The National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping became the first national research center at Univerity of Houston when it moved there in 2010. NCALM is funded by the National Science Foundation and operated jointly with the University of California-Berkeley. NCALM was founded in 2003 at the University of Florida.
One project that has continued to garner headlines for NCALM was in Honduras, where researchers used airborne LiDAR to map a remote region of the rainforest in 2012, uncovering evidence of a previously unknown ancient civilization.
Their findings were verified in 2015 when NCALM researcher Juan Carlos Fernandez Diaz returned to the site on foot, accompanied by Honduran and American archaeologists, a documentary film crew and a reporter and photographer from National Geographic.
Fernandez said the group explored a small portion of the region the Univeristy of Houston team mapped in 2012, when researchers completed the first LiDAR survey of that country’s Mosquitia region. (See the accompanying review of The Lost City of the Monkey God.)
Originally, the 2012 LiDAR mapping triggered talk that researchers had found the legendary White City, or Ciudad Blanca. However, Fernandez said they identified evidence of two main cities and several smaller settlements, indicating not the mythological city but instead extensive traces of an ancient civilization that scientists have been aware of for decades but still have not been able to fully identify or name.
While the 2012 mapping was done with airborne LiDAR, Fernandez took a smaller, portable LiDAR unit on this trip to document the artifacts and more finely detail the 2012 findings. He said he and the other team members left with more questions than answers.
The findings offer a vivid illustration of the way in which LiDAR has expanded the discipline of archaeology, providing a birds-eye view of ancient sites that are far more difficult to survey on the ground.
“The archaeology work is significant, and it gets a lot of attention,” said Craig Glennie, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Houston and principle investigator on a $3.26 million, five-year operational grant from the National Science Foundation. “But the center has produced important science from our work with earthquakes, landslides, wildfires and other efforts to map terrain and how it evolves over time.”
More than 530 scientific papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals using data gathered by the center. The papers have been cited about 8,000 times, according to Web of Science.