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Cape Lisburne in Alaska Cape Lisburne on Alaska's Chukchi Sea coastline is home to thousands of nesting seabirds. © ShoreZone

Stories in Alaska

Bird’s-Eye Coastal Science

Scientists have created a public online database of photos that are part art, but mostly science.

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Prince William Sound, Alaska An island in Alaska's Prince William Sound. © ShoreZone
While lovely to view, these coastal images serve primarily as scientific data.

In Alaska, we’re part of a unique science consortium that has explored the coasts in order to bring these northern reaches up close in a new way. In an effort to visually document the state’s coastline for science, the group, coordinated by The Nature Conservancy and known as Alaska ShoreZone, has dispatched a carefully assembled team to collect data from remote Alaska shores – even the Arctic.

To accomplish this, a biologist and geomorphologist equipped with high-resolution still and video cameras actually fly the coast in a helicopter traveling at an altitude of 100-300 meters. 

While lovely to view, these coastal images serve first and foremost as important pieces of scientific data by establishing a perfect environmental baseline for remote and often inaccessible locales. The images are paired with georeference points and descriptive details from a scientist’s narrative, and then uploaded into in the Alaska ShoreZone interactive website portal. There, they are available to everyone. 

ShoreZone: Tool for Protecting & Understanding Alaska’s Coast

Alaska has more coastline than the continental United States, but these remote regions are not easily visited. Yet accessing our coasts is important for science. And when something goes awry in our oceans, the problem often washes up on our shores. 

The ShoreZone online database is a go-to tool for cleanup crews responding to oil spills, boat captains seeking to pinpoint marine debris collection zones, scientists who are investigating environmental change – and the list goes on. Most of the state is now included in this visual online database. 

For many, ShoreZone has proven to be an indispensible tool. This includes the crew of a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration research vessel, the Rainier. Commissioned with conducting the surveys that serve to update nautical charts, the vessel’s crew routinely uses ShoreZone video and still images. 

“Utilizing ShoreZone, we are able to get a complete visual perspective of our survey areas and target specific installation sites. Operationally this saves us considerable time, increasing efficiency and allowing more time for data collection. ShoreZone also allows us to visually identify rocky and hazardous areas, increasing our operational safety. Simply put, it is now an integral part of our project planning process,” says Commander Richard T. Brennan. 

ShoreZone images have been used by scientists and natural resource managers for a an array of uses, which include:

  • Oil spill and emergency planning, response, and recovery
  • Community planning for climate change impacts
  • Search and rescue
  • Fisheries habitat management
  • Desktop reconnaissance
  • Invasive species detection and monitoring
  • Marine debris cleanup