USGS launches a billion-dollar initiative to map the West in 3D

LIDAR is about to become more widespread -- helping agriculture, pilots and homeowners.

  • Mount St. Helens as seen with the new LIDAR technology, right, and from the Earth Observatory satellite, left.

    Sources: USGS; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; NASA; Washington Post. IMAGES: USDOI, right; EARTHOBSERVATORY, left

LIDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, uses lasers to create intricate three-dimensional maps in places where bad weather or thick vegetation hampered traditional aerial mapping. Though the technology itself isn’t new, it’s about to become more widespread: The 3D Elevation Program, a billion-dollar initiative launched this summer by the U.S. Geological Survey and numerous partners, seeks to remap the country using LIDAR — and make the maps public. “There doesn’t seem to be a limit to how creative people can use this technology,” says Kevin Gallagher, associate director for USGS Core Science Systems. “It’s like looking at the world through a new pair of glasses.”

The new maps could be “just as transformative” as the surveys of John Wesley Powell or Lewis and Clark, Gallagher predicts. Here’s how they could benefit the West:

Guide Alaskan pilots. Inaccurate maps endanger Alaskan bush pilots, who fly blind when the weather turns foul. Better maps could also resolve land disputes and predict glacial melt.

Update flood, landslide and earthquake hazard maps. Big fault lines like the San Andreas can be spotted from the air, but dense forest hides the faults of the Pacific Northwest. In the late ’90s, LIDAR helped geologists discover a series of shallow faults beneath the Seattle area, spurring architects to redesign a major suspension bridge. It’s now revealing similar faults in Utah that could affect development there.

Prepare for climate change. LIDAR can map the amount of carbon stored in individual forests, helping land managers determine how much is released by logging or fires and how many trees must be planted to offset it.

Improve “precision agriculture.” Detailed maps can help farmers adjust fertilization and spraying, increasing yields and decreasing chemical runoff.

Develop domestic energy. LIDAR can help improve the efficiency of renewables — measuring wind speed and direction, and mapping the residential solar potential of cities like Los Angeles. It can also reveal oil and gas deposits and help determine the safest locations for pipelines and wells.