Alaska, updated — modern maps detail the 49th state

alaska satellite map comparison
This view of Alaska at (58.670, -156.997) displays updated orthoimagery from the SPOT 5 satellite (2.5-meter spatial resolution) alongside older imagery from the Landsat 7 satellite (15-meter spatial resolution). / Thanks to the Alaska Statewide Digital Mapping Initiative (SDMI) and the UAF Geographic Information Network of Alaska (GINA), working with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

The U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Mapping Initiative has released more than 400 new digital topographic maps for the state of Alaska. It doesn’t stop there – the initiative will give us a clear view of Alaska, creating a complete set of more than 11,000 maps over the next 6 to 8 years. These maps update the last batch created for the state over 50 years ago, and the difference in detail and quality possible because of new mapping technology is clear.

surveyors mapping Alaska
Field surveying and topographical mapping of the Alaskan interior by the USGS began in the 1890s following the discovery of gold in the Yukon. Travel was often by dog sled and pack train, canoe and walrus-skin kayak as shown in this undated photo. / Courtesy the U.S. Geological Survey

Easily downloaded and free to the public, U.S. Topo maps are published in a PDF format that features layers which users can select or hide. You’ll see the traditional legacy paper map format overlayed on high resolution satellite photography. A detailed elevation data layer adds contours and shaded relief. Geographic names, boundaries, roads, railways, oil pipelines, airports and landing strips are some of the features that can be shown, as are municipal buildings like hospitals and police stations. Other layers survey plots of undeveloped land, aid in navigation, or portray water systems, glaciers and forests. It is a highly customizable system that allows the user to select the data they want and zoom to a specified area to be viewed on a computer or mobile device or printed. There are related tools for geographic analysis also available for free.

These maps are an essential public service. They give search and rescue first-responders valuable data in the face of an accident or natural disaster, in addition to informing more common-day uses like city planning, water management, transportation, natural resource management, and economic and industrial development. Highly detailed maps also aid in scientific research from geology to conservation studies and beyond. They join a collection of heritage Alaska maps, also available for download.

Most of the United States is already mapped to this detailed (1:25,000) scale, but Alaska’s size, remoteness, tough terrain and unruly weather makes mapping there quite a challenge. This new release shows the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Geospatial Program and their partners are up to the task.

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  • ‘Alaska Mapped : Alaska Statewide Orthoimagery Mosaic’ part of the Statewide Digital Mapping Initiative (2013)
  • ‘Benefits of Mapping Alaska’ Alaska Mapping Initiative, U.S. Geological Survey (2013)
  • ‘Mapping the Final Frontier’ U.S. Geological Survey Newsroom (2013)