Laser technology mounted on airplanes can map Earth's surface with uncanny precision and detail. The systems have been used to study floods, landslides, snowpacks and just about anything else under the sun that can enhance understanding of the natural processes happening around us. Employed by the military, meteorologists, astronomers, conservationists and even automotive engineers, it can spit out three-dimensional models of a distant surface and is accurate within an inch or two (three to five centimeters).

First used by NASA in the mid-1980s, light detection and ranging (LiDAR), aka airborne laser swath mapping (ALSM), is now commercially available. And in 2003, the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping was created (with funding from the National Science Foundation) in partnership with the University of Florida and the University of California, Berkeley to promote the use of ALSM in ongoing research—and so far it has even pinpointed at least one previously unknown fault line (near Puget Sound, WA).

Slide Show: Laser Mapping Reveals New Details of Earth's Surface