Copyright © 2010 by Lawrence L. Poulsen
With the availability of computer programs that produce and display three-dimensional maps of local terrain, we can now explore the geography of the Book of Mormon at a level of detail that approaches personal visits to any proposed locality anywhere in the world. In some aspects, the onscreen views are even superior to onsite visits. Using Google Earth, we can make observations that would be difficult or even impossible with a personal visit. Google Earth offers a multitude of possibilities that are limited only by our imagination and desire to look at the physical geography of any location on the earth.
I will limit this brief discussion about using Google Earth’s three-dimensional images to some of the most obvious uses relative to Book of Mormon geography as follows:
1. Expand the vertical appearance threefold over normal perception.
2. Measure altitudes with reasonable precision, including inaccessible peaks and valleys.
3. Measure surface distances to a precision of 0.01 feet (limited to the accuracy and resolution of satellite images).
4. View three-dimensional detail from any direction over 360 degrees.
5. View three-dimensional images at any angle from a horizontal to a vertical viewpoint.
6. Annotate views with textual notes to identify features before saving. All notations are retained in local memory and may be selectively displayed or suppressed depending on how the information will be used.
7. Save and print different views for offline comparison and distribution to collaborators.
8. Trace potential routes of travel following valleys, rivers, and smooth terrain, and measure their lengths for comparison.
9. Use simple mouse-controlled selection of resolution and location. 10. Access the same location almost immediately when we determine that further investigation is necessary.
1. Using altitude measurements, we can determine the direction of river flow and thus distinguish between what appears to be one river but is actually two rivers flowing in opposite directions with headwaters too close to distinguish a break if we were using conventional two-dimensional maps. The absence of precise determination of altitudes in two-dimensional maps makes it impossible to make this determination
2. Viewing a location in three dimensions from different angles and elevations gives an appreciation of the overall area and its surroundings that would require extensive travel on foot or expensive aerial support. This feature is of particular importance when we are looking for locations that have multiple entrance and exit points, such as the description of General Moroni’s battle with the Lamanites described in Alma 43:31–50.
3. From a view of an extended area, we can zoom in on a location of interest, increase the detail, examine it from different points of view, and record details of interest—all within minutes while sitting at our computer.
The image that follows is one I created while using three-dimensional imaging to investigate all Mesoamerican possibilities for the locations of the hill Ramah/Cumorah and the hill Shim. This image shows the territory near Misantla, Veracruz, Mexico.
With all these capabilities, we might expect to pay a premium price for the program. That’s not so, however. The software is free. The only cost is our time to download it from the Google site, http://earth.google.com/intl/en_US/download-earth.html, and then learn to use the simple interface and mouse controls. These processes are made even easier if we will access the user’s guide at the following URL: http://earth.google.com/support/bin/static.py?page=guide_toc.cs
Any mapping system is useful only when used in conjunction with careful study and analysis of the geographic information found in the text of the Book of Mormon. I have been using three-dimensional maps to search for geographic features for almost fifteen years, and only recently—within the past two weeks—have I discovered Mesoamerican geographic features that truly match the description for the hill Ramah/Cumorah and hill Shim as found in the book of Ether. We of course must always face the possibility that more than one feature matches the text. When this happens, we must review our analysis of the text and see if other scriptures might refine the description of the feature and lead to elimination of one or more of the similar features.
Based on the Mesoamerican model, an example of what I’m saying is that we can find more than one north-flowing river that empties into the ocean and that might be the river Sidon. To eliminate some of the possibilities, we may have to incorporate all the available information that pertains to a complete description of the river Sidon. This process includes not only scriptures that mention the Sidon by name but also any other geographic features that are mentioned as being near to or related to the river Sidon. One example that is often overlooked is the nature and elevation of the lands through which the river flows. To obtain this type of information, we must realize that three-dimensional maps are an absolute necessity.
Finally, we may need to return to our analysis and interpretation of the text and look for alternate interpretations. One example is the definition of Ripliancum as “large to exceed all.” One interpretation might be that it refers to a large body of water, such as an ocean or a large inland sea. An alternate definition is that it may refer to an area of many waters or rivers, some of which are “large, to exceed all.” The definition we use will probably confirm one feature as the best fit and eliminate other possibilities.
In conclusion, the use of three-dimensional mapping programs can greatly enhance our ability to find features that fit the descriptions found in the text, provide a sound basis for any proposal for the identification of Book of Mormon locations, and extend our understanding of the Book of Mormon as a great gift that God has given us through the efforts and faithfulness of the Prophet Joseph Smith.