Web Exclusive! Modeling the Cascades

February 28, 2003
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Oregon mountain resort depicted in 22-square foot Solid Terrain Model.

Geological artist Mark Harbert blends art and technology to create an innovative, three-dimensional map unique to the 21st century. Utilizing more than 30 years of cartography, model building and printing experience, Harbert created a new thermoformed landscape model of the northern Oregon Cascades. The 22-square-foot model touts more accuracy and detail than any before it.

“This is a real breakthrough,” says Harbert of his unprecedented mapmaking process. “Indeed, this is a fusion of art and science destined to transform the industry as we know it.”

Historically, three-dimensional topographic maps for large-area displays were created manually. Although computers calculated details, digital technology had not been extended to the entire mapmaking process—until now.

“All these technologies already existed, but they hadn’t been put together,” Harbert explains. “The combination resulted in a phenomenal landscape model of the northern Oregon Cascades that exhibits three times the detail of typical models.”

Bounded by the south bank of the Columbia River to the north, the town of Sisters to the south, Multnomah Falls to the west and the Deschutes River to the east, Harbert’s model combines the latest in sculpting technique, graphic arts and computer technology. This empowering mixture of expertise allowed Harbert to sculpt a territory ranked among the most scenic and grand on Earth. It includes snow-bunny heaven, Mt. Hood—a 12,000-foot mountain.

Based in Salem, Oregon, Harbert is less than a few hours drive from the beautiful terrain that inspired the new map. Harnessing 12 years of experience making maps for the government, he has spent the past 20 years in the commercial printing industry. He also operated a home business publishing craft sewing patterns.

Harbert knows his background gives him the expertise to comprehend and analyze mapmaking, but also an outsider’s perspective to see the craft from a new vantage point—the vision necessary for a breakthrough. He envisioned the ability to print cartographic information on a raised surface. His realization of this vision produced remarkable results.

Harbert began this generation of three-dimensional mapmaking by collecting data from U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps. He utilized the digitized topographic information to output three-dimensional topography in plastic. “Shaping plastic by thermoforming is an established industry process,” Harbert explains, “but thermal forming in registration to printed graphics is a new, challenging technology.” In other words, Mother Nature has been rendered with cutting-edge know-how.

Next, color satellite images were printed onto a new, ultra-thin Scotchcal graphic film manufactured by 3M and used by Harbert for the project.

“I tested several other films and found that 3630-20 with an 8519 gloss over laminate worked best,” Harbert explains. “This produces a high resolution printed graphic image that is protected from abrasion and UV attack.”

The thin graphic film containing the satellite data was subsequently bonded onto a thicker thermoplastic sheet, .040 ABS, which could be thermoformed to retain a 3D shape. Using heat and suction, Harbert formed the graphic-rich sheet to the final relief using a contact plate for heat and a negative vacuum mold to form the sheet. Finally, the formed sheet was backfilled with an epoxy-fiberglass mix for strength, surface finished with a spray-on protective urethane coating and then the landscape model was mounted on furniture-grade support.

The dazzling detail of the model resulted from of a combination of technologies utilized to yield photo-realistic detail and mapping authenticity. The model details not only the mountains and volcanoes of the northern Cascades, but also depicts with accuracy and realism the deserts, cultivated fields and a portion of the Columbia River. Harbert rendered the map in a true-color palette derived from satellite imagery of the area. As a result, the green-brown contrast between two sides of the Cascade Range is realistically apparent—something not always the case in previous large area displays. Computer image generation allows colors, texture, scale and any other graphic detail to be reviewed and modified. The model's terrain resolution is derived from 100-foot contour intervals of USGS map data, whereas comparable models are based on 750-foot contour intervals.

Not only is Harbert’s map-making process more detailed and accurate, but it’s also sturdier. The map image lies on an ABS plastic foundation, with its thermoformed plastic image reinforced with epoxy-fiberglass (similar to that used in boat construction). It’s then secured to a support structure and surface finished with a .010” coating of super hard polyurethane resin.

“This construction will withstand blunt impact, can be walked on without collapse, will withstand soft drink or coffee spills and can be cleaned using normal household cleaners,” Harbert explains.

The Resort at The Mountain, the Mt. Hood area’s largest lodging and meeting facility (www.theresort.com), has purchased and displayed Harbert’s large area landscape model.

“The detail is astonishing,” raves Ed Hopper, owner of The Resort at the Mountain. “I’ve heard guests say, ‘I camped at that lake’ or, ‘I hiked that ridge.’ You can see geographical details that aren’t visible from the ground, like the landslides that formed the Bridge of the Gods or the topography that dictated where the 1845 Oregon Trail was established.”



Indeed, Harbert’s map instantly provides easy viewing of details to the northern Cascades that have never collectively been seen in this manner. It encompasses an area brimming with mountains and lakes, hills and rivers—most of which lay far beyond roads and trails.

“Once you see the whole mountain range at once,” Harbert says, “the whole area makes a lot more sense. You get a good understanding of how the whole ecosystem works.”

Where previous three-dimensional topographical maps provided a cursory glance at the primary geographical features of an area, Harbert’s ultra-accurate rendering shows the northern Cascades as they exist.

Harbert’s talent doesn’t stop at the northern Oregon Cascades. He has the ability to provide this astonishing view for any corner of Earth. How about a new look at the Grand Canyon, with its numerous twists, turns, peaks and valleys enumerated with unprecedented accuracy? Or maybe the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains, stretching across Colorado, Wyoming and Montana? Why not the Himalayas and that tallest of tall mountains, Mt. Everest?

Harbert’s topographical displays don’t create just a model of an area, but the opportunity for one to consider his or her place in a larger world. Just as architects use models to bring their drawings to life, topographical mapmakers use topographical displays to bring the grandeur of an entire region into view. The miniaturization of scale achieved through modeling is not only educational, but also a profound emotional experience.

To that end, Harbert says the combination of technology, experience and artistry used to render this large-area topographical map of Oregon’s northern Cascades could easily be reprised for a variety of functions and clients.

“Anyone who has a golf course, ski resort, a visitors bureau, or anywhere that geography is integral to the business could benefit from a display like this,” Harbert says. “Understanding the area prompts people to want to enjoy it.”

In addition, the landscape model lends itself to displaying more practical types of information, such as land use planning, political subdivision, vegetative classification, etc.

“A single landscape model foundation could host a variety of graphic displays or could be updated periodically,” he says.

The initial investment for a topographical map depends upon the amount of detail and construction durability one wishes to use, but additional models or graphic variations of the basic landscape are only a fraction of the initial cost.

For more information or to contact Harbert, go to www.vistagraphics.net.

Content provided by Mark Harbert

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