Geological Survey gets funding for next phase of accurately measuring state's ups and downs

It's fair to say much of Illinois is flat, but that's not good enough for building roads and mapping flood-prone areas.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has awarded the University of Illinois a $799,200 grant for the second phase of the Illinois Height Modernization Program.

Using high-tech laser and low tech markers, the project is working on a high-resolution digital elevation model of the Earth's surface, specifically Illinois.

Beverly Herzog, a principal investigator for the project at the Illinois State Geological Survey, said that when the project is finished, the state will benefit economically at the government level (road and bridge construction), the private sector (data necessary for building skyscrapers) and the individual consumer, who can use the data for help in matters like flood insurance.

Because the federal grant is so beneficial to so many entities, Herzog said, the UI and its geological survey are able to partner with groups like the Illinois Department of Transportation, where Amy Eller is co-investigator on the project.

The funding allows the project to continue developing data-sharing agreements with governmental entities for Light and Detection Ranging (LiDAR) data, provide online access to the data, and conduct project outreach.

"This is exactly the sort of work the federal government should be doing, helping agencies connect for the common good," Herzog said.

Part of the work is restoration. Herzog said Illinois has lost about half of its benchmarks, usually a metal disk made for this purpose and at a spot that has been accurately measured, such as a village center or a peak.

"They are often in the right of way, which results in damage," she said.

In other cases, the benchmarks need to be revised because more accurate data, such as GPS or LiDAR, light-emitting radar from a plane, is now available. Herzog said some of the benchmarks go back to the 1920s.

More high-tech parts of the project include acquisition of high-resolution digital elevation data using remote sensing technologies and the installation of Continuously Operating Reference System so that users receive GPS signals to provide real-time location corrections.

According to the National Geodetic Survey, Illinois is ranked in the bottom 10 states for the quality of its elevation data, including topographic maps.

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