Drones used for first time in a major search at Grand Canyon


Brandon TorresAP Photo

❝ The desperate effort last week to find two hikers who disappeared at the bottom of the Grand Canyon represented the National Park Service’s most extensive use yet of drones in a search-and-rescue mission.

The Grand Canyon is the only national park with its own fleet of unmanned aircraft for locating people who have gotten lost, stranded, injured or killed. Under a program that began last fall, it has five drones and four certified operators.

While the aerial search for the two hikers came up empty, it threw a spotlight on technology that can enter crevices and other rugged spots unreachable by foot while sparing searchers the dangers of going up in a helicopter.

❝ The aircraft were used Monday through Wednesday in the search for LouAnn Merrell, 62, and her step grandson, Jackson Standefer, 14. The park also sent out three ground search teams of about 20 people in all, an inflatable motor boat and a helicopter.

Merrell and Standefer vanished last weekend after losing their footing while crossing a creek near the North Rim. They were on a hike with Merrell’s husband, Merrell Boot Co. co-founder Randy Merrell, and the boy’s mother.

The park soon scaled back the operation and stopped using the drones but continued the search. In a statement, the hikers’ families backed the decision and said they were “still praying for a miracle.”

❝ Other national parks use drones, but for wildlife research. The use of private drones is prohibited in national parks.

James Doyle, a spokesman for the park service’s Intermountain region, said other national parks will probably seek their own drone fleets, too. He said the Grand Canyon’s extreme topography — it is a mile deep — makes it a perfect candidate.

Even unsuccessful, this latest use of new technology cost less and endangered a fewer folks than traditional means. Which, BTW, were revolutionary in their own time.

Another Grand Canyon discovered beneath Greenland ice sheet

A previously unknown canyon has been discovered in Greenland, hidden beneath the ice. It is at least 750 kilometres long. To put that in perspective, imagine a ten kilometre wide gorge, up to 800 metres deep, running from the Southern coast of England and into Scotland. This is on the same scale as parts of the Grand Canyon.

Jonathan Bamber, who led the research, was originally mapping Greenland’s bedrock, which was previously thought to be relatively flat and smooth. “Unexpectedly, we found an enormous apparent formation,” he said. “We looked at it in more detail, and realised it was a canyon.”

The canyon, which is thought to predate glaciation, has remained hidden beneath two kilometres of ice for more than four million years. It has the characteristics of a meandering river channel, an ancient river system that Bamber thinks hasn’t been significantly modified by ice cover.

It is almost twice the length of the Grand Canyon, half as deep but almost as wide, and certainly the only feature in Greenland this long…

“This really is quite remarkable,” Bamber said. “In an age when you have Google street view covering the entirety of the inhabited world, when virtually every house is mapped. In this context, to discover a geological feature of such scale is astonishing…”

“We think the canyon is an efficient conduit for ice-melt from the glacier. If you want to model glacial movement – something that is ever more crucial due to global warming – then knowing about such topography is very important.”

The discovery shouldn’t affect our forecasts for future sea level in itself, but it does highlights that we still don’t know everything about the surface of our own planet.

Unexpected discoveries always lurk in the back of the mind of any researcher. It surely is a gas when something like this pops into focus and changes from anomalous shadow to a discrete discovery.

How much does it cost to buy a federal agency? $13 million for the National Park Service

Weary of plastic litter, Grand Canyon National Park officials were in the final stages of imposing a ban on the sale of disposable water bottles in the Grand Canyon late last year when the nation’s parks chief abruptly blocked the plan after conversations with Coca-Cola, a major donor to the National Park Foundation.

Stephen P. Martin, the architect of the plan and the top parks official at the Grand Canyon, said his superiors told him two weeks before its Jan. 1 start date that Coca-Cola, which distributes water under the Dasani brand and has donated more than $13 million to the parks, had registered its concerns about the bottle ban through the foundation, and that the project was being tabled. His account was confirmed by park, foundation and company officials.

A spokesman for the National Park Service, David Barna, said it was Jon Jarvis, the top federal parks official, who made the “decision to put it on hold until we can get more information…”

Mr. Martin, a 35-year veteran of the park service who had risen to the No. 2 post in 2003, was disheartened by the outcome. “That was upsetting news because of what I felt were ethical issues surrounding the idea of being influenced unduly by business,” Mr. Martin said in an interview. “It was even more of a concern because we had worked with all the people who would be truly affected in their sales and bottom line, and they accepted it…”

A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, Susan Stribling, said the company would rather help address the plastic litter problem by increasing the availability of recycling programs. “Banning anything is never the right answer,” she said…

Discarded plastic bottles account for about 30 percent of the park’s total waste stream, according to the park service. Mr. Martin said the bottles are “the single biggest source of trash” found inside the canyon.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. One of the significant differences between services responsible for America’s parks and landholdings is the history of battles just like this one. Going back to the days of Reagan’s slavish attitude towards corporate demands, some agencies like the Bureau of Land Management have been led by dedicated rank-and-file employees to confront sellouts. The Park Service continues to be controlled by bureaucrats perfectly willing to be bought – directly or indirectly.

RTFA for more details – if you can stomach the same old political rationales.