Mapping Technology Reveals 'Lost Cities' on National Geographic

Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Blakeway Productions/National Geographic

Imagine what Pompeii looked like before the lava hit, or Mayan pyramids before the jungle took over. In the past decade, scientists have been able to explore human settlements long since abandoned by using a new wave of accessible technology. Instead of needing an expensive plane and crew to fly aerial sensors, for example, explorers can mount them on cheaper drones and pilot them into previously unreachable areas. The resulting data can tell us more about the past, and the future, than ever before.

That’s the premise of Lost Cities with Albert Lin, a new TV series premiering on National Geographic on Sunday, October 20.

Lin, an engineer and National Geographic Explorer, uses cutting-edge tools to shed light on centuries-old cities in the most beautiful places on Earth. Ground-penetrating radar reveals buried structures without disturbing the landscape. A drone-mounted remote sensing method called LIDAR—short for "Light Detection and Ranging"—shoots lasers at objects to generate data, which Lin visualizes with 3D mapping software. The results suggest what the ruins probably looked like when they were new.

Albert Lin and crew in Peru
Thomas Hardy, Adan Choqque Arce, Joseph Steel, Duncan Lees, Albert Lin, and Alonso Arroyo launch the LIDAR drone at Wat'a in Peru.
National Geographic

“It’s like a window into a world that we’ve never had before,” Lin tells Mental Floss. “It’s shooting millions of laser pulses per second through a distance of air. By digitally removing the top layer of everything above the ground—trees, brush, cacti—you’re washing away the past. All of the sudden you’re left with these fingerprints—experiments in how we organized ourselves through time.”

For the six-episode series, Lin and the expert storytelling team were dispatched to the South Pacific, the Middle East, the Andes, the Arctic, and other destinations. Lin explains that while most of the sites are known to archaeologists, they’ve never been so precisely mapped in three-dimensional detail.

In the first episode, Lin travels to Nan Madol, an enigmatic complex of temples and other structures on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei. With the help of local researchers and indigenous leaders, Lin and the team scan the ruins and digitally erase trees, water, and forest undergrowth to unveil the complex's former grandeur.

“Technology and innovation have always been that gateway to go beyond the threshold, and see what’s around the corner,” Lin says. “Seeing these worlds for the first time since they were left, it’s almost like reversing the burning of the library of Alexandria. We can take the synthesis of knowledge of all these watershed moments of our human journey, and imagine a better future.”

Lost Cities With Albert Lin premieres Sunday, October 20 at 10/9c and resumes on Monday, October 21 at 10/9c on National Geographic.

How the T. Rex at the American Museum of Natural History Became an Icon

J.M. Luijt, Wikimedia Commons //  CC BY-SA 2.5 nl
J.M. Luijt, Wikimedia Commons //  CC BY-SA 2.5 nl

When asked to think of a Tyrannosaurus rex, you may picture the dinosaur from the original King Kong (1933), the famous vintage illustration by Charles Knight, or perhaps the sinister fossil gracing the poster for Jurassic Park (1993). Each of these pop culture depictions of T. Rex was inspired by a single specimen: A skeleton on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City dubbed AMNH 5027.

In the video below, the AMNH explains how their fossil became the most iconic T. Rex—and therefore the most iconic dinosaur—in history. From 1915 to about 1940, it was the only the mounted T. Rex skeleton on display to the public. That means that most movies created in the early 20th century featuring a T. Rex—including The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918), King Kong, and Fantasia (1940)—were either directly or indirectly inspired by the museum's specimen. AMNH 5027 was incorrectly displayed standing upright with its tail on the ground for decades, which is why so many early depictions of the dinosaur in pop culture show it with the same posture.

The fossil's influence on the world isn't limited to early 20th century cinema. When brainstorming ideas for Jurassic Park's book cover, designer Chip Kidd went to the American Museum of Natural History for inspiration. He used AMNH 5027 as the model for one of the most iconic book jackets ever made. The design was repurposed in the posters for Jurassic Park the movie, and the rex's silhouette has since appeared on countless toys, T-shirts, and other merchandise.

The image has become synonymous with the species, but there's one small detail that's unique to AMNH 5027. The dinosaur in the Jurassic Park artwork has a small bump on the inside of its skull. This bump formed when a bone in the original specimen got pushed out of place during fossilization, and today it's a distinct feature that makes its profile instantly recognizable.

To learn more about the huge impact AMNH 5027 has had in the last century or so of its 65 million years on Earth, check out the video below.

A Powerful Storm Dislodged a Cargo Ship That’s Been Stuck on Niagara Falls for 101 Years

Niagara Parks, YouTube
Niagara Parks, YouTube

It was a dark and stormy night at Niagara Falls this past Halloween—so stormy, in fact, that a cargo ship was dislodged from where it had been stuck for 101 years.

On August 6, 1918, the iron scow—a flat-bottomed cargo vessel—got detached from its tugboat and began a steady, terrifying drift toward the edge of Horseshoe Falls. According to Ontario's Niagara Parks Commission, the two crewmen aboard, Gustav Lofberg and James Harris, opened the dumping doors, flooding the bottom compartments with enough water to slow the ship.

The scow soon ran into some rocks, saving the men from certain death but simultaneously stranding them in the middle of the perilous upper rapids. During the ensuing rescue mission, a breeches buoy—a sling attached to a pulley—was fastened to ropes, which a cannon shot out to the scow.

Progress came to a grinding halt when the ropes got twisted, and Ontario riverman and World War I veteran William “Red” Hill Sr. volunteered to swim out to the buoy and untangle the lines. He succeeded on his second attempt, and the two men were pulled to safety by the following morning.

The scow, on the other hand, spent the next century lodged among the rocks. According to USA Today, the Halloween storm was so severe that the ship escaped its craggy prison and sped downriver. It ran aground again just 150 feet from its original location.

Niagara Parks posted a video of the scow on Twitter on Friday, explaining that the badly deteriorated scow is now flipped on its side.

“It could be stuck there for days, or it could be stuck there for years,” Jim Hill, the Niagara Parks Commission’s senior manager of heritage, says in the video. “It’s anyone’s guess.”

The story of the iron scow might not be the only thing you didn’t know about Niagara Falls; dive into 11 more fascinating facts here.

[h/t USA Today]

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