Human occupation in Grand Canyon, Arizona, dates from at least 11,000 years before present to the modern era. For most of this period, the only evidence of human occupation in this iconic landscape is provided by archeological sites. Because of the dynamic nature of this environment, many archeological sites are subject to relatively rapid topographic change. Quantifying the extent, magnitude, and cause of such change is important for monitoring and managing these archeological sites. Such quantification is necessary to help inform the continuing debate on whether and how controlled releases from Glen Canyon Dam, located immediately upstream of Grand Canyon National Park, are affecting site erosion rates, artifact transport, and archeological resource preservation along the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. Although long-term topographic change resulting from a variety of natural processes is inherent in the Grand Canyon region, continued erosion of archeological sites threatens both the archeological resources and our future ability to study evidence of past cultural habitation. Thus, this subject is of considerable interest to National Park Service managers and other stakeholders in the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program. Understanding the causes and effects of archeological site erosion requires a knowledge of several factors, including the location, timing, and magnitude of the changes occurring in relation to archeological resources, the rates of change, and the relative contribution of potential causes. These potential causes include sediment depletion associated with managed flows from Glen Canyon Dam, site-specific weather and overland flow patterns, visitor impacts, and long-term regional climate change. To obtain this information, highly accurate, spatially specific data are needed from sites undergoing change. Using terrestrial lidar techniques, and building upon three previous surveys of archeological sites performed in 2006 and 2007, we collected two new datasets in April and September 2010 and processed and improved upon existing methods to generate high-accuracy (3 to 5 cm vertical change threshold) topographic change-detection maps for 10 survey areas encompassing 9 archeological sites along the Colorado River corridor. We also used terrestrial lidar techniques to investigate several other metrics for studying archeological site stability, including monitoring cultural structures and artifacts and remotely measuring cryptobiotic soil crust areas. Our topographic change results indicate that 9 of 10 survey areas showed signs of either erosion, deposition, or both during the 2007–2010 time interval and that these changes can be linked to a variety of geomorphic processes, primarily overland flow gullying and aeolian sand transport. In several cases, large (>50 cm) vertical change occurred, and in one case, more than 100 m3 of sediment was eroded. Further, for all sites monitored throughout the river corridor during this time period, the overall signal was related to erosion rather than deposition. These results highlight the potential for rapid archeological site change in Grand Canyon. Whereas the topographic change results presented herein provide the highest level of change detection yet performed on entire archeological sites in Grand Canyon, additional work in combining these results with site-specific weather, hydrology, and geomorphology data is needed to provide a more thorough understanding of the causes of the documented topographic changes. Linking lidar-derived measurements of topographic changes with these other data sources should provide land managers with a scientific basis for making management decisions regarding archeological resources in Grand Canyon National Park and assist in answering open questions regarding the influence that sediment-depleted flows from Glen Canyon Dam have on archeological site stability.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Topographic change detection at select archeological sites in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, 2007–2010
Scientific Investigations Report
U.S. Geological Survey
Geology, Minerals, Energy and Geophysics Science Center