Denali National Park Gets 'Google Street View'

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You won't find the panoramas on Google Maps, but Alaska's Denali National Park has gotten the do-it-yourself Google Street View treatment.

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Using a homemade, Subaru-mounted platform of four GoPro cameras, geologist Ron Karpilo, a research associate at Colorado State University who lives in Anchorage, snapped more than half a million photos of Denali's Park Road. The goal is to monitor environmental changes in the park, a need that hit home earlier this week when a landslide blocked part of the road.

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There is only one road in the 6 million-acre park. The Park Road is 92 miles (148 kilometers) long and only the first 15 miles (24 km) are paved. Visitors can drive on the paved road, but then must switch to park shuttle buses, a strategy that relieves congestion and "bear jams" caused by drivers gawking at wildlife.

"Ninety-some percent or more of visitors experience the park from these shuttle buses," Karpilo told LiveScience here at the Geological Society of America's annual meeting, where he presented his photographs on Sunday (Oct. 27).

Capturing change

Karpilo has long been monitoring change in Alaskan national parks with his camera. Usually, this entails hiking or even helicoptering to remote spots to snap pictures of glaciers from the same angles as photographs taken throughout the last century. These before-and-after pictures allow researchers to understand how the glaciers are retreating, and how ecosystems change in their wake. (Photos of Melt: Glaciers Before and After)

"It's a good tool because it speaks to such a wide audience," Karpilo said. "If I show this to a glaciologist, they're going to see some really technical things and they're going to get something out of it. I could show it to a 5th grader and they'd be able to tell me what's going on there."

This repeat-photo project led to the idea to photograph the Park Road. The road was first built in the 1920s, and since so many park guests experience the park from the road, it's important to understand how the view has changed, Karpilo said. As the glaciers retreat and permafrost, soil that stays frozen year-round, thaws, the entire ecosystem shifts. Permafrost-encased ponds drain, vegetation creeps in to formerly iced-over areas, and the types of vegetation that grow in an area shift.

All of this influences the park experience, Karpilo said. Vegetation growing up around the road could block views, for example, changing where buses stop and how visitors experience the park.

At first, Karpilo was limited in his efforts to document the road change because historical photographs were only available for certain spots. He considered establishing photo stations along the road, but even with 90 stations, he'd only be capturing the view once a mile.

"That made me think about the Google Street View idea," Karpilo said.