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Maps of Alaska Are So Old It's Dangerous

Incorrect elevation data may contribute to plane crashes
By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 15, 2014 1:33 PM CDT
Maps of Alaska Are So Old It's Dangerous
A aerial photo released Wednesday Jan. 29, 2014 shows snow covering part of the closed Richardson Highway, near Valdez, Alaska.   (AP Photo/Alaska DOT&PF)

(Newser) – The US has highly sophisticated maps of Afghanistan, and the government constantly updates its terrain data in the contiguous US. But up north, it's a very different story. "Mars is better mapped than the state of Alaska," says the head of one mapping company. And that is putting Alaska's many pilots at serious risk, the Washington Post reports. GPS in the state is often flat-out wrong, with Pentagon data containing "elevation errors in the hundreds of feet," according to an Army contractor. That may well have been a factor in many disasters.

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The past six years have seen 15 incidents of "controlled flight into terrain," in which a pilot flies directly into a mountain at full speed; that's what killed Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the Post notes. Fortunately, the situation is improving: Technologies known as lidar and ifsar use airborne lasers and radar, respectively, to measure terrain in a way so detailed that individual plants can be captured, reports the Post. The US Geological Service has been using ifsar to map Alaska since 2010. But with only half the state mapped, money is tight, and budget feuds in Washington aren't making things any easier. Says one mapping professional: "We’re talking about $30 million to finish the state. Thirty million dollars … When you consider all the benefits of the program, it seems like a no-brainer." The Post's full story is worth a read. (Read more Alaska stories.)

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