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Wingtra Drones Help Climate Scientists Predict Flash Flooding in Alaska

BY Zacc Dukowitz
20 May 2020

In a recent drones for good story, a unique drone made by Wingtra is helping climate researchers in Juneau, Alaska track the fluctuations of water and ice levels in nearby Suicide Basin to better predict flash floods.

The work is part of an ongoing effort to improve flood tracking led by Gabriel Wolken, a research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Climate Adaptation Science Center.

Using the WingtraOne, a drone made specifically for mapping, Wolken is collecting visual data to track the rising and falling of the basin. His team is also tracking the interactions of the basin’s changing levels with changes in the Mendenhall Glacier, with the overall goal of improving predictions about these floods.

Alaska is a big place. 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 we’re doing.

– Gabriel Wolken, Research Professor at the University of Alaska

Suicide Basin sits next to Mendenhall Glacier, which contains it from overflowing—up to a point.

The water in Suicide Basin rises seasonally, and, at a certain level, it can’t be contained any longer and the entire basin suddenly empties, resulting in an immediate and devastating flash flood.

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

Flash Flooding at Suicide Basin

Not too long ago, Suicide Basin didn’t even exist.

Where it now stands there was once another glacier, called Suicide Glacier. Due to rising temperatures caused by climate change, Suicide Glacier melted completely in the first decade of this century, leaving behind the gap that’s now called Suicide Basin.

The flash floods caused by the basin’s overflowing not only threaten the wellbeing of those living nearby, but they also threaten to destroy critical infrastructure.

A bridge and main road that lie in the flood’s path are the only way residents can reach hospitals and other vital facilities. If these get washed out, that means that citizens in the area could be left without medical care or other resources for long periods of time.

Photo credit: Wingtra

Suicide Basin had its first flash floods in 2011.

In 2015, Professor Wolken began investigating various aerial survey methods for tracking the rising and falling of the basin and how it interacted with the Mendenhall Glacier. The goal was to use this data to anticipate flash floods before they took place.

Since he began, Wolken has experimented with using helicopter-based photogrammetry as well as LIDAR surveys of the basin and glacier with both drones and manned aircraft.

In 2019, Wolken learned about the WingtraOne drone and began experimenting with it as a tool for improving the visual data he could capture of both the basin and glacier.

How the WingtraOne Is Helping

For takeoff and landing, the Wingtra drone can fly vertically, like a helicopter (this technology is often called VTOL). Once it’s in the air, it can fly horizontally.

This combination of flight capabilities makes it a powerful tool for collecting aerial data in situations with limited takeoff/landing space, especially in varied outdoor environments like those presented around the basin and glacier.

[WingtraOne’s] 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

Using the WintraOne, Wolken’s team captures visual data of the basin and glacier that they then convert into orthophoto and digital elevation models of the area.

These models are then used to assess changes to water and ice levels at Suicide Basin, with Wolken’s team tracking these changes toward a better understanding of what pre-flash flood conditions look like.

Photo credit: Wingtra

The above image shows the basic depicted in an orthophoto (left) and a digital elevation model (right)

These models have proved invaluable to providing Wolken and his team with a more nuanced understanding of how water levels are rising in the basin, allowing them to make significant progress toward improving the predictability of flash flooding in the area.

Photo credit: Wingtra

Want to learn more about the WintraOne? Here are some of the standout features of this robust mapping drone:

  • VTOL for takeoff/landing
  • Provides detail on images down to 0.3 in/px GSD
  • Provides a high level of accuracy, down to 0.4 inches (with WingtraOne PPK + 42 MP RX1R II payload)
  • Map up to 1.5 miles (400 hectares) in one hour
  • Flight time of 59 minutes

Learn more on the Wingtra website.

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