SANDPOINT — Before Google Earth, before satellite images provided almost perpetual coverage of the planet, geographers had little in the way of overhead views of the work with. The pictures that did exist were the exclusive purview of the military, jealousy protected and seen as a distinct tactical advantage.
It was still that way when Dr. Anthony Lewis was in college in the late-1950s.
“We were lucky to get a black-and-white aerial photo,” he said.
Timing, however, favored his career. Technology swept past the military applications — first pioneered by balloon-bourn observers who made battlefield sketches in the Civil War, adapted to photography from bi-planes in World War I and then used widely for aerial reconnaissance by World War II — until reading Earth’s history from above became an art in itself. It just so happened that Lewis was able to read the patterns and shapes in those land forms like a book.
As new ways of capturing images became available, he emerged as an international expert in the field of remote sensing — an academic track that carried him to the status of professor emeritus of geography at Louisiana State University, where he taught for nearly 30 years, as well as visiting professor for the Chinese Academy of Science.
Riding the first wave of radar remote sensing was the key to it all.
“There wasn’t a lot of literature to look into,” said Lewis. “It was you and the people you worked with — that was it. We were the only ones who were doing this. What a great position to be in.”
As he continued to move up by looking down, Lewis found that expertise in remote sensing was his passport to the world, taking him to teaching positions at the University of California in Santa Barbara and Oregon State University, as well as to New Zealand, Indonesia and China.
With more than 50 published works to his credit, lecture tours carried him to Germany, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Mexico and Colombia. For the past several years, Lewis has been working part-time in China, where one of his former students, GUO Huadong, is now director general for the Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Along with his wife, Barbara, Lewis recently completed the English editing of a coffee table book featuring overhead views of approximately 40 World Heritage Sites in China. The GUO-led project adds yet another title to the growing list of publications Lewis has written or edited.
With all of these international accomplishments stacked up in his curriculum vitae, it’s strange, then, that the professor found that one of the most dramatic Earth-shaping events took place, quite literally, just outside his own front door.
Now living near the mouth of the Clark Fork River, Lewis resides at the precise point where water was plugged, backed up and then unleashed with enough force to sculpt much of the landscape of the Northwest.
“What a special place,” he said, pointing to the Clark Fork River on a map. “This is where the great Ice age floods originated.”
That makes our collective backyard a geographic standout on a global level, Lewis noted. Lake Pend Oreille shows graphic evidence of what happens when a glacier gets pulled like a bath plug and the dam behind it finally bursts free. The rest of the picture can be seen clearly in terrain that runs from the wavelike contours of the Palouse in Idaho to the “scablands” of Eastern Washington and westward through Oregon and the Columbia River Gorge on to the Pacific Ocean.
“When that thing broke, it went right over my house,” Lewis said. “I think it’s probably the only place in the world where you had this kind of phenomena happening on the scale that it did.
“This thing had 500 million cubic gallons of water, over 2,000 feet deep, dammed up past Missoula — and they figured it emptied in two or three days,” he added. “There’s no record of anything else like that happening in the last million years.”
On Thurs., Feb. 7, Lewis will give a noontime presentation titled, “North Idaho: Heart of the Ice Age Floods” to the Friends of the Library. If the talk centered on remote sensing technology, it would be a breeze, the professor pointed out. But this one falls into the category of intense personal interest, as opposed to long-held professional expertise.
“This is one of the hardest presentations I’ve put together,” he said.
Still, the close-to-home nature of the topic, the timing of the event and the landforms it left behind have all conspired to seize his imagination.
“I’m a geographer and I love landscapes,” Lewis said. “And this is a pretty unique landscape. I’m also fascinated with the Ice Age because it’s so close to us in geologic time.”
The presentation also ties into his mission as a member of the Coeur du Deluge (Heart of the Flood) Chapter of the Ice Age Floods Institute, which seeks to educate the public about the landscapes formed by those inundations.
In September, that organization will travel to Sandpoint to hold its annual meeting and gather on a spot that, according to Lewis, is widely known in scientific circles. The same could be said for Lewis himself, not only because of his groundbreaking research in remote sensing technologies, but for the subsequent work that has led to what might be called the pre-emptive geography being used today.
His findings range from assessing the impacts of pesticides on watersheds in Louisiana and coal waste mounds in Japan to monitoring urban development, inventorying coral reefs and detecting illegal mining activities.
“It’s beyond belief,” Lewis said. “These things weren’t possible 50 years ago. I would never have dreamed that I would have these kinds of data sets available — never.
“A lot of people involved on researching climate change are now using this technology,” he went on. “They can look at how an area has changed, every day, over a period of 20 years.”
The idea that a kid who grew up in a small town, never even thinking that he might go to college, could grow up to become an international expert who travels the world doing what he loves still surprises this professor. Having an address that corresponds to one of the most remarkable events of the Ice Age is just icing on the cake.
Add to that the support of parents who encouraged him and his brothers in their careers and a wife who was willing to pack up all four kids and move around the world, and you have a life that, like the great floods themselves, spills over with adventure.
“I think of that often,” Lewis said. “If I had my life to live over again 100 times, I would never be so fortunate as to have all of these things happen to me.”
The presentation, “North Idaho: Heart of the Ice Age Floods” will take place on Feb. 7 at noon in the East Bonner County Library in Sandpoint. The event is free and open to the public.