Geo Week News

October 21, 2015

3D Scanning the Earth's Vital Signs


LiDAR scan of an image of the Tambopata River in eastern Peru. Credit: Gregory Asner, Carnegie Institution
for science. Source: National Geographic

National Geographic has published a piece about, of all things, remote sensing–and it may be one of the biggest endorsements LiDAR has received yet. 

In the article, they follow a group from the Carnegie Institution for Science who have just installed a new sensor package in their turboprop for measuring the health of various ecosystems, like forests and watersheds. The piece demonstrates how much more these LiDAR sensors can tell us about the Earth than other technologies. Ecologist Greg Asner is quoted as saying that “the system produces maps that tell us more about an ecosystem in a single airborne overpass, than what might be achieved in a lifetime of work on the ground.”

Each scan is shown in large format (if you’re a scan fan, this article will be a treat), and includes a short description of what the scan means. For instance, they include a gorgeous LiDAR scan of the Tambopata River in Peru that is accompanied by the following caption: 

WHAT THIS TELLS US The area in this image is actually covered with rain forest. Some lidar pulses penetrate the forest and reflect off the ground, revealing the subtle topography—red is a few feet higher than blue—and faint, abandoned river channels that have shaped the forest and helped create its rich biodiversity.”

Overall, the piece makes the argument that “at a time when human impacts on the world are unprecedented, technology offers a chance to truly understand them.” But it also argues that LiDAR and other remote sensing technologies can help us decide what to do about our impact on the world–in other words, they give us actionable information. Whether you agree with the premise or not, when a venerable organization like National Geographic says that LiDAR can help us figure out how to preserve the planet, that is surely a powerful endorsement.

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