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How this archaeologist plans to create a ‘digital twin’ of Amazon rainforests and fight climate change

The Amazon is the largest rainforest on earth and is a rich addition to the planet’s biodiversity. The rainforests have been home to several rare species of plants and animals for centuries and have attracted explorers and scientists alike because of the scientific wonder it is. But that was then, the reality is much different now.

Aerial view of the Amazon river
Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas

The effect of climate change and human intervention has had a damaging effect on these rainforests. From plant and animal species nearing an endangered status to deforestation and change in weather patterns, the impact of global warming on the Amazon has been a cause of concern and one that’s likely to aggravate if it goes unchecked.

According to a NASA study, over the past 20 years, the atmosphere above the Amazon rainforests has been drying, while increasing the demand for water and making ecosystems more prone to fires and drought. The study also claimed that the increase in atmospheric dryness was primarily a result of human activities.

While there have been several efforts by governments and the private sector to contain the effect of climate change on the rainforests, there’s a need for innovative ideas to help fast-track such measures of damage control.

The Earth Archive – a non-profit organisation led by archaeologist Christopher T. Fisher and professor of anthropology at Colorado State University – is a unique initiative launched to perform a LiDAR scanning of the Amazon rainforests and help scientists fight the effects of the climate crisis in the region. The project will create a baseline record of how the earth has changed due to climate change and obtain data sets which can be used to solve problems of land tenure and conservation. The organisation is also trying to build grassroots capacity to store the data at community level.

Under the LiDAR scanning, The Earth Archive team plans to capture high-resolution 3D images of the rainforests to create what the organisation is referring to as a ‘digital twin’ of the forests.

Apart from contributing to the fight against the climate crisis, a LiDAR scanning and resulting pictures can help scientists document the trees growing in the forests, map carbon stocks, discover new ecological treasures and gather information which could be used by locals to defend their land rights.

In the recent past, LiDAR scanning has been leveraged widely and effectively in a wide variety of fields. For instance, in 2019 when a massive fire caused extensive damage to France’s iconic Notre-Dame de Paris, the world watched in horror as the blaze ravaged the 12th century cathedral’s spire and attic. Most people thought that the destruction meant that the world had lost an invaluable part of history that could never be recreated.

In what can only be called a stroke of luck, two art historians Andrew Tallon and Paul Blaer had painstakingly captured high-resolution 3D images of the cathedral as part of a project in 2010. The scans turned out to be invaluable in helping experts recreate a part of the historic building and capture its architectural excellence.

As an experienced archaeologist, Fisher himself has been a part of expeditions where LiDAR scans have been used extensively to collect useful information that would otherwise take years to collate. He has talked about how when he stumbled across an ancient urban megalopolis spanning, across 26 square kilometres, in Mexico in 2009, his team decided to rope in LiDAR scanning to survey the entire area. As per his projections, the same task if done manually would have taken decades, but with LiDAR scanning they were able to wrap it up in just 45 minutes.

The Earth Archive is a pioneering scientific effort to scan the entire surface of the planet through LiDAR technology, before it’s too late. The initiative has a three-fold objective. The first aim is to assemble a baseline record of data and compare how has the earth changed over centuries and how was it before climate change. The second purpose of the organisation is to create a virtual or a digital twin of the planet and help scientists study the earth’s history in more depth.

For example, the data could help archaeologists discover undocumented settlements and aid ecologists’ study of the composition of rainforests, tree sizes and their distribution. On the other hand, earth scientists could deep-dive into fields like hydrology, ecosystems and geology. Lastly, urban planners could use this information to build sustainable solutions for development to conserve the planet.

The third objective that’s guiding The Earth Archive in this project is to create a record for future generations and help them explore new avenues of information by leveraging frontier technologies like artificial intelligence.

The organization is currently seeking funds via a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to sponsor its project to conduct LiDAR scanning of the Amazon rainforests. Once the project takes off, The Earth Archive plans on making the data available to scientists across the world for free.

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