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Colorado State University is fast-forwarding archaeology with tech to help future researchers understand today’s Earth

The Earth Archive project could leave future generations the best source of information showing what today’s world looks like.

Colorado State University Anthropology Prof. Chris Fisher is working to finish LiDAR scanning the entire Earth. Fisher came up with the idea for The Earth Archive when he realized half of South American rainforests have already been lost. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado State University archaeologist Chris Fisher was in the beginning stages of unearthing an ancient “megalopolis” in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, a decade ago when he ran up against a tough reality: it would take him the rest of his career to document such a huge find using traditional archaeological methods. 

The buried city was not something he and his team could easily explore with brushes and trowels and string grids. It covered 26 square kilometers and had as many structure foundations as the island of Manhattan.

Fisher remembers slumping in the baking heat after he had walked the outlines of the city, and thinking, “Dude, there’s gotta be a better way.”

There was. 

The solution would fast forward the field of archaeology. And it would lead Fisher to create an ambitious worldwide project he is calling Earth Archive. That project, which involves digitally scanning the surface of the entire planet, has the potential to ratchet up CSU’s already formidable status as a research university and place it at the hub of a worldwide database. It also could establish the best source of information showing what today’s world looks like.

“The Earth is changing incredibly rapidly and the changes are dramatic,” Fisher said. “It is happening much quicker than we thought it would.”

Using LiDAR, a remote-sensing technology, to create a detailed 3-D planetary snapshot of the world as it is now, he said, is “our ultimate gift to future generations.” The images would show ancient cities along with current forests, shorelines, glaciers, developments and all other topographical features that are being altered quickly with climate change and with human developments such as deforestation and urban sprawl. Fisher cited fires in the Amazon rainforest and developments at a remote Honduran city he studied as examples. He said those changes are coming so fast that his project is urgent. 

Meghan Suter, whose job as director of the Research Acceleration Office at CSU involves sorting through proposals to determine what might fly as legitimate university research, calls Fisher’s Earth Archive project one of the biggest and most complex that has crossed her desk — and one of the most intriguing.

“We’re excited about the potential this project brings to the university and to global research,” Suter said. “It gives us the opportunity to explore something across so many disciplines.” 

To go back to the beginning — and the frustration that led to this much-more-than-pie-in-the-sky project — Fisher had just returned to his desk job at CSU and poked his head in an anthropology department colleague’s door to gripe about the daunting task he faced. 

The October 2011 cover of Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing journal showing a LiDAR scan hangs in Anthropology Prof. Chris Fisher’s office Fisher’s Lidar project, called The Earth Archive, is designed to serve as a record of the Earth as it is now for future generations. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

He asked Steve Leisz, an associate professor of geography, if he had any ideas for making the study of a huge buried Mexican city any easier. Leisz had used another type of high-tech imaging technology to study structures in Vietnam and Cambodia. He had heard of a new digital surveying method called LiDAR being used for the same purpose.

LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, uses reflected pulses of laser light to generate 3-D images that show surface characteristics of whatever is being scanned. It is particularly valuable for archaeology because it is capable of stripping away all vegetation in images to clearly show the contours of the land beneath and any remnants of structures hidden by forests or jungles.

Fisher hired a company to fly a LiDAR device over the Aztec-era Mexican ruins in Michoacán to see beneath the foliage. 

In just 45 minutes, the outlines and foundations of pyramids, temples, homes, ball courts and ceremonial plazas of the city of Angamuco were revealed. Fisher said he cried — with joy — when he saw the first visualizations and realized the way he had practiced archaeology for decades would never be the same.

That success led Fisher and Leisz to a widely publicized adventure uncovering another city deep in the Honduran rain forest. 

Old technology, new application

LiDAR was used to visualize a pre-Columbian city buried beneath thick jungle canopy. With the mapped contours as a guide, a team with Fisher as lead archaeologist went into the extremely remote area to study the artifacts on the ground. That expedition, replete with deadly snakes, relentless hordes of insects and scary tropical diseases, was turned into a best-selling book by author Douglas Preston. 

The Lost City of the Monkey God,” helped to cement Fisher’s fame as a scholar of Mesoamerican archaeology and as a world expert on the use of LiDAR in archaeology.

