Consider lidar mapping a better way to view the earth. It is more exacting, more revealing and more informing. And it takes some of the guesswork away from a traditional aerial topography map.

With lidar mapping, we get a finer view of the true lay of the land and the potential—landslide and earthquake risks included—dangers it may pose.

Lidar takes the guesswork out of topography mapping by clearing away the vegetation for us. Still using aerial views from an airplane, lidar mappers send hundreds of thousands of laser pulses every second to the ground. The computer system can differentiate between the pulses that hit vegetation and those that strike earth, creating a map sans vegetation and sans guesswork with exactness down to a few inches.

Such detailed imagery of the land has been used in everything from mapping coral reefs to earthquake faults to potential landslide areas, even in Snohomish County in Washington.

The Seattle Times reports that lidar mapping in Puget Sound has identified four times the number of landslide zones than traditional aerial surveys can spot and even the spots non-lidar maps show may not offer the potential of a slide’s true power.

U.S. Geological Survey has started using lidar mapping extensively, creating an inventory of maps throughout the country for a wide range of uses. Local jurisdictions and governments use lidar in far different ways, some incorporating it into planning and others unsure how to delineate the data effectively. As for the general public? This mapping system isn’t exactly a highlighted feature with easily accessed information in many parts of the country. But that doesn’t mean it won’t get there one day. 

Tim Newcomb is Engineering News-Record’s Pacific Northwest contributor. He also writes for Popular MechanicsSports Illustrated and more. You can follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb or visit his website here.