New map offers unified look at Arctic
The Associated Press
FAIRBANKS (AP) — University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Donald "Skip" Walker and colleagues gathered for a conference in Boulder, Colo., 11 years ago and realized they faced a common problem in studying the Arctic region and its array of vegetation.
While scientists for years documented vegetation in the northernmost regions of the Earth, their mapping efforts amounted to a scattered puzzle of varying scales, legends, languages and coverage areas, providing at best a fragmented picture of the Arctic.
So when Walker and many of the same scientific colleagues meet again next summer in Tromso, Norway, the hot topic of the conference figures to be the first map that provides a uniform view of vegetation of the entire Arctic region.
Walker is the leader of a team that worked since the 1992 conference in Colorado to develop the "Circumpolar Arctic Vegetation Map," a cartographical undertaking that took the work of some 35 scientists from five countries.
The map, published in October, provides the first chance for everyone from scientists to educators to residents of arctic communities to use vegetation as a common factor in analyzing the entire region, according to Walker. (Related: Map project Web site)
"We're beginning to see the Arctic as a whole system with a lot of common characteristics and cultural and social issues," he said. "A map on vegetation really helps address a lot of these issues."
Walker said the map will play an important part in analyzing global climate change, making land-use decisions and studying the region.
The map has practical uses for the scientist and academic uses for the educator or student, he said.
"Maps are weird things because once they're there, people find all sorts of uses for them," Walker said.
Walker said developing the map was complicated. It involved mapping vegetation in areas where sufficient data wasn't available and combining existing maps into a common view of the Arctic. The project, funded by about $700,000 in National Science Foundation money, also presented plenty of logistical challenges in trying to coordinate efforts from scientists spread throughout the world.
"One of the hardest parts was just selecting a common legend," Walker said.
Once all the maps had been assembled, UAF researcher Martha Raynolds started the process of synthesizing them into a common image.
Raynolds used an infrared image of the Arctic region as seen from the North Pole as a base map, then added data from the mapping of individual areas to produce the completed product.
The finished map provides a more complete picture of the variety of Arctic vegetation than do the satellite images most frequently used for analyzing vegetation in the region, she said. The map allows scientists to divide the region into "meaningful vegetation groups other than to just say it's all tundra."
Raynolds said her favorite part of the process was collaborating with scientists from so many other parts of the world.
Cooperation from the international community was the missing factor that kept a similar map from being developed sooner, said Stephen Talbot, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee in Anchorage who participated in the project.
"I think part of it is the opening up of the former Soviet Union. People have been communicating before but it wasn't as easy as it is now," he said.
Like Walker, Talbot said the map is exciting both for its practical applications and its educational value.
"You can sit in front of a map, and you can say, 'how does Kotzebue compare to a place in Russia? How are we similar? How is it different?" he said. "I think it's important for the children who are coming up in school now to know how their little dot fits into the circumpolar world."
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