Spy Agency Maps Show How the Arctic is Heating Up
The Arctic is heating up, both literally and geopolitically. Climate models point to melting sea ice in the coming decades, opening up new shipping routes, potentially vast new oil and gas reserves, and plenty of opportunity for international conflict. All that has prompted a flurry of activity at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the mapmaking organization for the US military and intelligence community.
Naturally, most of the maps made by the NGA aren’t for the likes of you—unless, of course, you’re a spy or a military officer with high-level security clearance. But not all of them. The agency recently released a slew of unclassified maps and geospatial data for the Arctic region, including some of the most detailed terrain maps of Alaska available to the general public.
The maps, which you can browse on the NGA’s website, include things like shipping lanes, ports and airfields, and the potential for oil and gas discovery across the region. There are maps of national boundaries—including some that are well agreed upon, some that have been submitted as claims to the United Nations, and some that are disputed.
“We’re not making any determinations, we’re just showing the claims that all the countries have made,” says Keith Dominic, the NGA’s maritime division chief and source Arctic lead.
Much of the data in the newly released maps was available before, Dominic says, but only if you knew where to find it. The sources include unclassified NGA data, as well as data from other government agencies like the USGS and NOAA.
One goal of consolidating everything and putting it in the public domain was to help policy makers access information they can use to anticipate how melting ice sheets and rising sea levels might affect things like shipping lanes and access to resources, says NGA spokesman Donald Kerr. “This is meant to be a tool for better decision making,” Kerr says.
The Arctic maps are available in several formats. There’s a monster pdf you could print out and hang on your wall, there are interactive maps to play around with, as well as a portal where serious geogeeks can download the raw data.
In the past year, the NGA has seemingly caught a bit (if only a teensy bit) of open data fever. They’ve released unclassified maps and data on the areas affected by the Ebola outbreak and the Nepal earthquake, for example, and created their own page on the code-sharing site GitHub.
The agency plans to keep adding to its Arctic website. The digital elevation models of Alaska, for example, will expand from the six small spots currently covered to the entire state by mid-2016, Dominic says. The entire Arctic region should be available in mid-2017.