Jason Dortch joins KGS; will find new uses for LiDAR data

Jason Dortch considers himself lucky to have arrived at KGS for a 2-year post-doctoral appointment on Jan. 29. Kentucky’s Division of Geographic Information released the final installment of airborne LiDAR data for the entire state barely a month before, and his job is to find new uses for the data. LiDAR—short for light detection and ranging—is a laser scanner technology that allows the ground to be mapped in extraordinary detail from an aircraft. The technology works even for heavily forested areas because trees are removed mathematically from the imagery using sophisticated data processing to reveal the bare earth beneath the forest. “It’s a really rare opportunity to be given such a large data set to exploit and use to make statewide maps,” Dortch says.

The LiDAR data were collected as part of the multiyear collaboration known as KYAPED (Kentucky Aerial Photograph and Elevation Data program); the collaboration consists of state and federal stakeholders, including KGS.

Dortch will work in the new KGS Digital Earth Analysis Laboratory. Director Bill Haneberg developed DEAL to help make KGS a leader in the application and integration of airborne LiDAR data to support geologic, engineering, and environmental studies in Kentucky. “We are one of a handful of states to have complete airborne LiDAR coverage,” said Haneberg, “and that provides us with an amazing tool to better understand Kentucky’s natural resources and hazards for the benefit of the commonwealth.”

In its most readily usable form, the statewide Kentucky LiDAR data provide some 46 billion measurements of Kentucky’s landscape, or one measurement every 5 feet across the commonwealth. DEAL has high-end computer workstations, specialized software, a dedicated LiDAR data server, and an 80-inch touchscreen monitor for group collaborations. KGS is also investigating cloud-based solutions to provide even more computing power.

Dortch, who is originally from Southern California, spent the last 5 years on the faculty of the University of Manchester, England. He and his wife wanted to return to the U.S., and Dortch needed to attend to his father’s health. His former doctoral advisor at the University of Cincinnati, Lewis Owen, told Dortch about an advertised position at KGS. “It all worked out fortuitously. It wasn’t the plan, but I only had about a month between quitting at Manchester and getting hired here,” Dortch says. And his dad’s health is much improved, too.

Dortch and Haneberg will meet with KGS section heads to develop research projects and collaborations using the statewide LiDAR data. “Usually, you pay thousands of dollars and you get a little area—like 10 kilometers square—and you can answer one specific question, which leads you to other questions about what’s happening regionally,” Dortch says. “With all these new data, you can actually start addressing those questions.”

Dortch’s research has taken him to the Indian Himalaya to study landscape evolution and large-scale ancient flooding. His first paper, on Himalayan megalandslides, was co-authored with Haneberg, who also has published research on the Himalaya. Dortch has also traveled to South America, where he mapped faults and dated geologic features in the Puna Plateau of the Andes Mountains. Dortch says he’s especially interested in applying LiDAR data to understand geologic hazards, including landslides and earthquakes, while he’s at KGS.

When he’s not working on research issues, Dortch has plenty of hobbies and activities to keep him busy, including welding and carpentry. “I was a mechanic in a former life, working at a Toyota dealership for about 4 years. I’d like to get into blacksmithing. I used to have a race car—an Impala from the ’80s. We raced a circle-track on wet clay. I did that for about 3 years. We didn’t go more than maybe a hundred miles an hour!”


Jason Dortch looks at LiDAR data from northern Kentucky in the KGS Digital Earth Analysis Laboratory.
Last Modified on 2019-03-15
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