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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.

Air photo mosaic
A mosaic of aerial photographs taken of Anacapa Island in 1997. (NOS coastal photography available on-line at NOS Mapfinder.)

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 geographic information system (GIS) of the islands and surrounding waters and provided other assistance to support the emergency response operations.

Map of Channel Islands
A map of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in relation to the southern California coast.

'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 Sanctuary. "We always had an emergency response aspect to our GIS, but we had planned for oil spill prevention 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 debris.

"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 crash. The Coast Guard established an incident command center where sanctuary staff set up shop. 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 and what they would need to do to get to it. We were completely in the search and rescue mode, 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 says. The sanctuary had conducted drills for oil spills, and they used many of the same protocols. 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 System (GPS) and to collect any floating debris. Staff from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric 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 survivors. A local fisherman who 'knows the area very well' even was recruited to help make a real-time habitat characterization map of the site to give the Navy some idea of the terrain' that a Remote Operational Vehicle would encounter.

Map of Water Depth
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 effort.

Nautical chart
A nautical chart, with the approximate crash site indicated, prepared for the Santa Barbara Coast Guard. (modified) Click image for larger view.

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 members on the plane survived. NOAA and Channel Islands staff continued over the next several days to provide trajectory mapping for debris, bathymetry, bottom composition, potential obstructions, 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.

Santa Barbara Channel
A view towards the 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 National Marine Sanctuary.

"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 .

Contact information: NOAA’s Coastal Services Center
Hanna Goss (
2234 South Hobson Avenue
Charleston, SC 29405-2413
(843) 740-1332
FAX (843) 740-1313

NOAA’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary
Ben Waltenberger (
113 Harbor Way, Suite 150
Santa Barbara, CA 93109
(805) 966-7107
FAX: (805) 568-1582

NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries Headquarters
Mitchell Tartt (
(301)713-3145 x184

NOAA’s Special Projects Office
Dave Lott (
(301)713-3000 x146

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