Printing the Andes

It all started with a discussion between doctoral student Susana Velasquez-Franco and the J. Willard Marriott Library’s GIS specialist Justin Sorensen, after the workshop he hosted in September 2020, “Digital to Physical: Using GIS Technology to Create 3-D Topographic Models.” Velasquez-Franco had requested help related to printing a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) with a depth model from her main doctoral dissertation study site. Velasquez-Franco, who has a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in biology, is currently working on her doctorate in the U’s geography department.

Velasquez-Franco is focused on understanding what are called disturbance regimens, fires, floods and storms, that affect bio-productivity in forests. This information will be used to craft plans for protected areas in the equatorial Andes. Her principal study site, La Laguna de San Diego, includes a crater lake (caldera) and a volcanic dome in the Colombian Andes’ Samaná Volcanic Field.

Laguna de San Diego encompasses an area of about 247 acres. The crater lake was created by a volcanic explosion about 20,000 years ago. For the past 50 years or so, the area had been under war, leading to deep scars on the human population as well as the regional biodiversity. When a peace agreement was reached in 2016, Laguna de San Diego became more accessible and available for research. It lies very close to Selva de Florencia National Park, which hosts the largest number of amphibian species per acre in the world.

Explains Velasquez-Franco, “I became very interested in studying Laguna de San Diego because I knew the area was rich in biodiversity and the lake preserves a wonderful ecological history. And with its close proximity to the national park, we could potentially create wildlife corridors so that animals could migrate between the two habitats. But my first step is to survey the area and understand the ecological history of the watershed.”

One of the first things that Velasquez-Franco did was seek out assistance from the library’s 3-D printing and GIS team. “I needed to make the caldera and the protected area more tangible because of its unique landscape features,” comments Velasquez-Franco. “And then I needed to scan this data and have it 3-D printed so that I can share it with the local community and decision-makers.”

In addition to having surveys done on the plant and wildlife of the area, Velasquez-Franco needs to understand the history of the caldera by looking at the lake sediments and soils—what different sediment layers have deposited over time. “It’s one piece of the puzzle. The 3-D printed pieces illustrate these different layers on the bottom of the lake,” says Velasquez-Franco. “Because we don’t have a 3-D printer in Colombia, these services at the library are a lifesaver.”

Next steps? Velasquez-Franco will be traveling to Samaná, with a graduate student, Julio Sierra, who is a botanist, and two other young researchers to conduct the flora, faunal and soil surveys. She will also be taking the 3-D prints of the protected area, which will assist the team in the communal process of updating Laguna’s management plan.