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  • Transcriber: Joseph Geni Reviewer: Camille Martínez

  • The most astounding place I've ever been is the Mosquitia Rain Forest in Honduras.

  • I've done archaeological fieldwork all over the world,

  • so I thought I knew what to expect venturing into the jungle,

  • but I was wrong.

  • For the first time in my life, I might add.

  • (Laughter)

  • First of all, it's freezing.

  • It's 90 degrees, but you're soaking wet from the humidity,

  • and the canopy of trees is so thick that sunlight never reaches the surface.

  • You can't get dry.

  • Immediately, I knew that I hadn't brought enough clothing.

  • That first night, I kept feeling things moving underneath my hammock,

  • unknown creatures brushing and poking against the thin nylon fabric.

  • And I could barely sleep through all the noise.

  • The jungle is loud. It's shockingly loud.

  • It's like being downtown in a bustling city.

  • As the night wore on,

  • I became increasingly frustrated with my sleeplessness,

  • knowing I had a full day ahead.

  • When I finally got up at dawn,

  • my sense of unseen things was all too real.

  • There were hoofprints, paw prints,

  • linear snake tracks everywhere.

  • And what's even more shocking,

  • we saw those same animals in the daylight,

  • and they were completely unafraid of us.

  • They had no experience with people.

  • They had no reason to be afraid.

  • As I walked toward the undocumented city, my reason for being there,

  • I realized that this was the only place that I had ever been

  • where I didn't see a single shred of plastic.

  • That's how remote it was.

  • Perhaps it's surprising to learn

  • that there are still places on our planet that are so untouched by people,

  • but it's true.

  • There are still hundreds of places where people haven't stepped for centuries

  • or maybe forever.

  • It's an awesome time to be an archaeologist.

  • We have the tools and the technology

  • to understand our planet like never before.

  • And yet, we're running out of time.

  • The climate crisis threatens to destroy our ecological and cultural patrimony.

  • I feel an urgency to my work

  • that I didn't feel 20 years ago.

  • How can we document everything before it's too late?

  • I was trained as a traditional archaeologist

  • using methodologies that have been around since the '50s.

  • That all changed in July of 2009

  • in Michoacán, Mexico.

  • I was studying the ancient Purépecha Empire,

  • which is a lesser known but equally important contemporary

  • of the Aztec.

  • Two weeks earlier, my team had documented an unknown settlement,

  • so we were painstakingly mapping, building foundations by hand --

  • hundreds of them.

  • Basic archaeological protocol is to find the edge of a settlement

  • so you know what you're dealing with,

  • and my graduate students convinced me to do just that.

  • So I grabbed a couple of CLIF Bars, some water, a walkie,

  • and I set out alone on foot,

  • expecting to encounter "the edge" in just a few minutes.

  • A few minutes passed.

  • And then an hour.

  • Finally, I reached the other side of the malpais.

  • Oh, there were ancient building foundations all the way across.

  • It's a city?

  • Oh, shit.

  • (Laughter)

  • It's a city.

  • Turns out that this seemingly small settlement

  • was actually an ancient urban megalopolis,

  • 26 square kilometers in size,

  • with as many building foundations as modern-day Manhattan,

  • an archaeological settlement so large

  • that it would take me decades to survey fully,

  • the entire rest of my career,

  • which was exactly how I didn't want to spend the entire rest of my career --

  • (Laughter)

  • sweating, exhausted,

  • placating stressed-out graduate students --

  • (Laughter)

  • tossing scraps of PB and J sandwiches

  • to feral dogs,

  • which is pointless, by the way,

  • because Mexican dogs really don't like peanut butter.

  • (Laughter)

  • Just the thought of it bored me to tears.

  • So I returned home to Colorado,

  • and I poked my head through a colleague's door.

  • "Dude, there's gotta be a better way."

  • He asked if I had heard of this new technology called LiDAR --

  • Light Detection And Ranging.

  • I looked it up.

  • LiDAR involves shooting a dense grid of laser pulses

  • from an airplane to the ground's surface.

  • What you end up with is a high-resolution scan

  • of the earth's surface and everything on it.

  • It's not an image,

  • but instead it's a dense, three-dimensional plot of points.

  • We had enough money in the scan,

  • so we did just that.

  • The company went to Mexico,

  • they flew the LiDAR

  • and they sent back the data.

  • Over the next several months, I learned to practice digital deforestation,

  • filtering away trees, brush and other vegetation

  • to reveal the ancient cultural landscape below.

  • When I looked at my first visualization,

  • I began to cry,

  • which I know comes as quite a shock to you,

  • given how manly I must seem.

  • (Laughter)

  • In just 45 minutes of flying,

  • the LiDAR had collected the same amount of data

  • as what would have taken decades by hand:

  • every house foundation,

  • building, road and pyramid,

  • incredible detail,

  • representing the lives of thousands of people

  • who lived and loved and died in these spaces.

  • And what's more, the quality of the data

  • wasn't comparable to traditional archaeological research.

