Mountain West Researcher Aims To Map The World With Lasers

Originally published on October 14, 2019 4:39 pm

Researchers out of Colorado are hoping to map the entire earth with a new type of laser technology, and climate change is driving the effort. 

The Earth Archive is an unprecedented endeavor that would use laser-based mapping called lidar to track changes to landscapes around the world. 

Chris Fisher, an archaeology professor at Colorado State University who founded the project, said it’d start with high-risk areas like the Amazon rainforest, but regions like the Mountain West could use it, too.

“In the last 20 years, the Mountain West has changed so much that John Denver wouldn’t even recognize it,” Fisher said. “And it doesn’t have anything to do with the huge number of people that are moving here. It’s just the landscape and vegetation change.”

It would be a massive and expensive effort, but Fisher argues it’ll be worth it for future archeologists to know what the earth once looked like. 

“The fact of the matter is that our earth is changing so quickly and we have such a limited time to record everything as it exists today before it’s gone forever,” he said. 

Some critics have said this project may be too big and that it’d even be challenging to get permissions to do mapping in places like the Amazon. Fisher said he’s an optimist, and he sees conversations with lawmakers and regulators in other regions as a good thing. 

“I feel like this is a period of time in our human history where everybody has to step up to the plate and do something. And this is what I felt we could do,” he said. “I see this, the climate crisis, not as a problem...I see this as an opportunity for us to come together as a species and solve this common problem.”

There are several lidar projects already underway in the Mountain West and in the U.S., including an effort to map the entire nation, though with lower resolution than the Earth Archive project. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2019 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.