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Geomatics is shrinking Alaska’s mountains

June 11, 2017

Today’s technology allows for more accurate elevation measurements, but for one iconic mountain it is really all about safety

Three years ago, North America’s highest peak suddenly shrunk 10 feet. There was a surprising amount of controversy with the official re-measurement of Denali by a crew of surveyors. After all, it was only 10 feet—dipping the Alaska mountain from a long-assumed elevation of 20,320 feet to 20,310.

But it is still disappointing to find out a long-held record is not quite as impressive as believed—particularly an elevation, which seems like a straightforward concept.

Imagine the reaction when a team of geomatics students slashed another historic Alaskan elevation by about 50 feet―out of 3,000-foot mountain. Not just any elevation but the top of one of the oldest and most iconic mountain races in the United States.

Eric Glaves performs a geodetic observation on Mount Marathon, where the long-believed 3,022-foot elevation was proven to be incorrect by a team of surveyors.

An Alaskan icon

Alaska has no shortage of tall mountains. But when it comes to name recognition, Mount Marathon may be second only to Denali. The peak is the apex of a 100-year-old trail race in the coastal city of Seward and is routinely featured on lists including the “Most Dangerous Running Trails” and “Hardest Races in the U.S.” The number 3,022—referring to the accepted elevation of the race’s turnaround point partway up Marathon Mountain—has long been enshrined in Alaskan running culture. There are “3022” bumper stickers on cars all over Alaska and a documentary film was produced about the race history and its allure.

And that number—3,022—is wrong. Nearly 50 feet wrong. I was part of a four-person team that worked on the Mount Marathon Mapping Project and helped set the correct elevation of 2,974 feet as part of our senior Geomatics Capstone Project at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA). The National Geodetic Survey verified our finding.

The team climbed the mountain a dozen times and spent hours gathering data on the mountain and around Seward (nearly all of it in the rain). We then spent hundreds more hours processing data and creating deliverables.

3D image and GIS model with routes of the treacherous Mount Marathon in Seward, Alaska.

Why does it matter?

So why would a group of surveyors want to rock the boat? To get attention, of course. Geospatial activities are rarely in the public eye. We wanted to highlight the complexities of high-accuracy surveys and the effort that goes into producing deliverables, as well as demonstrate that the concept of “elevation” is a bit more complicated than most people think.

The elevation measurement was only the first step. The biggest challenge has been shifting attention to the overall project goal—improving safety for both racers and the public, which includes many of the 2 million annual visitors to Seward. The mountain is unforgiving. Rescue operations are routine, and the military assists on the more dangerous rescues. It is a given that many of 1,000 runners in the annual 4th of July Mount Marathon Race will suffer injuries, some serious.

Hauling gear up and down Mount Marathon was no easy task for the team of surveyors.

Beyond an elevation

A local remote sensing firm gathered high-resolution photos and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data, supplemented by GPS data gathered by the team on the ground. We used a variety of software programs to produce a photorealistic three-dimensional model of the mountain, digital representations of the routes, and a fly-through video for race officials to show runners at the mandatory safety briefing the night before the race.

Most importantly, we provided the digital products to the city so they can be posted online for the public to view and download.

A visitor to Seward can now view Mount Marathon and established routes in 3D before attempting to climb it. They also can download digital representations of the routes and view them on Google Earth or a handheld GPS receiver, which should help keep them on track and away from the mountain’s most dangerous areas. As any serious outdoors fan knows, trip planning is the most critical part of safety, and access to accurate maps can make the difference between a good trip and a life-threatening incident.

One of the world’s great mountain races, the 4th of July Mount Marathon Race is celebrated across Alaska with bumper stickers with the long-believed elevation of 3,022 feet. That number should read 2,974.

Into the future

The UAA Geomatics program is one of the few ABET-accredited in the nation and it played a large part in my decision to move to Alaska four years ago when I joined Stantec. Also, Alaska will challenge anyone looking to collect geospatial data: high latitude, tectonic motion, difficult terrain, rough weather, and wildlife that could eat you—or at least destroy your gear.

My team specifically selected this capstone project to demonstrate what interdisciplinary collaboration looks like in the field of geomatics. Although all four of us graduated from the land surveying track of the program, we did not want to limit our project to traditional surveying activities.

Surveyors have long debated the benefit of a four-year degree. While a geomatics degree is no guarantee of success, it provides graduates with the foundation to become not only licensed surveyors but geospatial professionals in a broader sense—with the ability to draw upon a range of skills and knowledge to create products tailored to client needs. With data collection and storage becoming increasingly easier, there are opportunities for geomatics professionals willing to think creatively and step out of traditional roles.

And while we’re at it, we can generate a little controversy.

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