Money Matters - Simplified

Did lasers unearthed the mythical Ciudad Blanca, the White City?

A team from the University of Houston, using laser-based light detection and ranging (LiDAR) from a survey plane, may have found the ruins of an ancient city deep in Honduras' Mosquito Coast region and hidden by centuries of jungle growth.

The city may or may not be Ciudad Blanca, but it certainly appears to be a major archaeological site. La Mosquitia refers to the northeastern part of Honduras along the Mosquito Coast. It is an underdeveloped region of tropical rain-forest accessible primarily by water and air.

Since Spanish explorer Herman Cortes first noted the existence of Ciudad Blanca, the White City, in 1526, archaeologists, explorers and treasure hunters have been searching for the site, reputed to contain vast wealth. Many have claimed to find it, including the CIA's Theodore Morde, who based the bizarre travelogue "Lost City of the Monkey God" on it. None of those claims have held water, however, and contemporary archaeologists are not even sure the city ever existed. But now things may change for better.

Cinematographer Steven Elkins too has been fascinated with the Ciudad Blanca stories for more than a decade. He previously analyzed satellite imagery of the Mosquitia forest, looking for signs of the city. With LiDAR as an effective tool, he gathered private investors to pay for the National Science Foundation's laser mapping center to analyze three areas he thought were especially promising.

LiDAR is faster and cheaper and way better than the traditional way of hacking through the forest. It's been gaining ground since 2009, when a U.S. archaeology team working on Mayan ruins first used the technology to peer beneath 80 square miles (207 square kilometers) of forest canopy in Belize.

Airborne LiDAR works by sending more than 100,000 short laser pulses to the ground every second while a plane flies over the area of interest. The laser light hits the ground, then returns to the aircraft. The time it takes for the light to make the back-and-forth trip tells researchers the altitude of points on the ground.

The technology is able to detect height differences of less than 4 inches (10 centimeters) and maps to GPS coordinates within 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters). "It's within a step, in many cases," said Bill Carter, University of Houston engineer who develops LiDAR systems for the National Science Foundation. The researchers flew over the area in a small plane and shot billions of laser pulses at the ground, creating a 3D digital map of the topology underneath the trees.

Now, Elkins, along with a team of Honduran scientists, will visit the structures in person and determine what they are and how old they are. The LiDAR coordinates will help them pinpoint exactly where to look in the thick jungle.