Locating Cave Entrances Using Lidar-Derived Local Relief Modeling


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Lidar (Light detection and ranging) scanning has revolutionized our ability to locate geographic features on the earth’s surface, but there have been few studies that have addressed discovering caves using this technology. Almost all attempts to find caves using lidar imagery have focused on locating sinkholes that lead to underground cave systems. As archaeologists, our work in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, a heavily forested area in western Belize, focuses on locating potential caves for investigation. Caves are an important part of Maya cultural heritage utilized by the ancient Maya people as ritual spaces. These sites contain large numbers of artifacts, architecture, and human remains, but are being looted at a rapid rate; therefore, our goal is to locate and investigate as many sites as possible during our field seasons. While some caves are entered via sinkholes, most are accessed via vertical cliff faces or are entered by dropping into small shafts. Using lidar-derived data, our goal was to locate and investigate not only sinkholes but other types of cave entrances using point cloud modeling. In this article, we describe our method for locating potential cave openings using local relief models that require only a working knowledge of relief visualization techniques. By using two pedestrian survey techniques, we confirmed a high rate of accuracy in locating cave entrances that varied in both size and morphology. Although 100% pedestrian survey coverage delivered the highest rate accuracy in cave detection, lidar image analyses proved to be expedient for meeting project goals when considering time and resource constraints.

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