From The Ground Up

Bill Hicks explains how he uses TopoMorpher, a computer program designed by Michel Vannier in Ashland, to create stereo 3D images of aerial topography. Mail Tribune / Jim CravenJim Craven

Using the TopoMorpher software invented by Michel Vannier of Ashland, geology consultant Bill Hicks has devised ways to better identify geological faults and use that data to pick sites for water wells — since water flows abundantly at fault lines.

The $3,500 TopoMorpher software integrates existing government topographical contour maps and aerial photographs and provides a three-dimensional button (you have to put on 3-D glasses then) so you can more easily see where fault lines make their way across this region's twisted mountainscape, explains Hicks, who lives in Ashland.

How to get in touch

B.G. Hicks can be reached at or 541-482-8451. Michel Vannier can be reached at

Combining geological mapping, aerial photos and 3-D enables viewing of "derived faults, shear zones and structure, plus, if needed, additional data layers, such as springs, drainage systems or watersheds and geochemical data that can allow full evaluation of the groundwater potential," Hicks says.

The software also helps in calculating potential for groundwater recharge of wells, he says.

A certified engineering geologist, Hicks also uses the program to find potential landslide areas. He does it by exaggerating the elevation, with color-coding or shading that clearly shows the steep part, another push-button feature of the software.

The steep part is the most likely to have a landslide, so he tells clients these aren't the best places to build roads. The tool is especially useful in this area's unstable granitic soils, he adds, and a slope of over 35 degrees is considered unstable.

"The 3-D views of actual debris landslide terrain allow stability interpretations not commonly or ever available as clearly with other methods of viewing," he says.

Vannier says, "TopoMorpher can display either a photo (aerial, satellite), or a map, or classes of slopes, or the faint changes of slope, or the quantity of runoff water, or the path of water along the topography, or the limits of a watershed, all in stereo 3-D."

His company, Eighteen Software LLC, commercialized another geology software program called HawkEye in the 1990s and used it to teach plate tectonics in schools, with audio, animation and simulations, like the opening of a rift. TopoMorpher in 2000 evolved out of that program and is used by universities and professionals in geomorphology, hydrogeology and landslide science.

"Bill is a wonderful observer of the ground, and I try to encapsulate his experience and tricks of the trade," Vannier says. "I spent time in the field discussing specific problems with Bill. When a new idea appears and when a new tool is devised, that is, an addition to TopoMorpher, Bill becomes the beta tester: Does that tool have bugs? Does it help? What could be done to better it?"

The two men developed a relationship 17 years ago, when Vannier was at Southern Oregon University, on sabbatical from work on NASA satellite imagery.

Sitting in his study, Hicks, wearing 3-D glasses, demonstrates how he can digitally "fly" over the familiar terrain of our region, showing fault traces in the mountains around Mount Ashland — even turning the mountains upside down, so you can look for faults and other features from "underground."

The 3-D feature of viewing digital landscape is what makes it unique, he says. It also has the advantage that digital data is only about the terrain, so you're looking at land without any obscuring trees or buildings.

"This interaction (between engineer and software developer) emphasized how the digital imagery could add dimensions, accuracy and clarity to my detailed analyses that had never been done before, at all," Hicks says.

Hicks presented his tool at the Geological Society of America at its annual meeting in Portland; the Association of Environmental and Engineering Geology at Lake Tahoe, Nevada; the Oregon Academy of Sciences, at University of Western Oregon, in Monmouth; and the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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