How Lasers and 3-D Maps Can Help the U.S. Prepare for Climate Change

USGS personnel monitoring flood waters in Waverly, IA

USGS personnel monitoring flood waters in Waverly, IA USGS

Federal flood maps are outdated, and climate change will only make them more so, leaving states and localities without the information they need to plan for and mitigate flood risks.

Federal flood maps are outdated, and climate change will only make them more so, leaving states and localities without the information they need to plan for and mitigate flood risks.

The Obama administration's solution? Lasers.

Specifically, the LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) System that uses a series of airborne lasers firing out 200,000 pulses of light per second that essentially function as radar. The result is a hyper-detailed 3-D map of the United States so precise it can detect the height of a median on a road.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which is spearheading the multiagency 3-D Elevation Program, says the map has the potential to avert billions in flood damage, overhaul infrastructure planning, revolutionize farming, and even make cars drive more efficiently.

"That level of resolution has never existed," said Kevin Gallagher, associate director of the USGS Core Science Systems. "When you talk about modeling what areas are going to flood, that can be the difference between a house being underwater or not."

The map has emerged as a surprise player in the White House climate action plan, getting $13.1 million this month for its potential to help states and localities prepare for extreme weather. With a more precise map, researchers could forecast, say, how heavy rains from an aggressive storm would generate floods or how rising sea water would spill into an estuary. The information can also be used to better study coastal erosion, water-resource planning, and landslide hazards.

The total benefits just from flood preparation are between $295 million and $502 million a year, according to a2012 USGS report.

But the survey agency says its own 3-D map can do far more than just prepare for heavy rains and rising seas. More accurate data on the elevation and slope of fields, for example, could lead to precision agriculture that maximizes the use of nutrients and reduces runoff of chemicals. Trucking companies have said they could use information on the slope and height of roads as they develop intelligent vehicles that can shift gears and accelerate to maximize fuel economy on hilly drives.

The data can even be used to identify fault lines—USGS used it to discover a surface rupture in Washington state along the Tacoma fault that led to the redesign of a $735 million suspension bridge. That data, USGS said, could provide guidance on where to avoid building major infrastructure or nuclear-power plants that would be at risk from earthquakes.

All told, USGS says that the 3-D Elevation Program could generate more than $1.2 billion a year in new benefits.

The $1 billion, eight-year project marks the first wholesale upgrade to the USGS topographic map in decades. For now, the map uses the best available data from each area—Gallagher calls it a "quilt"—that in some cases can be as much as 50 or 60 years old. Even with states like Alaska becoming early adopters of LIDAR, only 4 percent of the nation is currently covered with data as fine as 3DEP will be able to generate.

"In the beginning, we were literally walking around and using hand-held instruments to determine elevation," Gallagher said. "Now [with LIDAR] we can show you tree canopies and building structures. We're producing a set of data orders of magnitude greater … and that's going to meet a huge set of needs."

USGS will partner with other federal agencies, academics, states, and local partners for funding and technical assistance, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which stands to emerge a big winner. The agency is working to overhaul its flood maps that not only project flood risk, but help set rates for insurance premiums. This month FEMA announced the 20 members of its Technical Mapping Advisory Council that will develop recommendations for improvements to the flood maps.

Those maps are serious business: Sen. Mary Landrieu has particularly pushed for better flood mapping for her home state of Louisiana, where the unique coastal topography makes it a flood risk. The Democrat added $100 million to the Homeland Security spending bill for flood maps and at an Appropriations hearing last week hammered FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to upgrade the "unacceptable" flood data, saying only 52 percent of maps were at the best available quality.

"Our work is far from over to build a better flood-insurance program that we can live with, grow with, and prosper with," said Landrieu. "This cannot—and will not—happen until we have accurate and reliable flood maps."

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.