Denali National Park Gets 'Google Street View'
Denny Capps/National Park Service
Park officials investiagte a landslide discovered on Oct. 23, 2013. By early November, crews had cleared the road.
July 23, 2012 --
This week Google debuted a new set of panoramic images from the South Pole. Taken in partnership with on-site researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Polar Geospatial Center, these interactive views shed light on remote locations such as Ernest Shackleton’s early shelter and the Adélie penguin rookery. The images were captured using off-the-shelf equipment that included a digital SLR camera with a fisheye lens, said Alex Starns, a Google technical program manager for Street View whose work covers operations in Asia Pacific and Antarctica. Brad Harried, a researcher with the Polar Geospatial Center, took the latest photos. “Brad would often carry extra batteries in his pocket and use a chemical hand warmer to keep them from freezing,” Starns said. “It’s a little challenging to operate the camera wearing thick winter clothes and mittens.” Explore the frigid Antarctic landscape in this slide show of high-resolution images.
The South Pole Telescope building shown here contains an enormous scientific instrument that took more than 30 engineers and scientists to construct. “The South Pole Station is actually at a really high altitude,” Starns said. Located 1.7 miles above sea level, the telescope is used by a team of scientists seeking to answer crucial questions such as “How old is the universe?” Since the South Pole has such clear atmosphere, it’s an ideal location for observing the thermal radiation that fills our universe. Starns hopes that Street View users who interact with the new images from Antarctica will be excited to learn more about the continent. He also wants them to have a greater appreciation for the explorers of 100 years ago and modern researchers, he said. Particularly the challenges inherent in a place NASA scientists used to prepare the landers for conditions on Mars. ANALYSIS: 100 Years Ago Today: Scott Reaches South Pole
Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton survived what seemed like certain death. His first attempt to reach the South Pole in 1901 nearly killed him. In 1908 he returned, getting even closer to the South Pole. Although Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen got there first in 1911, Shackleton was still determined. His ship Endurance would get trapped in the ice, forcing the crew on an epic adventure to safety. New images show the entire interior of Shackleton’s 1908 hut at Cape Royds. “Having this immersive imagery of the supply depot they built really reinforces the sense of just how incredible that journey was,” Starns said. Reading materials remain on the beds, tossed aside as if their owners will be back momentarily. And yet the objects inside hut have stayed in place for more than a century. “His
was unique because they had some early photographic equipment on board,” Starns said of Shackleton. “In the hut you can still see some of the photographic chemicals that they used to develop their film.” Photographer Frank Hurley’s images from the Endurance expedition would become famous. HOWSTUFFWORKS: Can You Vacation in Antarctica?
A 50-foot-long wooden cabin was built in 1911 at Cape Evans on Ross Island to house several dozen men. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott used this building as a base for his Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, but he and his team ultimately reached the pole weeks after Amundsen. Scott and the four other men in his party died in the frozen wilderness while attempting to return. A letter found with his body read, "Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman." Although the cabin has remained largely unchanged since Shackleton locked it up in 1917, scientists have to regularly keep it from being swallowed by ice and snow. "You look at the food and the equipment that they brought and imagine how isolating and how lonely it must have been down there," Starns said, adding that he couldn’t imagine spending years eating tea biscuits and gravy. "It’s amazing to me that not only did these men do this, but many of them volunteered for it." NEWS: Two Aussies Reach South Pole Unaided
Back in 2010, Google first unveiled Street View images taken from Half Moon Island on the northern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. Visitors from cruise ships that stopped there helped take the panoramic photos at the time, Starns said. Instead of a human, the Street View icon turned into a little penguin. The Adélie penguins at a remote rookery on Cape Royds aren’t accustomed to humans taking their pictures, but they seem more focused on soaking up the summer sun. From here the waters of McMurdo Sound are visible. Adélie penguins use the sun to navigate from land to the sea, according to scientific data from the Polar Conservation Organization. Unlike the humans in Google’s shots, none of the penguins have blurred faces to protect their identities. “If we get any blurring requests from them, we’ll be sure to tend to them,” Starns joked. ANALYSIS: Paralyzed Athlete Sit-Skis to the South Pole
Flags from the nations that signed the Antarctic Treaty encircle the Ceremonial South Pole. In 1959 the original treaty among 12 nations included provisions stating that Antarctica would only be used for peaceful purposes and ensuring continued scientific research there. Since then, the list of signatories has grown to 50. Besides flags, the Ceremonial South Pole is marked by a pedestal with a reflective globe on top. In the background stands the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, an American scientific facility. When the Google panoramic images were shot on the polar plateau, the conditions weren’t just windy -- the temperature was negative 60 degrees F. The ice that the station is built on moves annually so the geographic South Pole location is in a different position every year, Starns said. "The ceremonial pole always stays in the same place." VIDEO: Frozen Planet: Journey to the South Pole
You won't find the panoramas on Google Maps, but Alaska's Denali National Park has gotten the do-it-yourself Google Street View treatment.
