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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS MANAGER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a Government Affairs Manager to support our legislative and administrative advocacy efforts in Colorado. This new, mid-level position will report...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance, a leading grassroots conservation advocacy organization for over 30 years, seeks a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help...
  • OPERATIONS AND FINANCE MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national grassroots organization led by women, seeks a resourceful, self-motivated, team player to serve as Operations and Finance Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    ORGANIZATIONAL BACKGROUND Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) fosters community stewardship, education and awareness of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • WYOMING STATE DIRECTOR
    Save the World ... or at least a piece of it! Join The Nature Conservancy and make a tangible and lasting impact by creating a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY NON-PROFIT NEAR YOSEMITE
    Demanding, but rewarding, advocacy work on forest, water, wildland, and wildlife issues. Applicants should have experience dealing with land management planning, public speaking, grassroots organizing,...
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR AT WILDERNESS WORKSHOP
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...