  • It was much, much better.

  • I knew that this technology would change the entire field of archaeology

  • in the coming years,

  • and it did.

  • Our work came to the attention of a group of filmmakers

  • who were searching for a legendary lost city in Honduras.

  • They failed in their quest,

  • but they instead documented an unknown culture,

  • now buried under a pristine wilderness rain forest,

  • using LiDAR.

  • I agreed to help interpret their data,

  • which is how I found myself deep in that Mosquitia jungle,

  • plastic-free and filled with curious animals.

  • Our goal was to verify that the archaeological features

  • we identified in our LiDAR

  • were actually there on the ground,

  • and they were.

  • Eleven months later, I returned with a crack team of archaeologists

  • sponsored by the National Geographic Society

  • and the Honduran government.

  • In a month, we excavated over 400 objects

  • from what we now call the City of the Jaguar.

  • We felt a moral and ethical responsibility to protect this site as it was,

  • but in the short time that we were there,

  • things inevitably changed.

  • The tiny gravel bar where we first landed our helicopter was gone.

  • The brush had been cleared away and the trees removed

  • to create a large landing zone for several helicopters at once.

  • Without it,

  • after just one rainy season,

  • the ancient canals that we had seen in our LiDAR scan

  • were damaged or destroyed.

  • And the Eden I described soon had a large clearing,

  • central camp,

  • lights

  • and an outdoor chapel.

  • In other words, despite our best efforts to protect the site as it was,

  • things changed.

  • Our initial LiDAR scan of this City of the Jaguar

  • is the only record of this place as it existed just a few years ago.

  • And broadly speaking,

  • this is a problem for archaeologists.

  • We can't study an area without changing it somehow,

  • and regardless, the earth is changing.

  • Archaeological sites are destroyed.

  • History is lost.

  • Just this year, we watched in horror

  • as the Notre Dame Cathedral went up in flames.

  • The iconic spire collapsed,

  • and the roof was all but destroyed.

  • Miraculously, the art historian Andrew Tallon and colleagues

  • scanned the cathedral in 2010 using LiDAR.

  • At the time, their goal was to understand how the building was constructed.

  • Now, their LiDAR scan is the most comprehensive record of the cathedral,

  • and it'll prove invaluable in the reconstruction.

  • They couldn't have anticipated the fire

  • or how their scan would be used,

  • but we're lucky to have it.

  • We take for granted that our cultural and ecological patrimony

  • will be around forever.

  • It won't.

  • Organizations like SCI-Arc and Virtual Wonders

  • are doing incredible work

  • to record the world's historic monuments,

  • but nothing similar exists for the earth's landscapes.

  • We've lost 50 percent of our rain forests.

  • We lose 18 million acres of forest every year.

  • And rising sea levels will make cities, countries and continents

  • completely unrecognizable.

  • Unless we have a record of these places,

  • no one in the future will know they existed.

  • If the earth is the Titanic,

  • we've struck the iceberg,

  • everyone's on deck

  • and the orchestra is playing.

  • The climate crisis threatens to destroy our cultural and ecological patrimony

  • within decades.

  • But sitting on our hands and doing nothing

  • is not an option.

  • Shouldn't we save everything we can on the lifeboats?

  • (Applause)

  • Looking at my scans from Honduras and Mexico,

  • it's clear that we need to scan, scan, scan

  • now as much as possible,

  • while we still can.

  • That's what inspired the Earth Archive,

  • an unprecedented scientific effort

  • to LiDAR-scan the entire planet,

  • starting with areas that are most threatened.

  • Its purpose is threefold.

  • Number one: create a baseline record of the earth as it exists today

  • to more effectively mitigate the climate crisis.

  • To measure change, you need two sets of data:

  • a before and an after.

  • Right now, we don't have a high-resolution before data set

  • for much of the planet,

  • so we can't measure change,

  • and we can't evaluate which of our current efforts

  • to combat the climate crisis

  • are making a positive impact.

  • Number two: create a virtual planet

  • so that any number of scientists can study our earth today.

  • Archaeologists like me can look for undocumented settlements.

  • Ecologists can study tree size,

  • forest composition and age.

  • Geologists can study hydrology,

  • faults, disturbance.

  • The possibilities are endless.

  • Number three: preserve a record of the planet

  • for our grandchildren's grandchildren,

  • so they can reconstruct and study lost cultural patrimony in the future.

  • As science and technology advance,

  • they'll apply new tools, algorithms,

  • even AI to LiDAR scans done today,

  • and ask questions that we can't currently conceive of.

  • Like Notre Dame,

  • we can't imagine how these records will be used.

  • But we know that they'll be critically important.

  • The Earth Archive is the ultimate gift to future generations,

  • because the truth be told,

  • I won't live long enough to see its full impact,

  • and neither will you.

  • That's exactly why it's worth doing.

  • The Earth Archive is a bet on the future of humanity.

  • It's a bet that together,

  • collectively,

  • as people and as scientists,