Survey Perspectives: About Alaska

March 2, 2009  - By

I wish I could share with you what I’m seeing right now. I’m on a scenic train in Alaska, traveling from Anchorage to Fairbanks. From someone who usually travels by air, scurrying through airport security at the last minute, this is the way to travel…truly relaxing. There’s lots of space to walk around and a dining car to boot. The views are fantastic. The special cars of the Alaska Railroad are built with large picture windows for soaking in the scenery. On a good day, you can see Mount McKinley (Denali, at right) along the route. We won’t see it today. It’s cloudy and snowing. But we have seen moose (and even had to stop for one that didn’t want to get off the tracks). The train will stop for residents who flag it down and need a ride to the next town. The conductor will even stop the train for picture-taking if the view warrants, which it did when we saw a wolf trying to chase down three sheep on a rock slope along a river.

One thing we shouldn’t expect is to be in a hurry. We left at 8:30 a.m. and we’ll arrive 11.5 hours later. We’ll probably arrive later than that, according to the conductor, “due to circumstances along the way.” He says, “If you’re in a hurry, you’re traveling the wrong way.”

There will be many stops along the way. At the moment, we are stopped for a few minutes in Wasilla…of Sarah Palin fame. It’s a small town. The train has stopped in the middle of Wasilla, holding up all traffic, while 26 Boy scouts come on board only to get dumped off 45 minutes later in the middle of nowhere to camp for the weekend in the harsh Alaskan weather. Today, the temperature is rather balmy at 20° F. A month ago, it was -40° F in Fairbanks for a couple of weeks. As one resident exclaimed, “Once it’s below 0° F, it’s all about the same…really cold.”

Rudy Musial lives along the tracks about 30 minutes or so north of Wasilla. To you baseball fans, his family name may sound familiar. According to Conductor Steve, Rudy is a cousin of Stan Musial, the famous professional baseball player of the earlier part of last century. From what Conductor Steve says, who’s spent some time fishing with Rudy, Rudy was a formidable baseball player himself. Now retired at 78, Rudy was a surveyor for the Bureau of Land Management.

When the train passed by Rudy’s house a few minutes ago, at 60 mph, Steve tossed a newspaper to Rudy. It’s something he does for Rudy and many others who live along the tracks. They don’t subscribe to the newspaper, and Conductor Steve isn’t obligated; he does it out of kindness and in the name of fellowship. It’s a central theme I’ve noticed on this trip to Alaska and the several times I’ve been here before. Alaskans are generally very kind, warm people.

I tell people Oregon is for people who love Mother Nature and the outdoors. Alaska is Oregon on a grand scale, and you develop a new respect Mother Nature. She is beautiful, yet deadly. One wrong turn here and you might not make it back home.

The reason I came to Alaska was for the annual Alaska Surveying and Mapping Conference. I normally don’t take the time to attend state conferences because there are so many, but Alaska is unique. From a mapping standpoint, the state’s been somewhat “left in the cold.” There’s not much state-level data available like there is in the lower 48 states. The density of GPS CORS is sparse and only improved recently with the inclusion of the four new WAAS Reference Stations (WRS) in Barrow, Bethel, Kotzebue, and Fairbanks.

There is good orthophotography in the metro areas, but metro areas are few (Anchorage, Fairbanks, and southeast Alaska). Much of Alaska is a vast amount of wilderness. Height modernization is only a distant dream. I heard that only 1% to 2% of the USGS quad sheets have been field checked, and some elevation busts are on the order of hundreds of feet. That’s sort of scary when you consider that the Alaskan terrain database for aviation is based on the USGS elevation data. You may not know it, but flying in Alaska is some of the most treacherous flying in North America. The weather is largely harsh and unpredictable and there are a lot of small commercial and private planes buzzing around because the road infrastructure is scarce.

GPS, along with WAAS corrections, have become a must-have tool for Alaskan aviators. GPS accuracy and coverage far exceeds any previous aviation navigation technology. It’s so accurate, in fact, that it’s flushing out the USGS quad sheet errors. Actually, that’s been happening for years. I recall, “GPS putting me on the wrong side of the river” in the ‘90s. But as our lives become more dependent on digital map data, the consequences have become more severe. In Alaska, it’s a life-or-death proposition because aviation terrain databases used by pilots are based on those legacy USGS quad sheets. Flying low in inclement weather using accurate GPS positioning + inaccurate digital terrain maps = an intersection with the ground at some point.

Accurate positioning within less accurate maps is a theme that’s central to the surveying/mapping community. GPS accuracy has improved and will continue to improve. In the next decade, a nominal constellation of GPS satellites will exist that are broadcasting the new L5 signal. Everyone will enjoy accuracy at the decimeter level, not just those with expensive “survey-grade” equipment. Pinpoint GPS accuracy will expose glaring errors in our existing map databases. Reconciling those maps is a scary proposition and to most I’ve spoken to, a task that is unfathomable at this point.

Geodesists and geodesy tools that can help tackle this problem, I suspect, will be in great demand.

Also in the March newsletter:Follow up on the GPS/GNSS Buyer’s Guide Webinar

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