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These Beautiful, Swirling Images Are Maps of Washington’s Geology

Lidar mapping reveals the land’s secrets, usually hidden beneath thick forests.

Lidar reveals the places the Sauk River once flowed.
Lidar reveals the places the Sauk River once flowed. All images courtesy of the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

In Washington State, the land sweeps and swirls, rises and buckles. It’s a dramatic enough landscape when seen with the human eye, but the green vegetation that covers the land is also hiding its secrets. In 2015, the state’s legislature asked the Department of Natural Resources to start mapping the entire state using Lidar technology, which can penetrate through the trees to image the shape of the earth below.

These maps reveal the shapes of the state’s landslides, river basins, and glaciers, along with other strange features, like glacial drumlins and mysterious mima mounds. Lidar data can be used to make maps that highlight elevation contours as well as the aspect and slope of the land. They can reveal landslides hidden by trees and faults beneath the earth’s surface.

So far, the department has mapped about a third of the state’s area, although not to the quality experts would like to see. Over time, airplanes equipped with Lidar technology will cover the whole state, resulting in even more striking images of the geology hidden just below what we can see.

Mt. Rainer's glacier.
Mt. Rainer’s glacier.
Naturally occurring "mima mounds" in Thurston County.
Naturally occurring “mima mounds” in Thurston County.
An image of the Devil's Slide, a large landslide in Whatcom County.
An image of the Devil’s Slide, a large landslide in Whatcom County.
The confluence of two rivers.
The confluence of two rivers.
Outwash channels are created by meltwater from a glacier.
Outwash channels are created by meltwater from a glacier.
The Toe Jam Hill fault scarp on Bainbridge Island.
The Toe Jam Hill fault scarp on Bainbridge Island.
Lidar reveals the layers of lava flows of West Crater in Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Lidar reveals the layers of lava flows of West Crater in Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
The stream channels of the Quinault River.
The stream channels of the Quinault River.
Giant ripples created by long-ago flooding.
Giant ripples created by long-ago flooding.