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Researchers create 3D map of Alcatraz to monitor erosion, track effects of climate change

Researchers create 3D map of Alcatraz to monitor effects of climate change
Researchers create 3D map of Alcatraz to monitor effects of climate change 05:33

SAN FRANCISCO -- Rising sea levels are threatening iconic Alcatraz Island and now a groundbreaking endeavor is helping scientists develop strategies to protect it, along with tracking the effects of climate change on San Francisco Bay.

Alcatraz has a significant history: it was a Civil War fort, a military prison, as well as the notorious federal penitentiary where Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Robert Stroud -- known as the Birdman of Alcatraz -- all did time. On June 12, 1962, it was also the location of a brazen prison break where three convicts -- John Anglin, his brother Clarence, and Frank Morris escaped from what was called the world's most secure prison. Their fate is unknown to this day.

The small island was also the cradle of the modern Native American Civil Rights Movement where in the 60s and 70s, Indigenous peoples occupied it, declaring Alcatraz as Indian land, and raising awareness of the plight facing tribes.

In 1972, the U.S. Department of Interior transferred Alcatraz Island to the National Park Service's (NPS) Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) and 14 years later, the island was designated as a National Historic Landmark. It is now a significant sanctuary for several species of birds, and remains a top tourist destination for visitors from around the world.

But scientists warn Alcatraz Island is threatened by sea level rise as glaciers and ice sheets melt and warming seawater expands. A team of researchers and scientists created an incredibly detailed 3D map of the entire island to chart its erosion.

Pete Kelsey runs Seattle, Washington-based VCTO Labs which provides technical solutions for storytellers and he was tapped to create the intricate map. To achieve this, Kelsey required monumental assistance. He recruited a formidable phalanx of some of the best-known, and little-known, forward-thinking technology companies to volunteer in the jaw-dropping effort, including drone services donated by:

AgEagle, ESRI, Flyability, Freefly, Inspired Flight, PCL, Phoenix LiDAR Systems, Riegl, Sierra Skyworks, UAS Inc.,Valentine Brand, and 107 Video & Photo Productions. AMD provided the supercomputer.

Boston Dynamics provided "Spot" the robot dog, deployed into spaces deemed too dangerous for humans to enter, including where structures were unsound or where lead or asbestos were present.

Hardware, software, scanning, and post-processing were all donated by Bentley, Cintoo, Emesent, Epic Games, Nubigon, and Pix4D

The effort produced four terabytes -- or four trillion bytes -- of data.

"How lucky am I that I got the call to come in and document all of Alcatraz -- the entire island inside and out?" enthused Kelsey, who also donated his services. "Every space, every building, every tunnel, using all kind of different technology, LiDAR, photogrammetry ... it's basically technology that enables us to create a perfect, and what I mean perfect I mean less than a centimeter, a number of millimeters-accurate model in 3D of the entire island."

It was a crazy adventure. In December 2023, Kelsey and his team camped out for three weeks on the island and slept in D-block, where prison authorities kept the most dangerous inmates. The setup meant no cushy mattresses, showers, or heat. They used communal toilets and brought in food. 

Researchers had to do their work early in the morning before the tourist boats arrived. They had to avoid flying drones when birds were nesting on the island. The days were often very rainy and windy, but December was the only good choice for the researchers. 

"There were mornings when the rain was blowing sideways and the wind was blowing 40 miles an hour," remembered Kelsey.  

While some days presented unpleasant weather, some evenings were just plain creepy as researchers spent a few restless nights in areas where some of the most notorious inmates were once housed. One researcher apparently now agrees with the many tales claiming that Alcatraz is haunted.

The NPS and GGRNA are grateful to have a baseline 3D map of the entire 22.5-acre island, provided free of charge.

"There are portions of the island that are eroding and with this pinpoint in time we'll be able to do future scans and see what has changed and what parts of the island has had more impacts than others," explained GGNRA archeologist Peter Gavette.

Outside the cell house is a critically important and thriving bird sanctuary. Alcatraz was once called "La Isla de los Alcatraces" or "Island of the Pelicans" in 1775 by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala. Today, on the rocky areas, shrubs, and bushes, some 11 different nesting species, mostly seabirds, call Alcatraz home.

GGNRA biologist Morgan Barnes told CBS News Bay Area she believes Alcatraz will become an important climate change refuge for birds who nest more in the open ocean, such as those on the Farallon Islands, because of warming ocean temperatures that could impact their food sources.   

"The food in the Bay Area is more stable than it would be out in the open ocean," said Barnes. "Freshwater inputs into the bay will create a more stable food source."

The GGRNA is also concerned about preserving the important history of the American Indian occupation and the cultural landmarks left behind. Inside the cell block, visitors can see red hands painted in key places along with anti-government graffiti left by the Native Americans and restored on the water tower and a prison wall, near where the boats dock.

Kelsey says the 3D maps may also help the public better understand climate change and dangers posed by a warming planet.

"We know what's coming," said Kelsey. "So, the 3D map is not only immersive and engaging but it pertains to the broader conversation about sea level rise."

"Sea level rise is something we should be worried about, the impacts that we will have on our coastal communities," said Gavette, who would like Alcatraz to be preserved for the future.

Gavette added that preserving Alcatraz is safeguarding part of the history of the nation, of California, and of Native Americans, as well as protecting a sanctuary for seabirds and an incubator for biodiversity for future generations.  

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