Decision support system for archaeological sites in Guatemala

© ASTER - JPL,

The key archaeological sites of El Mirador, Uaxactun, Tikal and Naranjo are found in The Northern part of Guatemala, near the Mexican border.  These are astonishing remains of the Mayan civilization, with superb temples and palaces nestled in the lush heart of the jungle.

UNESCO, is working in partnership with the conservation authorities of Guatemala and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to assist Guatemala in the planning and management of these eco-archeological protected areas, including areas of forest concessions, by providing them with an integrated system. To this end, they are using AirSar (Airborne Synthetic Aperture Radar) data, and a large amount of satellite images from the NASA SERVIR programme.

Much of the archaeological evidence needed to understand Pre-Columbian societies in Central America is drawn from landscape features: the ‘cultural landscape’ on which the archaeological site was constructed. However, ground data collection has been limited due to these sites isolation in the dense jungle, which makes for difficult access, and other logistical restrictions. Additional research was necessary to better understand archaeological aspects and preserve biological and cultural diversity in Central America. To support this effort, a NASA plane carrying a special radar-sensor known as AirSar undertook a mission to capture data over the rainforests of Central America.

© UNESCO/Inguat-Samajoa
Guatemalan forest

Radar is a so called ‘active sensor’ technology. It is comparable to a camera with a flash. While ‘optical sensors’ are encumbered by the presence of clouds, because such sensor only receive the signal reflected by the surface, AirSar’s high-resolution sensors, emit their own ‘radar signal’ (like a camera with a flash): the sensor emits a radar beam towards the terrain and receives it back on board of the plane. This enables them to collect data at night or under cloudy conditions. With certain limitations they can 'see’ beneath treetops, though they can’t penetrate light vegetation cover. 

The data collected by AirSar helps us to understand how modern humans interact with their landscape, how peoples lived in ancient times and what became of their civilizations. AirSar has collected data over these sites to enable conservation scientists to measure the structure, biomass and carbon content of the forests, evaluate changes, and support the development of models and methods. This is valuable information for decision makers to take measurements to mitigate the negative impacts of human activities.

AirSar data contributes to a better understanding of forested ecosystems, such as those found in Central America, which cover less than 30% of the Earth’s land area and yet contain 90% of all living species. Such areas serve as a large sink of terrestrial carbon, have substantial interactions with the Earth’s climate, and have been dramatically impacted by human activities.
SERVIR, a Regional Monitoring and Visualization System for Mesoamerica developed by NASA and its partners, utilizes satellite imagery and other data for environmental management and disaster support. SERVIR will be used by scientists, educators and policy-makers to monitor and forecast ecological changes, and respond to disasters including forest fires, tropical storms, floods, drought and volcanic eruptions.

Understanding the landscape on which important archaeological heritage sites were built also help us to understand how the Mayas transformed the landscape to build their wonderful cities.

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