GIS Proves Valuable During Airline Tragedy at Channel Islands
Article provided by NOAA's Coastal Services Center
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employs Geographic
Information Science in areas ranging from navigation to resource management
to emergency response. The number of Geographic Information Systems at field
sites has dramatically increased over the last few years to better utilize
NOAA’s growing collection of spatial data. Benefits of this geospatial
information structure include the ability to quickly respond with vital
information to emergencies and disasters.
A mosaic of aerial
photographs taken of
Anacapa Island in
1997. (NOS coastal
At about 4:20 p.m. on Monday, January 31, Alaska Airlines Flight 261 went down
about three miles from Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
Over the next several stress-filled days, sanctuary staff utilized their existing
information system (GIS) of the islands and surrounding waters and provided other
to support the emergency response operations.
of the Channel Islands
Sanctuary in relation to
the southern California
'GIS was so important to developing real-time maps as the need arose, and getting the
maps out as quickly as possible.' - Ben Waltenberger, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary
"We never imagined that we would have a plane crash in the sanctuary to respond to,"
says Ben Waltenberger, spatial data analyst at the Channel Islands National Marine
"We always had an emergency response aspect to our GIS, but we had planned for oil spill
and response. We really had no preparation for this kind of event."
But sanctuary staff soon found that the GIS data layers they had on hand, such as
bathymetry, topography, sea surface data, and marine oceanic data, provided rescuers
with valuable information, first in the search for survivors and later in recovering
"It really helped us to be able to get up-to-date charts from them," says Lt.
Carlos Mercado, port state control coordinator with the U.S. Coast Guard.
"We utilized their information, and I know other agencies used it during the recovery
process. It helped us."
Shortly after the plane went down, Waltenberger says, the sanctuary was notified of the
The Coast Guard established an incident command center where sanctuary staff set up
Coordinates of the site were reported about 6 p.m., and a bathymetric map was created to
get an idea of the depth of the wreck. Rescuers needed to know how deep the site was
what they would need to do to get to it. We were completely in the search and rescue
with some hope that there would be survivors."
As more coordinates were received during the night, sea surface maps were created to
provide rescuers with information on where people and debris might drift if they were
floating on the ocean's surface.
All the sanctuary staff worked through the night and the next day as well, Waltenberger
The sanctuary had conducted drills for oil spills, and they used many of the same
One of the most helpful of these, he says, was keeping time sheets of when things were
happening, so they would have a log of the events.
On Tuesday, February 1, the Coast Guard requested that the sanctuary , s 28-foot vessel,
Xantu, be used to run transacts to map the debris field using the Global Positioning
(GPS) and to collect any floating debris. Staff from the National Oceanic and
Administration's Hazardous Materials Response Team, Special Projects Office, and
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary joined the emergency response.
The primary concern at this point, Waltenberger says, was still trying to locate any
A local fisherman who 'knows the area very well' even was recruited to help make a
habitat characterization map of the site to give the Navy some idea of the terrain' that
Remote Operational Vehicle would encounter.
A map of water depth
in the approximate area
of the crash site. Map
produced by Channel
Islands Sanctuary GIS
for U.S. Coast Guard
in early hours of rescue
A nautical chart, with
the approximate crash
site indicated, prepared
for the Santa Barbara
Click image for larger
By the morning of Wednesday, February 2, 'officials had switched from search and rescue
to salvage and recovery,' Waltenberger says. None of the 83 passengers and 5 crew
on the plane survived. NOAA and Channel Islands staff continued over the next several
to provide trajectory mapping for debris, bathymetry, bottom composition, potential
digital characterizations of habitat features, and general resource information.
The Xantu was used to
conduct an inshore survey of Anacapa Island looking for debris and impacts to resources.
west-northwest of the
Santa Barbara Channel
with Anacapa and
Santa Cruz Island on
the left. The channel is
between 200 and 300
meters deep between
Anacapa Island and the
California coast on the
right. The red line
shows the boundary of
the Channel Islands
"The biggest concern was where everything was going,' Waltenberger
says. 'GIS was so important to developing real-time maps as the
need arose, and getting the maps out as quickly as possible. One of the
other really great aspects of GIS was that it was a very intuitive
visualization tool for people.
Instead of charts or numbers, you could actually get a real-world perspective
that was beneficial to getting a clear idea of what the crash site was like,
what was happening, and what resources were around it.'
While the possibility of another plane crash in the Channel Islands Sanctuary
is remote, Waltenberger says it will be included in future disaster response planning.
Sanctuary staff also may begin creating additional GIS data layers that would be
helpful during a rescue operation.
"A lot of the data could be used in other crises as well," he notes.
This kind of situation is tragic enough that you want to be prepared and
have as much information as possible so that you're ready if it
ever happens again."
For more information about the role of the Channel Islands National Marine
Sanctuary and NOAA in the response operation of Alaska Airlines Flight 261,
point your Web browser to
NOAA’s Coastal Services Center
Hanna Goss (
2234 South Hobson Avenue
Charleston, SC 29405-2413
FAX (843) 740-1313
NOAA’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary
Ben Waltenberger (
113 Harbor Way, Suite 150
Santa Barbara, CA 93109
FAX: (805) 568-1582
NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries Headquarters
Mitchell Tartt (email@example.com)
NOAA’s Special Projects Office
Dave Lott (firstname.lastname@example.org)