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Posted on June 6th, 2023

Our Changing Landscape – Kotzebue, Alaska

In this monthly feature, we span the globe to examine Our Changing Landscape with a time series of medium-resolution PlanetScope satellite imagery. The PlanetScope constellation dates back to 2016 and collects hundreds of millions of square kilometers of four and eight-band 3-meter imagery daily! In May, we looked at the impact Climate Change is having on the Greenland Ice Sheets. This month, we’re headed to Kotzebue, Alaska to check out the impacts of Climate Change on the Native communities there.

Click on the image above to see an animation of 3-meter natural color PlanetScope imagery collected over Kotzebue, Alaska and surrounding areas on August 8, 2016 and then August 3, 2022. Imaged nearly six years apart, these two PlanetScope images offer instant visual confirmation of the encroachment of water on the landscape as Climate Change melts the polar ice caps, pushing global ocean levels up. At the current rates of sea level rise, communities like Kotzebue face the real risk of evacuation to higher ground in the coming decades. What is also apparent in these images taken at basically the same point in the growing season six years apart is that grasses and other shrub-like vegetation in the region are greening up much sooner, the result of warmer temperatures thawing the frozen soils sooner. (Images Courtesy: © Planet 2023)

The PlanetScope Microsat Constellation

PlanetScope is a constellation of more than 240 microsats (as of January 2022) referred to individually as Doves. Each Dove is able to collect up to 20,000 square kilometers (sq km) per day of 3-meter (m) 4-band multispectral (i.e. blue, green, red and near-infrared [NIR]) imagery; and newly launched SuperDoves collect 8-band multispectral adding in valuable red-edge spectral data. Across the constellation, PlanetScope is archiving more than 200 million sq km of medium-resolution imagery a day, making it the go to source for daily imagery over most locations. This massive archive dates back to 2016, offering the most complete and continuous record of spatial data on the planet since the start of the constellation’s ongoing launch schedule. Collecting 3-meter multispectral imagery is the equivalent of ‘high-resolution’ multispectral data imaged by a 75-centimer (cm) satellite (as this satellite would feature 75-cm panchromatic and 3-m multispectral), making PlanetScope an extremely competitively priced option at just $1.80 per sq km. With well registered images and nearly daily collections of most locations, PlanetScope is the ideal imagery source for this current-events focused series, Our Changing Landscape.

The Impacts of Climate Change on Kotzebue, Alaska

There’s been evidence upon evidence that Climate Change is catching up with planet earth, causing massive effects around the world. This month, we’re looking at how these changes are impacting the city of Kotzebue, Alaska and the Indigenous communities who live there.

Kotzebue lies 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle, at the end of a gravel spit that stretches into the Kotzebue Sound. The Sound is at the mouth of three separate rivers – the Noatak, Selawik and Kobuck – and is therefore a transportation-supply hub for the cities that lie inland from it. The town is also the entry point for three nearby national parks and provides air taxi services to remote areas so tourists can backpack, hike, raft and explore these rugged, stunning landscapes.

Kotzebue is called home by one of the largest populations of Native Alaskan people, the Iñupiat (in-NOO-pee-at). Nearly 80% of the city’s population are Iñupiat. Many of the people who live there still practice ways of life like those of their ancestors – as much a people of the ice as they are of the land and sea. Due to their ancestral ties to the land, the Iñupiat people have firsthand exposure to how Climate Change is impacting our earth.

In fact, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as any other place on earth, and the Indigenous people there are finding their ways of life threatened as the sea encroaches. As the sea ice surrounding Kotzebue melts, sea levels in the surrounding areas have risen. In 2012, a sea wall was constructed along the shoreline of the town to help offset coastal erosion and protect the community from rising tides and sea ice. The Arctic coast is becoming warmer and wetter, as well as more prone to flooding and tropical storms. This was demonstrated in September 2022 when Typhoon Merbock inundated the western coast of Alaska – the strongest storm the state has seen in years. The increase in flooding and storm damage is a huge public health and safety concern, especially given that so many of these coastal communities are remote and only accessible by boat or plane.

The Kotzebue community also relies heavily on the sea and ice to survive, as their ancestors have done before them for innumerable years. Even today, Iñupiat people will travel long distances across sea ice during the winter, allowing them to hunt bearded seals, fish in the waters, and rely on the sea for other important resources. As the ice thins and recedes, hunting becomes more dangerous and sometimes impossible. Rising sea temperatures cause the movements of fish to change. This instigates a ripple effect, as the animals who prey on the fish, like gulls and walruses, move on as well, attempting to find their ways out of the warmer waters. As it becomes more difficult for the native people to hunt and fish in their homeland, their communities also face the risk that future generations will lose the traditional knowledge of how such things are done.

It’s hard to imagine how communities such as Kotzebue will weather the continued changes of global warming. Indigenous people such as the ones who reside there have proven over the course of time that they are resilient, creative and gritty. If anyone can adapt to the rising tides, it’s people like them. However, grit and resilience only take you so far against nature’s fury. If something is to be done to help stop and reverse the siege of Climate Change, action must be swiftly taken. For more information about how you can do your part, you can check out this list of ten actions you can take from the United Nations or this list from Carbon Offsets To Alleviate Poverty (COTAP).

And now it is time to turn to the 3-meter PlanetScope archive to see how the landscape around Kotzebue has changed in recent years as Climate Change has intensified.

If you would like to find out more about using 3-meter PlanetScope imagery for your academic studies, engineering projects or any landscape analysis, let us know at sales@apollomapping.com or (303) 993-3863.

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