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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