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Climate scientists use drone data to monitor glacier lake flooding impact on Alaskan communities

Worldwide impacts of climate change have been clearly outlined and forecasted in general. But on the ground, in specific locations, the way changing temperatures play out presents complex challenges. In Alaska, for example, teams of researchers monitor glacier changes, as well as avalanche and permafrost issues that lead to a range of impacts on communities.

Gabriel Wolken is a research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbank’s Climate Adaptation Science Center and manager of the State of Alaska’s Climate and Cryosphere Hazards Program. One of the big projects his research team is working on now involves using drone data to visualize and predict a glacial lake’s activities. Specifically, they need to know how its seasonal flux impacts a nearby community and its vital infrastructure.

They’ve been working since 2015 through challenging conditions with various aerial survey methods, and in 2019 Wolken learned about WingtraOne. He immediately recognized it as a new opportunity for more frequent, high-accuracy data capture

Industry
Environmental
Countries
USA
Use case
Teams of researchers are using drone data to track changes in a glacial lake via rising and falling levels of ice left over from glacier retreat. This work is a preventative measure to protect neighboring communities from sizeable flash floods.
Challenges
Large survey area, steep terrain, need for regular surveying to effectively track changes.

WingtraOne provided an interesting option for us for many of our research objectives. Its VTOL allowed us to operate from the glacier and from one of the rock ledges. Since it’s also a fixed-wing, we could fly higher, longer, and with a payload that gave us the outputs we needed to achieve.

Gabriel Wolken
Research professor, University of Alaska Fairbank’s Climate Adaptation Center

Suicide Basin Alaska glacier orthomosaic Suicide Basin Alaska glacier elevation model

The research teams use orthophoto and digital elevation model outputs (pictured) from WingtraOne data to assess the changes to ice levels atop Suicide Basin (to the right-hand side of the outputs) which indicates the status of the water level and how it interacts with the Mendenhall Glacier (left-hand side of outputs).

How could big, slow glaciers flood a community?

Just outside Juneau, Alaska, sits the Mendenhall Glacier, a massive body of ice stretching 21 km (13 mi). It was once connected to another body of ice, called Suicide Glacier. But over the past 80 years, Suicide Glacier has retreated. In the wake of this movement, it left a piece of itself in a deep basin. Beneath this remnant ice, the “Suicide Basin” reservoir fills with water. All of this is held in place by the Mendenhall Glacier, which is still sitting right next to it.

This point—where the basin and Mendenhall Glacier meet—is the target area where the team is conducting many lines of remote sensing to detect the change in the lake level, Wolken said.

“The main issue is that it’s ice covered so we can’t really see the water as it fills up the basin on a seasonal basis,” he explained. “WingtraOne covers a large area, efficiently and provides data that is high quality in terms of visualization and location accuracy.”

Key to all of this is how Mendenhall Glacier functions as a dam that contains the water in the basin. When the water gets too high, it either flows over it or pushes it up from below due to massive amounts of hydraulic pressure that builds up. “And then, in a catastrophic event, the water drains,” Wolken explained. “The entire lake drains over about a day and a half, and floods the infrastructure and community down below.”

 

Digital elevation model and graph suicide basin and WingtraOne drone data
WingtraOne data helps track the exact level of the ice in Suicide Basin (red line tracking the blue area of the digital elevation model). This position data informs researchers about the amount of water that has filled suicide basin, i.e., how much water is locked behind Mendenhall Glacier ice dam. Like a bathtub with ice floating on top, when water below moves the glacier dam in a specific way, the entire basin drains rapidly, flooding the Mendenhall River and surrounding communities.

Preventing the worst case with the best solution

Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) began in 2011. The flooding has damaged infrastructure and homes in the valley by Suicide Basin. In 2015, Wolken was part of the first assessment of the area. In 2018 more agencies—including the US Geological Survey Field Office in Juneau, and the International Arctic Research Center among others—started to get involved.

“This flooding potentially threatens a bridge that is connected to the road system,” Wolken said. “And this is the only road that would connect residents on the north side to hospitals and other vital facilities, so if this bridge was impacted it would cause some very serious issues for a lot of people.”

In addition to helicopter-based photogrammetry, Wolken and his team have conducted LIDAR surveys with manned aircraft and have also used quadcopters. 

But when Wolken learned about WingtraOne during a fellowship in Davos, he saw a solution that suited the broad coverage these basin surveys demand and offered the possibility of more frequent data capture missions.

The helicopter surveys they had been conducting cost around 3,500 USD and were only possible annually. The nature of this study requires more frequent surveys of the area to recognize elevation change patterns that indicate water filling the basin under the glacier that is responsible for the downstream flooding.

“We also used a Phantom 4 to do some of the photogrammetry, but it required a lot of effort to survey the lake, with several battery changes just to cover the area,” Wolken said. 

It’s pretty hard to land a fixed-wing drone on a glacier that is deeply cut by meltwater channels and has lots of rock debris strung over it; in fact, you wouldn’t be able to avoid a crash. So the WingtraOne VTOL offered a really nice solution to our particular environment.

Gabriel Wolken
Research professor, University of Alaska Fairbank’s Climate Adaptation Center

Drone mapping in Suicide Basin, Alaska

WingtraOne

illustration WingtraOne
3
KM2
(1.2 MI2)
1.5
hrs

DJI Phantom 4 Pro

illustration multirotor
3
KM2
(1.2 MI2)
9
hrs

Fixed-wing drone

fixed-wing drone illustration
Not feasible

Alaska-sized coverage meets high accuracy

Wolken and his team flew with the WingtraOne PPK and RX1R II bundle to survey Suicide Basin at the time of year when the water level peaks. He was more than pleased with the resolution and accuracy of the data gathered, especially considering the terrain and coverage.

“Alaska is a big place,” Wolken explained. “There’s virtually nothing we address that we consider small here. So if it’s going to be a drone, we have to have something that can actually fly for a long time, fly high enough to be able to handle the complex terrain that we’re constantly dealing with and provide the resolution that’s required for the analyses that we’re doing. WingtraOne does this.” 

For a single mission with 3 cm (1.2 in) / px GSD, covering 3 km2 (1.2 mi2), it took 90 minutes from start to finish. The 1734 images stitched together provided an orthophoto and a digital terrain model that the team will use to analyze and track changes over multiple missions.

"No comparison" in terms of safety and effort

In addition to the efficiency factor, anyone native to this environment is well aware of the risk to those collecting data in the basin, with aircraft or manually.

“This is an amazingly challenging terrain in which to work. It’s so complex, with so many challenging wind vectors that make it dangerous to be in an aircraft in this area,” Wolken said. “So simply staying out of an aircraft is the greatest advance in safety that we could have in this setting—it’s really important.”

WingtraOne takes the research another step forward because of it’s well-integrated multi-frequency PPK module. This enables high levels of location (absolute) accuracy without the need for extensive ground control.

“On the ground, in terms of the workflow, absolutely, compared to the other drones that we used in this project, WingtraOne was really a game-changer in terms of the amount of time that we saved by only having to collect a handful of checkpoints to provide validation for analyses.”

Members of our research team had to place multiple GCPs in exceptionally difficult terrain, and had to rappel down rock walls to get to some areas to place that ground control. So there’s really no comparison in terms of the amount of effort that was required to collect similar data without WingtraOne.

Gabriel Wolken
Research professor, University of Alaska Fairbank’s Climate Adaptation Center

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