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Modeling Mesa Verde National Park With Lasers


Laser technology has been used to map some cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Time is constantly a threat to Mesa Verde National Park. As it passes, and brings with it erosion, rock falls and possibly earthquakes, the park's ruins are at risk of collapse. But a new laser technology is providing the park with, in essence, blueprints of the ruins.

The documentation technology is the brainchild of Ben Kacyra, who developed long-range laser scanning back in the 1990s. When combined with high-resolution photography, this 3-dimensional process -- which is accurate to half a centimeter -- becomes known as "High Definition Documentation." At Mesa Verde, HDD has been used to map the "Fire Temple," one of the park's more than 600 cliff dwellings.

"The amazing technology and support provided by TTU (Texas Tech University), CyArk (a non-profit arm of the Kacyra Family Foundation), and Ben Kacyra is allowing staff to document sites in a very detailed manner, with a speed previously unavailable to us," says Mesa Verde Superintendent Larry Wiese. "Documentation of an archeological site that would have taken many months, can now initially be done in days. The analysis includes detailed documentation, 3D imaging, structural analysis and modeling, quick access from computer files to be used by field personnel, and remote access by researchers and students.

"Ultimately, this is helping us to understand and protect this resource and tell a more accurate story of Mesa Verde to our national and international visitors and researchers."

To better understand this technology and its applications, watch this short video clip that was produced by PBS Wired Science.


They did some laser scanning of rock art in Agua Fria National Monument (BLM_managed) last year. I haven't seen the results, but the researcher said that it could detect depth changes up to a fraction of a millimeter. It will be great to apply this technology wherever we can - the next time I visited that same rock art site, a vandal had pecked over one of the ancient 'glyphs, destroying it forever. At least we have a copy of what it used to look like. |

This technology can produce amazingly accurate documentation of our civilization's key landmarks, enabling us to reproduce them in the event they're destroyed or severely damaged by natural catastrophes, terrorist attacks, vandalism, or whatever. After the 9/11 attacks the feds rushed to to get this documentation for the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, and lots of other American icons. I hope we can eventually include in this inventory all of the major historical/cultural treasures in our national parks.

Thank you Kurt for such a great article! One small correction though, you provided a slightly incorrect link. The link to the map of Fire Temple is:

If you were looking for a map to the entire Mesa Verde park, the link is:

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