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Earth Sciences
Niels Anders
Niels Anders on the slopes of the mountains in Voralberg

What did you research?

'I used a computer to create visualisations of the mountainous terrain in the Austrian province of Voralberg, which enabled the area to be examined in great detail. My data was provided by a laser scanner (Light Detection and Ranging, LIDAR), which shoots thousands of light pulses per second down to the ground, partly penetrating the vegetation. Some of them are reflected back, which provide information on the altitude of certain objects or elements of the terrain. This allows the production of a detailed 3D model of the landscape. Technology is improving all the time, and more and more data is becoming available. But sometimes there is just too much, or it provides contours at a much smaller scale than you are interested in. Using my method, the data is grouped into objects and then analysed semi-automatically, speeding up the process.'

What are the practical benefits of digital landscape analysis?

'It allows you to study every aspect of the landscape – even the most inaccessible areas – without having to set foot there yourself. You can zoom in, and rotate the entire landscape to get a better view. Making a computer analysis of the terrain means you can target specific locations later that you need more information on, facilitating the analysis of a large area for various purposes, such as assessing the likelihood of landslides or cave-ins. The local authorities in Voralberg and Lichtenstein use my results to help determine which areas should be protected. This information can then be used to decide where to place ski runs, or to map out hazardous areas where no construction should take place.'

What was it like working at the UvA?

'Very nice indeed. The Computational Geo-Ecology research group is active in a wide range of areas that require large amounts of geographical data to be processed, which meant there was plenty of expertise available on how to deal with large data sets. For specific information on my methods, I sometimes even needed to visit colleagues at conferences. Thankfully my two supervisors showed great confidence in me, which helped a great deal.'

Did you look forward to your defence?

'Absolutely. I'm glad to have finished my PhD. I was already working for a year as a post-doc in Wageningen, and the combination of work and writing my doctoral thesis was tough. My work in Wageningen still involves digital landscape analysis, but now I work with data collected by a small radiographic aircraft. Mountainous landscapes are really exciting; they are so active in a geomorphological sense! It's also interesting that digital landscape analysis is developing at such a rapid pace. Now we've only measured a small part of the world in comparable detail, but in ten or fifteen years we'll probably have mapped out the whole thing. That will give us an increasingly better idea of how our world actually works, enabling us to make better decisions about how to protect it.'