Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Science Blog: Remote Sensing for Mayan Ruins

From a story recently covered at the Science Blog. Researchers from NASA and the University of New Hampshire in Durham have discovered a number of previously unknown Mayan temple ruins in a densely forested region around San Bartolo, Guatemala. The team employed the use of NASA's Airborne Synthetic Aperture Radar (AIRSAR) to remotely sense the jungle floor. Flown from 8km above the relative topography, AIRSAR's long wavelength allows it to penetrate the jungle canopy and collect data that has escaped other methods.

The research team noticed a "fingerprint" in vegetation growth patterns that indicated the possible presence of a Mayan ruin. On field checking, it was quickly learned that the fingerprint is the result of differential moisture and vegetation growth due to the limestone building materials used by the Mayans.

The remote sensing segment of this project is combined with a detailed climactic study which leads the researchers to conclude that the Mayan civilization may have crumbled due to a series of disruptive climactic events. A better understanding of these cataclysmic processes and their impact on societies will help inform modern nations on how to avoid such pitfalls.

The AIRSAR system was developed in 1988 by the Jet Propulsion laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. The AIRSAR missions covering South America were flown in March 2004. Other archaeological applications of the AIRSAR technology include extensive work at Angkor, Cambodia [also, a great PDF], temples in Nakhorn Ratchasima province, Thailand, 19th century plantations in Georgia, and a study in Tikal, Guatemala to be presented at this years Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology Conference.

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