Using a homemade, Subaru-mounted platform of four GoPro cameras, geologist Ron Karpilo, a research associate at Colorado State University who lives in Anchorage, snapped more than half a million photos of Denali's Park Road. The goal is to monitor environmental changes in the park, a need that hit home earlier this week when a landslide blocked part of the road.
There is only one road in the 6 million-acre park. The Park Road is 92 miles (148 kilometers) long and only the first 15 miles (24 km) are paved. Visitors can drive on the paved road, but then must switch to park shuttle buses, a strategy that relieves congestion and "bear jams" caused by drivers gawking at wildlife.
"Ninety-some percent or more of visitors experience the park from these shuttle buses," Karpilo told LiveScience here at the Geological Society of America's annual meeting, where he presented his photographs on Sunday (Oct. 27).
Karpilo has long been monitoring change in Alaskan national parks with his camera. Usually, this entails hiking or even helicoptering to remote spots to snap pictures of glaciers from the same angles as photographs taken throughout the last century. These before-and-after pictures allow researchers to understand how the glaciers are retreating, and how ecosystems change in their wake. (Photos of Melt: Glaciers Before and After)
"It's a good tool because it speaks to such a wide audience," Karpilo said. "If I show this to a glaciologist, they're going to see some really technical things and they're going to get something out of it. I could show it to a 5th grader and they'd be able to tell me what's going on there."
This repeat-photo project led to the idea to photograph the Park Road. The road was first built in the 1920s, and since so many park guests experience the park from the road, it's important to understand how the view has changed, Karpilo said. As the glaciers retreat and permafrost, soil that stays frozen year-round, thaws, the entire ecosystem shifts. Permafrost-encased ponds drain, vegetation creeps in to formerly iced-over areas, and the types of vegetation that grow in an area shift.
All of this influences the park experience, Karpilo said. Vegetation growing up around the road could block views, for example, changing where buses stop and how visitors experience the park.
At first, Karpilo was limited in his efforts to document the road change because historical photographs were only available for certain spots. He considered establishing photo stations along the road, but even with 90 stations, he'd only be capturing the view once a mile.
"That made me think about the Google Street View idea," Karpilo said.
Denali viewed by Google Earth satellites. Onformative
Google's street view vehicles cruise through towns and along highways, snapping photos from cameras mounted on the roof of the cars. Karpilo figured his Subaru could do the same thing. He spent $2,600 on GoPro cameras with wide-angle lenses and tools to mount the cameras via his car's sunroof. He positioned the cameras at bus-window height to mimic what a park visitor would see.
Next, he and his wife drove the park road slowly, with each camera snapping a photo every half second. Just one way down the road yielded 266,400 photographs.
"I think I came back with six or seven hundred thousand photos, so I'm just buried in this mountain of photos," Karpilo said. (See Gorgeous Images of Denali's Road)
A sudden shift
Strung together, the photos are a veritable virtual tour of the Park Road. "You could use this to visit the park even if you can't get there," Karpilo said.
They have scientific value, as well, showing where vegetation is growing and how vistas are changing. One sudden change brought home the importance of park monitoring: Sometime shortly before Oct. 23, a massive landslide tumbled over part of the unpaved road. Going back to the photos taken earlier this year, Karpilo saw that groundwater was seeping out of the hillside at the spot where the landslide occurred. That groundwater is a clue that the hill may have been unstable.
"We can use the rest of the imagery to look and see, are there other places where groundwater is seeping out at the road in these same geologic units?" Karpilo said. If so, those areas may merit careful monitoring, perhaps even the deployment of ground sensors to warn of an imminent slide.
The landslide is about 500 feet (150 meters) long and contains an estimated 30,000 cubic yards (23,000 cubic meters) of material, Karpilo said. Many of the soil blocks that fell are up to 80 percent ice, a feature of the permafrost found in Denali. The slide was probably caused by permafrost melting, Karpilo said.
"You're just going to have more and more mud coming down, so it's going to be a constant battle" to keep the road open, he said.
Karpilo hopes to be able to repeat the road photography project to track change over time. An annual record would be great, he said, though at least every five to 10 years would also be useful. The cameras could also be mounted on a backpack or a river raft to reach remote areas, Karpilo said. A record of the Grand Canyon, for example, could help park rangers deal with invasive species.
"It'd be cool to have kind of a Google Street View system go down the river," Karpilo said.
Google River View? Better hope Google CEO Larry Page doesn't get there first.
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