AK CASC drone pilots head to western Alaska as emergency response asset

On Tuesday, September 20th, CASC researchers and staff were called upon to support the US Coast Guard’s emergency response following Typhoon Merbok. Over five days the team worked alongside the coast guard’s Marine Safety Task Force as they assessed infrastructure damage at seven coastal communities in Alaska’s Bering Strait region. 

Dr. Jessica Garron and Mike DeLue at the outlet of Solomon River in Nome in August while participating in an exercise to use drones and remote sensing in oil spill response. Photo by Jessica Garron.

Typhoon Merbok damaged hundreds of miles of coastline from north of Bristol Bay to just beyond the Bering Strait. In places like Nome, the ocean rose 10.5 feet above the low-tide line, the highest in nearly half a century. The flooding and wave action inundated homes, destroyed roads and runways, damaged sea walls and other critical infrastructure, left communities without water or communication and much more.

The team used drones to evaluate the integrity of oil-bearing infrastructure and perform community assessments for other hazardous spills that may have occurred as a result of the storm.

“As the coast guard performed boots-on-the-ground assessments, we were their eyes in the sky by providing 2D and 3D mapping,” said Mike DeLue, a drone pilot and AK CASC science communicator.

The work builds on the long-term work and relationship-building of project lead Jessica Garron, the deputy director of the Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center at IARC.

Their first stop was Unalakleet, where DeLue and Garron have already been working with John Henry, deputy director of the Native Village of Unalakleet, to build drone capacity in rural Alaska. Through that work, three Unalakleet drone pilots have been successfully trained and equipped to conduct infrastructure assessments, flood mapping, environmental monitoring and coastal erosion mapping. 

Both the UAF team and rural pilot partners have been preparing for situations like Typhoon Merbok. Just last month, several team members participated in an oil spill research exercise at Poker Flat Research Range and developed orthomosaic imagery of coastal areas in Nome. 

Katie Daniels, a resident of Bethel, flies a drone during a training exercise in Nome in August. Photo by Mike DeLue.

Drone data gathered by DeLue, Garron and their team will be shared through the State of Alaska Open Data Geoportal making it available to emergency operations within numerous state and federal agencies.

“I am grateful that the work we do here at IARC, the AK CASC and the Scenarios Network for Alaska + Arctic Planning, is valuable to communities and agencies in times of science, and in times of crisis,” said Garron. “The coordination among all of the communities, agencies in the Emergency Operations Center and with our team is renewing critical relationships built on geospatial information among partners across all of Alaska. We are honored to support this critical mission.”

Data processing is now taking place and imagery has been delivered to key partners and agencies as the response moves forward.

Those interested in contributing to recovery efforts across Western Alaska should consider contributing to the Western Alaska Disaster Recovery Fund established by the Alaska Community Foundation. 

Other team members include: Margaret Hall, Model Forest Policy Project; Tom Kurkowski, International Arctic Research Center; Katie Daniels, Association for Village Council Presidents.

Original story by Heather McFarland.