Home > Public Domain Data > Need access to thousands of historical aerials and topographic maps at your fingertips? Try www.historicaerials.com

Need access to thousands of historical aerials and topographic maps at your fingertips? Try www.historicaerials.com

Imagine having instant access to thousands upon thousands of historic aerial photographs and topographic maps to be able to examine change over time.  Thanks to a resource called Historic Aerials, you do have this wealth of information at your fingertips.  These aerials and maps, which go back 50, 60, and even 70 years or more, can be used for research, for instruction, for planning, and for other purposes.  Being in the field of geography and GIS education, I can think of many disciplines in which this can be used — urban and rural geography most certainly, but also biology, environmental science, city planning, history, agriculture, and also in GIS courses.  These resources foster spatial thinking about changes in time and space, from natural causes, such as volcanic eruptions or changes in river meanders, or from human causes, such as urbanization or the construction of reservoirs.  And given the connection that often exists between human and natural changes, sometimes these causes are intertwined–the construction of jetties along barrier islands often influences the naturally occurring longshore sediment transport and the migration of the islands themselves, as can be seen by comparing the historic to modern aerials of Ocean City, Maryland, for example.

The interface for the Historic Aerials is intuitive and provides tools that allow the user to compare USGS topographic maps of various years as well as the aerials themselves.  In the example below, I compare a 1958 with a 2009 aerial of a section of Grand Junction Colorado, before and after Interstate 70 and some surrounding housing was constructed.  You can also use the spotlight tool to “see back in time” for wherever you pan your cursor, and you can turn on the streets to see where  streets would one day be constructed on top of historical imagery.

The site comes from the Nationwide Environmental Title Research group, which has spent over 20 years collecting the worlds largest database of historical aerial images and topographical maps of the USA.  Their sources include USGS and USDA imagery, several private collections, and they are continually acquiring more. All the imagery they collect is orthorectified to provide the data in a searchable and precise geo-locatable format.  A print or digital image (for GIS users, GeoTIFF will be especially useful, delivered in lat-long coordinates, but JPG and PNG are also offered) of any of the maps or aerials is available.  In addition, a subscription service allows anyone to access the site with the following advantages: Full screen viewer, no advertising, PDF builder, quick JPEG downloads, and multiple user accounts.   I had a pleasant chat with the good people behind the site and found that their prices are quite reasonable.  Their FAQ, forum, and tutorials make it clear that they are committed to user success with these resources, and there are human beings behind this site to help as well.

Quite frankly, during my years working at the USGS, I always dreamed that my agency would create something like this.  Kudos to the HistoricAerials staff for making this a reality!

historic_aerials

The interface for HistoricAerials.com is quite intuitive and allows for fascinating investigations back in time for lands across the USA. 

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  1. Rita Frasure
    May 1, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    Wow, thank you! I look forward to learning this site. USGS Earth Explorer has been invaluable to me, but this looks even more so.

    • josephkerski
      May 1, 2018 at 3:10 pm

      Yes, I used to work at USGS and still love Earth Explorer…. but … these historical aerials are something I always wished the USGS would have laid out in a site like this.

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