Federal flood maps are outdated, and climate change will only make them more so, leaving states and localities without the information they need to plan for and mitigate flood risks.
The Obama administration's solution? Lasers.
Specifically, the LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) System that uses a series of airborne lasers firing out 200,000 pulses of light per second that essentially function as radar. The result is a hyper-detailed 3-D map of the United States so precise it can detect the height of a median on a road.
The U.S. Geological Survey, which is spearheading the multiagency 3-D Elevation Program, says the map has the potential to avert billions in flood damage, overhaul infrastructure planning, revolutionize farming, and even make cars drive more efficiently.
"That level of resolution has never existed," said Kevin Gallagher, associate director of the USGS Core Science Systems. "When you talk about modeling what areas are going to flood, that can be the difference between a house being underwater or not."
The map has emerged as a surprise player in the White House climate action plan, getting $13.1 million this month for its potential to help states and localities prepare for extreme weather. With a more precise map, researchers could forecast, say, how heavy rains from an aggressive storm would generate floods or how rising sea water would spill into an estuary. The information can also be used to better study coastal erosion, water-resource planning, and landslide hazards.