GIS Camp explores Seward
Heidi Zemach | For The LOG
GIS Camp participants gather at the Exit Glacier overlook, as Joel Cuscik, or the National Park Service, points out their location on the map.
High school teachers from schools across Alaska brought two students apiece to Seward last week to pilot a new statewide Environmental Science course. The semester long course, which blends place-based outdoor learning with online coursework, will rely heavily on GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping software technology recently developed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Participants came from as diverse, far-flung communities as Anchorage, Kodiak Island, Sitka, Northwest Arctic, Lower Kuskokwim, and the Lake and Penn District.
During the week-long camp, participants discovered what an interesting and challenging learning environment Seward offers for users of GIS and other geo-spatial technologies such as GPS (Global Positioning System), and RS (Remote Sensing) with its mountains of moving glacial silt, receding glacier, tidal regions, and diverse marine and plant life.
The group visited Japanese Creek, where they gathered rock and tree core samples to age them, and learn what kinds of environments, weather patterns, and catastrophic events they might have lived through. They took a water taxi ride beyond the tidal zones at Lowell Point beach to Tonsina Point, explored that area, and collected samples there, too. Following a dinner break at AVTEC, which hosted the group, Dr. Patricia Heiser, a professor with the UAF School of Natural Resources & Agricultural Sciences, examined the tree core samples she had removed from a drying oven. She predicted that the participants would learn more about the 1964 tsunami and earthquake, and its effects, while analyzing and mapping them.
They also explored Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, and its ever-changing glacial moraine. As they approached the park by bus, they stopped and took map readings at roadside markers which showed where the glacier foot was in the year noted on the marker. Once in the park, they divided into two groups and each group went off in a different direction. Each group followed their maps, and the direction that the arrows on their Gammon GPS units pointed to find one another at a specified marker point called NPS 11.
As they proceeded they checked their location on an 1950 aerial photograph that marked in colored lines the pattern of the glacier’s retreat. Along the glacier trail, they stopped and took photos of themselves with the face of Exit Glacier far in the distance. They were were surprised to discover that they were mere toddlers when its toe was where they stood.
Swatting swarms of mosquitoes off faces and hands, they bushwhacked their way through dense trees and brushes off trail until they found one another at NPS 11. There, in a clearing lay a large white X, a temporary surveillance mark that can clearly be read from an airplane flying above the earth taking detailed photos for use by Google Earth, or made into maps that could be used by GIS researchers, sitting at their own computer, said Joel Cuscik, one of their National Park Service guides. In the middle of the X was a small round monument, with its GIS location number on it.
The indoor portion of the program involved learning how to use the university’s new GIS mapping software to create multi-dimensioned layered maps of the data they had gathered and entered. For some students, this part was even more fascinating than the field trips.
Kenai Fjords National Park’s Resource Specialist Sharon Kim demonstrated how GIS mapping is currently used to monitor the effects and conditions of campsite usage in the park over time and the effectiveness of the NPS’ invasive plant management program. Other NPS speakers explained how the maps are used to assist in searches for missing planes such as last year’s search for three missing NPS employees, or lost people, such as the search this July for the missing runner on Mount Marathon. The data entered on the GIS maps can also be animated to show changes or movement over time.
“Yes, it’s interesting. I’m learning a lot of new things,” said Kayne Hart, who lives in Saint Mary’s, on the Yukon River. He had never seen a glacier before, but was used to seeing plenty of tundra. After three days of GIS training, Kayne was dreaming up ways to apply what he’d been learning to his own life once home. He was particularly interested in using GIS to mark hunting areas where he had seen moose most frequently, so he could return to the same area the next time.
Meanwhile, his science teacher, Woody Woodgate had begun thinking about how his students could take long poles out onto the tundra to collect core samples of the permafrost. The study might demonstrate how the permafrost tundra was formed, and how it might be changing over time.
Heidi Zemach | For The LOG
National Park Service’s Regan Sarwas points out their location near Exit Glacier.
The GIS Camp participants will take their technical knowledge back home, and use it for a class-based environmental science inquiry in their own communities. The workshop modeled that process, said Katie Kennedy, Education and Outreach Coordinator of the UAF Geography Program: “We’re thinking about inquiry, asking questions, collecting data to answer those questions, analyzing the data, and presenting our findings via a map, because when you put information in a spacial context, patterns emerge and you get answers you might not get if you’re not looking at it spatially. So, a map is a really powerful tool, and GIS lets you take many layers of data and analyze them all.”
Denyse Hurst, a new Environmental Studies teacher and resident will work in an office at Seward Middle School to provide the online environmental education course in Alaska’s Digital Sandbox (www.alaskadigitalsandbox) to students as part of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s distance-education department. The program will provide free online software, and technical support for all teachers this spring.