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Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5126

High-Resolution Topography and Geomorphology of Select Archeological Sites in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona

By Brian D. Collins, Skye C. Corbett, Joel B. Sankey, and Helen C. Fairley

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (16.7 MB)Abstract

Along the Colorado River corridor between Glen Canyon Dam and Lees Ferry, Arizona, located some 25 km downstream from the dam, archaeological sites dating from 8,000 years before present through the modern era are located within and on top of fluvial and alluvial terraces of the prehistorically undammed river. These terraces are known to have undergone significant erosion and retreat since emplacement of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. Land managers and policy makers associated with managing the flow of the Colorado River are interested in understanding how the operations of Glen Canyon Dam have affected the archeological sites associated with these terraces and how dam-controlled flows currently interact with other landscape-shaping processes. In 2012, the U.S. Geological Survey initiated a research project in Glen Canyon to study the types and causes of erosion of the terraces. This report provides the first step towards this understanding by presenting comparative analyses on several types of high-resolution topographic data (airborne lidar, terrestrial lidar, and airborne photogrammetry) that can be used in the future to document and analyze changes to terrace-based archaeological sites.

Herein, we present topographic and geomorphologic data of four archaeological sites within a 14 km segment of Glen Canyon using each of the three data sources. In addition to comparing each method’s suitability for adequately representing the topography of the sites, we also analyze the data within each site’s context and describe the geomorphological processes responsible for erosion. Our results show that each method has its own strengths and weaknesses, and that terrestrial and airborne lidar are essentially interchangeable for many important topographic characterization and monitoring purposes. However, whereas terrestrial lidar provides enhanced capacity for feature recognition and gully morphology delineation, airborne methods (whether by way of laser or optical sensors) are better suited for reach- and regional-scale mapping. Our site-specific geomorphic analyses of the four archeological sites indicate that their current topographical conditions are a result of different and sometimes competing erosional agents, including bedrock- and terrace-based overland flow, fluvial-induced terrace bank collapse, and alluvial-fan-generated debris flows. Although the influences of anthropogenic-induced erosion from dam operations are not specifically analyzed in this report, we do identify geomorphic settings where dam operations are either more or less likely to affect archeological site stability. This information can be used to assist with future monitoring efforts of these sites and identification of similar conditions for other archeological sites along the Colorado River corridor in Glen Canyon.

First posted August 25, 2014

For additional information, contact:
GMEG staff, Geology, Minerals, Energy, & Geophysics Science Center—Menlo Park, California
U.S. Geological Survey
345 Middlefield Road
Menlo Park, CA 94025-3591

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Suggested citation:

Collins, B.D., Corbett, S.C., Sankey, J.B., and Fairley, H.C., 2014, High-Resolution Topography and Geomorphology of Select Archeological Sites in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5126, 31 p.,

ISSN 2328-0328 (online)




Archeological Sites in Glen Canyon



Topographic Analysis

Geomorphological Analysis



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