It also gave him the credibility heft needed to pull off a project like Earth Archive. At a Denver TED Talk in late June, when he revealed his Earth Archive plan and laid out his reasons why the entire planet should be LiDAR scanned, he received a standing ovation. He urged haste, likening the current changing Earth to the Titanic.

“And we’ve struck the iceberg,” he said. “We have the tools and technology to understand our planet like never before, but we are running out of time.”

Fisher’s idea may be new, but variations of LiDAR systems have actually been around for nearly six decades. An early version was invented as a satellite tracker around the time that the first laser was developed. It was initially used by the National Center for Atmospheric Research to measure clouds and pollution. 

It was also used during the Apollo 15 mission to map the surface of the moon.

LiDAR images of the slide enabled geologists and hydrologists to look into the makeup of the mud and the water pooled on it and to better monitor its potential for more destruction.

Early LiDAR could be a bit murky compared to today’s scans. Leisz said the technology has now improved to the point that it is possible to make 3-D scans in such detail that they can be used to reproduce the original feature that is being scanned with high accuracy.

“I used to think of this kind of stuff as science fiction. Now, I know it’s not fiction at all,” said Leisz, who is co-director of the Earth Archive project with Fisher.

Bits and swaths of the Earth have now been scanned by LiDAR. Ohio and Hawaii have done statewide scans. Norway is in the process of scanning that entire country. The U.S. Geological Society is beginning a project called 3DEP to LiDAR scan all of the United States.

Some of the existing scans will be included in the Earth Archive project, but some are not of high enough resolution or don’t show relevant features. Some government projects like 3DEP will be high resolution, but may be too slow in happening. Fisher’s urgency with Earth Archive may outstrip the wait for government funding for projects like 3DEP.

Jason Stoker, with the USGS National Geospatial Program that is overseeing 3DEP, said he can see his project’s data fitting in with Earth Archive.

“It is a very ambitious effort,” he said of Earth Archive. “I know the amount of work, funding and management needed just to cover the U.S. like we are doing for 3DEP is massive…I think the data we are collecting for 3DEP in the U.S. would probably feed in to this effort rather easily.”

The price of three Super Bowl ads gets you the Amazon

Fisher estimates that, at this time, only about 1% of the world’s 57.5 million square miles of landmass has been scanned by LiDAR in a way that is relevant to his project. With Earth Archive, he is calling for scanning remote and environmentally sensitive areas of the world first, mainly tropical areas. The Amazon, Central America, Southeast Asia and parts of Africa would be priorities.

He has no estimate of the cost of all that, but hopes to raise the money from donors and from in-kind contributions from companies with LiDAR technology. Just scanning the Amazon, Fisher estimates, will cost $15 million — a price tag, he likes to point out, that sounds like a lot but is equal to three 30-second Super Bowl ads.

Raising the money and doing the scanning are not the most complex parts of the Earth Archive project.

“The real challenge is to be able to upload and download the data,” Fisher said.

That includes figuring out the logistics of storage, management and security for such a trove of planetary data. How to give the public access hasn’t yet been worked out. And whether all the data would be stored at CSU, akin to the university’s seed bank or insect repository, has not yet been determined. 

Fisher and Leisz are leaning towards having multiple points of data storage around the world, with CSU being the mothership.

“I think of it in terms of the seed repository,” Leisz said. “CSU is in a unique position politically and geographically to be a hub for this kind of stuff,”

Suter said department heads from many different disciplines at CSU, including computer science, engineering and philosophy, have been meeting to discuss the ramifications and possibilities of the Earth Archive project. She said she is most excited about its wide-ranging interdisciplinary impact. 

“There is forward momentum on this,” she said. “We have meetings going on around this topic across disciplines.”

While the logistics are worked out, Fisher is seeking donations to start the process of scanning even as valuable ecosystems of the world are being lost. He said he had an exciting breakthrough this week when an anonymous donor came forward with a gift that will allow scanning of the Amazon to begin, probably in January if all the necessary permission is in place. 

Fisher said he is also not allowed to reveal how much that donation is.

The important thing is, he said, that Earth Archive is underway. What was once a head-scratching conundrum on an archaeology site deep in Mexico, and then a why-the-heck-not idea, is bearing fruit.

“No one has yet said ‘this is the stupidest idea I have ever heard’,” he said.

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