FAIRBANKS — In a trip last year that highlighted the impacts of global climate change on Alaska, President Barack Obama announced plans in Kotzebue to create new high-quality, high-resolution maps of Alaska.

He made good on that promise this week with the release of the first set of maps, called Arctic digital elevation models or ArcticDEMs, created through the National Science Foundation and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

The maps show a far clearer picture of Alaska’s landscape than any previous mapping effort and on a far greater, more consistent scope, said Tom Heinrichs, the director of the Geographic Information Network of Alaska at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“This data is both of higher resolution, meaning you have finer detailed coverage, and the other aspect is the accuracy,” he said. “The data, depending on how it’s processed, can be within a few meters of accuracy worst-case and best-case it’s sub-meter accuracy. It’s both more detailed and more accurate.”

The ArcticDEMs maps were created with satellites that shoot two pictures of the surface — one looking forward in its orbit and another looking back — to generate a highly detailed 3-D image of the landscape. 

The information is then fed through a supercomputer that’s part of the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota and later stitched together into the map.

Comparing the information to what was previously available in the Arctic is a night-and-day difference. On a Medium.com post by the White House detailing the new maps, two examples of Anchorage were included.

The map created with the old data looked lumpy and smudged, while the new ArcticDEMs map is so finely detailed, streets and individual houses are visible.

“Alaska was lagging far behind the Lower 48,” Heinrichs said. “We’ve been working on that for years.”

He said the information will be useful to all kinds of people interested in the Arctic, including mineral geologists, climate change researchers, botanists and others.

Heinrichs added that another important part of the mapping project is that in some areas, maps are being created regularly, so seasonal changes over a few years can be captured. That means snowpack changes, melting tundra and coastal or river erosion will be recorded throughout Alaska during the mapping project.

“We’re going to have a snapshot of the entire sub-Arctic at this point in time when the Arctic is changing very rapidly,” he said. “So in 20, 50, 100 years from now when we’re going to want to know what the Arctic looked at this time, and this data gives us a snapshot comparing today’s situation to the situation in the future.”

President Obama made the three-day trip to Alaska last year, with stops in Anchorage, Seward, Dillingham and Kotzebue. The call for high-quality mapping in Alaska was one of many policy announcements made on the final day of the trip.

The maps are available online at http://bit.ly/2bL2G3s.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.