Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center

U.S. Geological Survey
Open-File Report 2008-1384
version 1.0

Evaluation of Terrestrial LIDAR for Monitoring Geomorphic Change at Archeological Sites in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

By Brian D. Collins, Kristin M. Brown, and Helen C. Fairley


Photograph of survey equipment on a sandbar with the river in the background


This report presents the results of an evaluation of terrestrial light detection and ranging (LIDAR) for monitoring geomorphic change at archeological sites located within Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz. Traditionally, topographic change-detection studies have used total station methods for the collection of data related to key measurable features of site erosion such as the location of thalwegs and knickpoints of gullies that traverse archeological sites (for example, Pederson and others, 2003). Total station methods require survey teams to walk within and on the features of interest within the archeological sites to take accurate measurements. As a result, site impacts may develop such as trailing, damage to cryptogamic crusts, and surface compaction that can exacerbate future erosion of the sites. National Park Service (NPS) resource managers have become increasingly concerned that repeated surveys for research and monitoring purposes may have a detrimental impact on the resources that researchers are trying to study and protect.

Beginning in 2006, the Sociocultural Program of the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center (GCMRC) initiated an evaluation of terrestrial LIDAR as a new monitoring tool that might enhance data quality and reduce site impacts. This evaluation was conducted as one part of an ongoing study to develop objective, replicable, quantifiable monitoring protocols for tracking the status and trend of variables affecting archeological site condition along the Colorado River corridor. The overall study consists of two elements: (1) an evaluation of the methodology through direct comparison to geomorphologic metrics already being collected by total station methods (this report) and (2) an evaluation of terrestrial LIDAR’s ability to detect topographic change through the collection of temporally different datasets (a report on this portion of the study is anticipated early in 2009). The main goals of the first element of study were to

This report focuses on the ability of terrestrial LIDAR to duplicate total station methods, including typical erosion-related change features such as the plan view gully thalweg location and the gully thalweg long profile. The report also presents information concerning the use of terrestrial LIDAR for archeological site monitoring in a general sense. In addition, a detailed comparison of the site impacts caused by both total station and terrestrial LIDAR survey methods is presented using a suite of indicators, including total field survey time, field footstep count, and data-processing time. A thorough discussion of the relative benefits and limitations of using terrestrial LIDAR for monitoring erosion-induced changes at archeological sites in Grand Canyon National Park concludes this report.

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