The following article appears in the Summer 2010 issue of Nature Conservancy Magazine
Digital Tool Helps Oil-Spill Responders Protect Alaska’s Coast
In January 2009, fierce winds in southeastern Alaska tore loose a 181-foot ferry from a pier. The ferry ran aground on a small island, and the Coast Guard and volunteers headed to the scene to limit damage from a possible fuel spill. Before they arrived, the responders knew which sensitive tidelands and critical fisheries habitats were threatened, thanks to a set of new high-tech digital maps that provide a bird’s-eye view of Alaska’s coast.
The mapping project, Alaska ShoreZone, currently covers 17,000 miles of the state’s roughly 47,000-mile coastline, including areas such as Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound—the site of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. More than 30 organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and state and tribal agencies, have worked together on the program since 2001, sharing $5.5 million in funds and plenty of expertise.
To get the images for ShoreZone, a helicopter buzzes the coast during low tide. A biologist and geologist hang out the open door, shooting photos and video, and recording audio commentaries on the coastline features below. The high-definition images and the narratives are digitized and made publicly available online.
“It’s fantastic to see the whole coastline,” says John Harper, a geomorphologist who has worked on ShoreZone programs in Washington state, British Columbia and now Alaska. “It really provides a different perspective,” he says.
Scientists have used the digital maps to identify important fishery habitats, such as underwater kelp forests and eelgrass beds. ShoreZone has played a critical role in explaining some of the interactions between estuaries—where rivers meet the ocean—and upland areas, says Laura Baker, a marine project manager with the Conservancy in Alaska.
“Our primary goal is to have the first inventory of coastal habitats in southeastern Alaska,” Baker says. By using ShoreZone information, the Conservancy is identifying areas of key conservation significance and fine-tuning strategies for protecting salmon runs, tidelands and coastal forests.
Crews responding to oil spills can use the data to prioritize areas where they need to act quickly. If a Valdez-like spill occurred now, responders could use ShoreZone to develop containment plans to protect sensitive wildlife habitat. Additionally, the program is feeding computer models to help manage commercial fisheries and control invasive species.
Says Baker: “It’s a tool to help us pick which areas to focus on.”
— Joshua Zaffos