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Alaska maps enter digital age: Website offers free downloads of multi-layered images

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Posted: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 12:00 am

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Editorial

The U.S. Geological Survey’s mapping of Alaska, which began in earnest about 60 years ago, was an incredible accomplishment. The topographic maps that resulted have served generations of Alaskans well.

We’re far into the digital age, though, and so the agency’s recent release of new electronic maps is a great leap ahead for everyone who regularly uses such information.

The USGS is working with the state of Alaska as part of the Statewide Digital Mapping Initiative. The new maps can be downloaded from the USGS’s National Map website,

Not all of Alaska is covered yet, but the agency will add new maps regularly. Much of the Fairbanks area, for example, appears to be available in the new format already.

The maps feature multiple layers of information, which users can add or subtract as desired. The images have many familiar characteristics from the old standard maps — elevation lines, section line grids, geographic names, roads, shading relief, etc.

Now, however, each of these features and more can be turned on or off with a click of a screen button. In addition, a satellite image can be added to the layer, for a package that gives the viewer a comprehensive portrait of an area. The combination of elevation lines, shading relief and satellite imagery should make the product useful for even the most map-challenged individuals.

The product is far more accurate than the old maps, as well. The elevations are set by satellite measurements. Rivers and streams appear in their exact locations — not where they were 60 years ago.

The new technology does appear to have a few shortcomings. The old USGS maps showed trails as dotted lines. Those are absent. The satellite imagery isn’t as detailed as that provided by private mapping companies. And the website offers so many options that it’s a little difficult to navigate the first time through.

 On balance, though, this is a huge advance for Alaskans. One more important feature of these maps is worth noting as well — they’re free.

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