USGS releases series of new topographical maps of Alaska

ANCHORAGE — The first batch of new, more accurate Alaska maps that will eventually cover the whole state is out and free to the public as part of a state and federal project to replace old topographic maps that date back 50 years or more.


U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the new digital maps Tuesday at a press briefing in Anchorage in which she also discussed climate change, offshore oil drilling and a proposed controversial road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

The U.S. Geological Survey, part of Jewell’s purview, is working with the state of Alaska on the mapping project.

More than 400 new topographic maps are finished and can be downloaded off a government Internet site, The maps are built in layers and can be manipulated to turn various features on or off, including contours, shaded relief areas, satellite images, important buildings and place names. Eventually the multi-year project will produce more than 11,000 new maps of Alaska.

The base for the new maps starts with high resolution satellite imagery and data gathered by radar that penetrates clouds to determine elevations. The old maps, which Alaskans have relied on for generations, were based on aerial photos and weren’t up to national standards.

“In fact the planet Mars is more recently, more accurately, and more extensively mapped at a higher fidelity than is Alaska,” says a handout on the Statewide Digital Mapping Initiative distributed at a 2012 roundtable on the Alaska project in Washington, D.C.

The new digital data has resolution 12 times greater than the old, showing mountain peaks, ridges and braided streams in far greater detail than before, said Becci Anderson, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey as the liaison to the state on the mapping project. While the area depicted in each topographical map may vary, one Anchorage map showed an area about 9 miles by 6 miles.

The new maps should help pilots and fishermen, developers and researchers, kayakers and hikers ­— anyone who wants to navigate Alaska, say those involved.

“I can’t think of one thing that it doesn’t affect,” said Nick Mastrodicasa, the state digital mapping project manager with the Department of Transportation. Emergency responders and urban planners, oil companies and environmentalists all will be able to use the data, he said.

So far, the new topo maps include areas around Anchorage and Eagle River, in Denali National Park, around Talkeetna and Tyonek, and south of Barrow in the far north.

All of Alaska, even the Aleutian Islands, will eventually be mapped in detail, Jewell said.

“This is going to be huge, huge not only for those of us that like to enjoy and recreate in the outdoors but huge for the most important things, like aviation safety. Where are those mountains?” said Jewell, who was REI chief executive before stepping into the Cabinet post. “We saw some examples of where these old maps did not show some pretty significant features that you might find in an airplane in an unfortunate way.”

Anderson said the mapping project revealed a ridge about a half-mile tall at The Great Gorge, near Ruth Glacier, that didn’t show up on the old maps.

Alaska pilots say that sometimes, mountains pop up in places different than where the old maps say they are, Mastrodicasa said. The project so far hasn’t revealed as much of what map makers call “horizontal displacement” as researchers expected but did determine that some mountainous terrain in northwestern Alaska, in Noatak National Preserve, was off by a football field or two, he said.

The mapping data is intended to eventually be combined with weather data and used on a tablet computer in an airplane cockpit to show pilots the terrain at any moment and the weather they are headed into, he said.

Many Alaskans are well familiar with the existing USGS topo maps, which were a feat to create decades ago, Mastrodicasa said. But Alaska is big and hard to map. The old maps are generations behind what is available in the Lower 48, he said. Alaska and Hawaii are the last states being mapped.

“They did a noble effort at mapping the great frontier with the tools that they had at the time. It is very large. It is high relief terrain, meaning very mountainous, very rugged,” Mastrodicasa said. “I think they crashed close to a dozen helicopters during the mapping phase.”

The data will also help with the study of climate change in Alaska, Jewell said.

Melting permafrost and coastal erosion will be apparent on maps as they are updated, she said.


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