Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Ancient Desert Markings Imaged From Orbit


Proba image of the Nasca plain
Credit: ESA

The Pan-American Highway runs through the Nasca Lines

Credits: AP Photo/John Moore

Visible from ESA’s Proba spacecraft 600 kilometres away in space are the largest of the many Nasca Lines; ancient desert markings now at risk from human encroachment as well as flood events feared to be increasing in frequency.

Designated a World Heritage Site in 1994, the Lines are a mixture of animal figures and long straight lines etched across an area of about 70 km by 30 km on the Nasca plain, between the Andes and Pacific Coast at the southern end of Peru. The oldest lines date from around 400 BC and went on being created for perhaps a thousand years.
They were made simply enough, by moving dark surface stones to expose pale sand beneath. However their intended purpose remains a mystery. It has variously been proposed they were created as pathways for religious processions and ceremonies, an astronomical observatory or a guide to underground water resources.

The Nasca Lines have been preserved down the centuries by extreme local dryness and a lack of erosion mechanisms, but are now coming increasingly under threat: it is estimated the last 30 years saw greater erosion and degradation of the site than the previous thousand years before them.

In this image, acquired by the Compact High Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (CHRIS) instrument aboard Proba on 26 September 2003, the 18.6 metre resolution is too low to make out the animal figures although the straight Nasca Lines can be seen faintly. Clearest of the straight markings is actually the Pan-American Highway, built right through the region – seen as a dark marking starting at the irrigated fields beside the Ingenio River, running from near the image top to the bottom right hand corner. Associated dirt track roads are also visible amidst the Nasca Lines.

Clearly shown in the Proba image is another cause of damage to the Lines: deposits left by mudslides after heavy rains in the Andean Mountains. These events are believed to be connected to the El Niño phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean – first named by Peruvian fishermen hundreds of years ago – and one concern is they are becoming more frequent due to climate change.

A team from Edinburgh University and remote sensing company Vexcel UK has been using data from another ESA spacecraft to measure damage to the Nasca Lines, with their results due to be published in the May Issue of the International Journal of Remote Sensing.

Their work involves combining radar images from the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) instrument aboard ERS-2. Instead of measuring reflected light, SAR makes images from backscattered radar signals that chart surface roughness.

Nicholas Walker of Vexcel UK explained: "Although the instrument lacks sufficient resolution to unambiguously distinguish individual lines and shapes, by combining two satellite images using a technique known as SAR interferometric coherence it is possible to detect erosion and changes to the surface at the scale of centimetres".

The image shown combines two scenes acquired by ERS-2 in 1997 and 1999. The bright areas show where there has been very little terrain change in the interval, while darker regions show where de-correlation has occurred, highlighting possible sites where erosion may be taking place.

"Some de-correlation comes simply from the geometry of the area as seen by the instrument in space, with low coherence around areas overshadowed by Andean foothills to the east of the Nasca plain," said Iain Woodhouse of Edinburgh University. "The second major loss is seen in the river valleys, due primarily to agricultural activity taking place during the two-year period.

"The third is changes in the surface of the plain due to run-off and human activity. The dark lines crossing the plain are roads and tracks serving local communities and the power line, as well as the Pan American Highway, the only surfaced road in this region of Peru."

The de-correlation observed is most likely caused by vehicles displacing stones along these tracks and the sides of the Pan-American Highway. The de-correlation from the run-off is distinct from this as it follows the characteristic drainage patterns down from the foothills.

"Interferometric coherence seems to provide an effective means for monitoring these two major sources of risk to the integrity of the markings," Woodhouse concluded. "We are developing the technique to include more sensors and data of higher spatial resolution, so as to encourage the establishment of a long term and frequent monitoring programme supporting conservation efforts in the area."

Frédéric Le Gall | ESA
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Receding glaciers in Bolivia leave communities at risk
20.10.2016 | European Geosciences Union

nachricht UM researchers study vast carbon residue of ocean life
19.10.2016 | University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>