Uncharted Caves of Kyrgyzstan
A team of scientists and storytellers work to survey and protect one of the most remote mountain ranges on earth, and to find the uncharted caves of Kyrgyzstan.
This is the story of how we are beginning to use a completely new way of exploration, using smart technology to our advantage in extremely remote and difficult terrain. Working together across disciplines, we are able to capture huge areas of wilderness in full 3D – meaning we can bring a small part of the planet with us back home for further analysis.
These assets proved invaluable in our expedition team’s search for new caves, and provided us a possibility to analyze huge chunks of wilderness in real-time during the expedition.
Kyrgyzstan, Land of Horses
The mountain range of the Tian Shan extends throughout Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China. Our project location, in the southeastern part of Kyrgyzstan, consists of an arid highland plateau broken of by jagged valleys where the rivers have carved through the soft limestone.
This is a hard place to explore, mostly because of the really tricky terrain that doesn’t allow for most vehicles. While we used large terrain trucks to move about the region, we often had to resort to simpled modes of travel – including packrafting and most of all horses.
There’s a reason kids in this region grow up on horseback.
A new way to explore
At the time of our project and expedition, there was extremely limited information available about the terrain and geology of this area of Kyrgyzstan and the Tian Shan. A few similar expeditions had tried to survey this location in the past, but the only official maps and documents available were maps from the Soviet era.
This meant we simply had to start from scratch in many ways, as most of the available data regarding terrain complexity was just based on very limited satellite information.
Photogrammetry, maps and 3D-models
One of our key goals of the expedition was to prototype and execute a new way of doing aerial surveys of complicated terrain to help us find new caves. Without aerial surveys our team would be left to simply hiking the land to look for caves – which isn’t particulary effective and demands a lot of time. We were sure we could improve this by a tenfold, and we were successful in that regard.
By using camera drones and a process called photogrammetry our team was able to capture enough images to create 3D-models in realtime from our basecamp tent during the expedition. After returning back to camp every day with new images, we were able to process 3D-models that slowly helped us build out complete terrain models of our full survey area.
These models are huge in scope, and can be used in both complex scientific softwares to analyze the terrain and simpler formats where users can “walk through the story” in virtual reality.
Finding new caves in Tian Shan
Througout our expedition, the team was able to continually review the 3D-models made by photogrammetry in the field and analyze potential cave openings. This was an immense help in choosing between interesting openings and for planning how to access them – a process often involving complicated rappel or climbing.
Throughout the expedition, we made 130 individual drone flights, flying over 220km to manually survey and area of approximately 50km2 (with varying degrees of manual inspection). Our drones spent almost a full 24 hours in the air during the expedition, and we captured over 12500 images that helped us identify cave openings as well as create detailed 3D models of several interesting “hot-spots” of caves in the area.
We were able to map 46 new possible cave openings, out of which 11 turned out to be actual caves confirmed by us. Out of 46 cave openings, we found 36 by drone (compared to 10 found by walking or riding). This means 78% of the cave openings were found by a drone, proving it to be a much more effective workflow for discovering openings in the terrain.
After our expedition team left the area, 19 of the cave openings we found still remain unexplored – and we know there are countless more to be found close to our project location.
This also proves what an incredibly under-researched area this is, as every single cave we set foot in had most probably never been accessed by humans before (at least not in any recorded history we had been able to find).
Protecting the land
A core part of the Uncharted Caves of Kyrgyzstan project is to help the Kyrgyz Foundation for the Preservation and Exploration of Caves to establish a geopark in this region. The region of Kok-Kiya has been on their list of need for protection for a long time, but earlier efforts have not proved to be successful yet. The question of environmental preservation is not on the political map or a subject of debate in Kyrgyzstan and Kok-Kiya is an area of potential interest for exploitation.
Apart from attention from the public, a dedicated effort to influence politicians is also crucial to the process of establishing a geopark. Our project brought back much more knowledge of the area and thereby more arguments for the importance of protecting this land – something our team is already at work with.
Stay tuned for more from this project in 2021.
The Expedition team
Dr. Katja Adolphson, Expedition leader
Dr. Alexey Dudashvili, Geology leader
Martin Edström, drone team lead
Mats Kahlström, drone pilot
Maria Eriksen, drone team
Oliver Akermo, videographer and DoP
Cecilio Lopez Tercero, Team leader
Photogrammetry and 3D-modeling
Oliver Akermo, IVAR Studios
Julian Schenini, IVAR Studios
Fredrik Edström, IVAR Studios