NGA, NSF release 3-D elevation models of Alaska for White House Arctic initiative
SPRINGFIELD, Va. — The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Science Foundation publicly released new 3-D topographic maps of Alaska Sept. 1 in support of a White House Arctic initiative to inform better decision-making in the Arctic.

The 3-D digital elevation models, or DEMs, are the first to come from the ArcticDEM project, which was created after a January 2015 executive order calling for enhanced coordination of national efforts in the Arctic.

“To help Alaskans better plan for sustainable development, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the National Science Foundation are leading a public-private collaboration to create the first-ever publicly available, high-resolution, satellite-based elevation map of Alaska by next year and the entire Arctic by the year after that,” said President Barack Obama in his Sept. 3, 2015 remarks at Kotzebue High School.

Models of the entire Arctic are scheduled for release in 2017.

The models are based on 2-meter resolution images captured by DigitalGlobe commercial satellites. This technology is significant in polar mapping because it allows for more thorough coverage of the Arctic than did traditional imagery collection by aircraft, which is limited in the inhospitable and remote polar region.

“The models will play an important role in informing policy and national security decisions,” said Robert Cardillo, NGA director. “They may also provide critical data and context for decisions related to climate resilience, land management, sustainable development, safe recreation and scientific research.”

The release of high-resolution elevation mapping marks a huge step forward in our ability to deal with the changing Arctic, said Ambassador Mark Brzezinski, Executive Director of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee at the White House. 

“The Arctic region is experiencing some of the most rapid and profound changes in the world,” said Brzezinski. “These changes impact communities, as well as the ecosystems upon which they depend. Yet, much of Alaska and the Arctic lack even basic modern and reliable maps to help Arctic communities understand and manage these risks. The DEMs will address this gap.”

The project brings together a unique set of national assets, including the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, NGA, NSF, the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota, University of Illinois, Ohio State University and Cornell University.

Teams from NGA and NSF worked with these partners to launch an unclassified, open Arctic portal where the DEMs and emerging information is available to the public. Esri, a geographic information system provider, hosts the site at The public website hosts Webmaps, map viewers, other DEM exploratory tools, nautical charts, sailing directions and infographics, and a downloadable Pan-Arctic map with mission-specific data layers.

The U.S. serves as the chair of the Arctic Council through Spring 2017 when the position rotates to Finland for two years.

The White House Arctic Initiative supports efforts to understand the Arctic, engage with residents, and develop tools, products and services that improve federal, state and local activities in the Arctic.

Visit NGA's GEOINT Services page to view more ArcticDem project products.

For more information view the White House's Medium post, "New elevation map details Alaska like never before."

A digital elevation model of Anchorage, Alaska, shows planes parked off the runway of Ted Stevens International Airport. Better elevation maps can be used to quantify changes in sea level and monitor coastal erosion in order to identify buildings and critical infrastructure -- like airports -- at high risk of storm-surge damage, and to identify safe places to shelter when storms come.

This Arctic digital elevation model image centers on Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport, a public and military airport located five miles southwest of the city of Kodiak.  The image highlights the rugged relief surrounding the three runways of the airport and clearly depicts vegetation, buildings, coastal features and the drainage network of the area.

Wolverine Glacier is a valley glacier in the coastal mountains of south-central Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. For climate change monitoring,  satellite imagery can be collected and DEMs produced at regular intervals—weekly, monthly or annually —to observe and document changes as they occur. 

The winding Koyukuk River in Western Alaska is a 425 mile-long tributary of the Yukon River. The digital elevation models show the unique boreal forest vegetation patterns that surround the river region in greater detail than ever before, bringing the unique Arctic landscape into focus.

The Gulkana Glacier and river valley region is one of three long-term U.S. Geological Survey glacial monitoring sites. These new digital elevation model images will help anticipate future landscape-level changes, due to, for instance, erosion, extreme events, or climate change.

Public Release No. 2016-619




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