The Earth Archive Project and 3D Mapping the Earth

Mark Altaweel


Scientists have been spending a lot of time worrying about the future of the planet and what might come next with future climate change and rapid changes evident on the Earth’s surface. While this is a worry, other scientists have pointed out it will be important to document what the Earth looks like now, which can also provide some important lessons on how we adapt as a planet to any change and provide a blueprint for future conservation efforts. The Earth Archive Project, launched in 2019, is a project that will provide a detailed 3D map of the entire Earth, potentially helping to address important conservation and future planning goals. 

Lidar Data of the Entire Earth

The goal of the Earth Archive project is simply stated in the website:  “scan the entire surface of the Earth before it’s too late.” This stark picture can be addressed using Light Detection and Ranging (Lidar) technology, which provides detailed laser scans that can penetrate beneath clouds and forest canopies. In fact, Lidar has the potential to provide some of the most detailed 3D maps possible given the dense point clouds laser scanning creates. This goal by the Earth Archive project was driven by their experiences in Central America for an archaeological project, where they observed, while mapping the forest canopy and surrounding region, the vast changes going on around them. This prompted the launch of the Earth Archive Project as a way to archive what the Earth looks like now. The intent then would be to not only serve as a measuring stick to how much has changed in the Earth but also provide an archive to reconstruct parts of the Earth that can be reconstituted to its natural habitat, if the need arises.[1] 

Challenges for Creating a 3D Data Archive of the Earth

The problem for such a project is that detailed Lidar images, on the order of about 30 centimeter resolution, are typically created using aircraft mounted with Lidar instruments. This would allow a detailed reconstruction of forest canopies, minor landforms, and urban regions among other things. An estimate is that this type of work would costs over $15 million just to map the Amazon forest. A long-term goal might be to obtain Lidar from satellite sources, although current satellites range between 25-100 meter diameter footprints in places for Lidar resolution. Additionally, one of the best Lidar satellites, GEDI, is only focused on about 4% of the Earth’s surface.[2] This means that aircraft, or perhaps unmanned aerial vehicles, will continue to be the main way in which high resolution data can be collected. The alternative, therefore, has been to launch a large-scale fundraising effort to enable flights to provide detailed 3D maps. However, there will likely be logistical problems, given geopolitical tensions and the fact that some states may simply see the 3D mapping efforts as potential espionage work.[3]

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Crowdsourcing and Sponsorship Solutions

One potential solutions is corporate sponsorship or backing. A similar 3D mapping effort has also been a goal of Niantic, the developer of the popular augmented reality game Pokémon Go. The idea is that anyone can upload pictures around the world and these pictures, using structure for motion (SfM) could be created into 3D images. Potentially, detailed 3D models using photographs could be created for much of the planet, although possibly remote places may still lack data. In fact, Niantic calls itself a planet-scale augmented reality platform company. While Niantic’s goals might be to make games such as Pokémon Go or others like it more profitable for augmented reality enthusiasts, the similarity of the goals may mean there is mutual benefit between scientists and game developers that could create a potential collaboration. Alternatively, it might mean that we may have to use a combination of 3D Lidar scans and photogrammetry to create both a ground-level and bird-eye view for sub-meter resolution 3D maps of the Earth. This could be more feasible financially, while also using the power of crowdsourcing. Of course the benefit of Lidar is its ability to penetrate forest canopies which photographs cannot do. Thus, one possibility is to also focus efforts where they are best suited, such as Lidar in more dense forested regions and 3D photography and mapping in other regions.[4]  

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6D team crowdsourcing their office to build a fused mesh within minutes.

Scientists known that the Earth of today is likely to change dramatically in the near future and documenting it may mean a relatively expensive effort to create 3D models of the Earth at high resolution. The goals of this effort could hit financial constraints and, therefore, a potential solution is to partner with companies such as Niantic that wants to also create detailed 3D maps of the Earth, although using more basic photographs. Potentially data with less resolution could also be used. Combing Lidar and 3D photogrammetry could be a solution for both scientists and game developers alike. 


[1]    For more on the project, see:

[2]    For more on GEDI, see:  Dubayah, R., Blair, J. B., Goetz, S., Fatoyinbo, L., Hansen, M., Healey, S., et al. (2020). The Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation: High-resolution laser ranging of the Earth’s forests and topography. Science of Remote Sensing1, 100002.

[3]    For a popular news article about the effort, see:

[4]    For Niantic’s efforts on 3D mapping, see:

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.