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Mapping Afghanistan’s Geology from Really, Really Far Away

Using aerial surveys, US geographers map the mineral resources found on Afghanistan's rocky surface.

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A map of Afghanistan’s resources made by the USGS.

In 2006, a survey of young Americans found that about 90 percent of them couldn’t find Afghanistan on a map. They probably wouldn’t recognize this map either, but it’s one of the most detailed maps of Afghanistan ever made. And it was made from about 50,000 feet above the country.

Since 2010, the United States Geological Survey has been mapping Afghanistan using airborne spectral surveys rather than traveling on foot. Ars Technica explains why:

In a place like Afghanistan, it would take a very long time for geologists to cover all that ground by foot, and an understanding of the geology is critical to hunting down mineral deposits. In the press release, USGS Director Marcia McNutt says, “When compared with conventional ground mapping, use of this technology has accelerated by decades the identification of the most promising areas for economic development in Afghanistan.”

It’s pretty obvious that the United States has a vested interest in Afghanistan. But so do a lot of people, for all sorts of reasons. The country is home to about $1 trillion worth of iron, copper, gold, lithium and rare earth metals. That’s a lot of valuable stuff, and to find it, and get it, prospectors will need a map.

The USGS explains just what this map shows, and how it was made:

Airborne hyperspectral sensors measure light reflected from the earth. The spectrum of the reflected light can be interpreted to identify the composition of materials at the surface, such as minerals, man-made materials, snow, and vegetation. These materials can be identified remotely due to their unique light spectra.  In addition, these data allow large geographic areas to be mapped quickly and accurately, showing mineral resources, natural hazards, agricultural conditions and infrastructure development.

In developing the maps, more than 800 million pixels of data were generated. Over the course of 43 days and 28 flights, USGS flew nearly 23,000 miles (37,000 kilometers), collecting data that covered approximately 170,000 square miles (440,000 square kilometers).

You can download the high resolution map here.

 

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Enduring Splendors of, Yes, Afghanistan

Rug-ofWar

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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