Initiative Aims to Create 3D Map of the World Before Climate Change Alters It

LIDAR technology recently revealed the ancient Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala.

LIDAR technology recently revealed the ancient Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala. WILD BLUE MEDIA/National Geographic

Scientists have launched a new initiative to create a highly detailed, 3D map of the planet. The project, known as the Earth Archive, aims to capture a record of cultural sites, ecosystems, and landscapes before they are transformed by the impacts of climate change, such as rising seas, melting ice, and wildfires.

“We are going to lose a significant amount of both cultural patrimony – so archaeological sites and landscapes – but also ecological patrimony – plants and animals, entire landscapes, geology, hydrology,” archaeologist Chris Fisher of Colorado State University, a co-founder of the new initiative, told The Guardian. “We really have a limited time to record those things before the Earth fundamentally changes.”

The scientists plan to use a technology called light detection and ranging, or LIDAR, which sends pulses of lasers toward the Earth’s surface. The amount of time it takes for the pulses to bounce back is used to create a model of what’s on the land below, from a region’s terrain to manmade buildings to the age a forest, The Guardian reported. When mounted on an aircraft, LIDAR equipment can measure objects on the ground that are as small as 20 centimeters, or about the size of a small brick. The technology has already been used to find ancient cities in remote forested parts of Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Fisher and geographer Steve Leisz, co-director of the Earth Archive, said they will start by scanning the most vulnerable landscapes first, such as forests and coastlines, which are rapidly disappearing. The scientists said it could take decades and millions of dollars to scan just the planet’s land areas — producing high-quality maps of the Amazon alone could cost upward of $10 million and take three years. Those, and any other maps that the initiative produces, will be open access.

“I won’t live long enough to see the results of this project,” Fisher said. But these maps are “the ultimate gift we can give to future generations.”