Reed McCluskey, chief ranger in Skagway. ``We might look at the flood zones vs. vegetation vs. road development.''

The maps will be used to plan what to develop and what to protect, McCluskey said. He hopes they'll help identify what channels the Taiya River, near Skagway, has run in before, as the Park Service tries to keep the shifting stream bank from washing away a gold-rush era cemetery.

``When you start trying to change natural processes you find yourself fighting against forces that are well beyond what you can reasonably fight,'' McCluskey said.

The procedures developed in Glacier Bay will eventually be used to map coastal parks in other states, Sharman said.

The Sitka Conservation Society will make use of the survey done there, said Page Else, global information system analyst for the conservation society. Most of the existing coastline descriptions were done by the U.S. Forest Service, which surveyed large tracts of land to assess the timber potential. Having more detailed data from a few areas will provide a check of the accuracy of the Forest Service surveys, Else said.

``I think the more the better,'' Else said. ``The more comprehensive knowledge base you have about it, the better you can do predicting impacts.''

Researchers can use the detailed information about what the park beaches are like now to monitor them for global climate change, Else said. She's found a lot of interest from locals as well, who care about the beaches they use.

``People here in Southeast Alaska have a real sense of being connected to the coastal zone,'' Else said. ``We live right on top of it. It's their source of recreation and also commercial fishing.''

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