Border controls, nonessential traffic, travel bans—the elements associated with unauthorized immigration just became more complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries are shutting down their borders, but humans are still on the move.

This post is the first in a series where we explore the intersection of terrain, the movement of people, and 3D data. In this piece, we’re exploring the role of terrain in population migration, starting with the southern U.S. border.

In southern Arizona, extreme heat, lack of resources, dangerous wildlife, and drug cartels make the Sonoran Desert one of the deadliest places to illegally cross into America. And within the Sonoran Desert, the Growler Valley is one of the worst. Migrants take this route because it is desolate, and they hope to evade Border Patrol at the Lukeville, Arizona, point of entry. The terrain also has natural paths created by dry river beds and canyon floors.

The terrain of this section of The Sonoran Desert is divided by several rocky spines of mountains. When we analyze the 3D aspect of the terrain, migrant movement can be better predicted. The mountains’ shape and location naturally funnel groups of migrants—and drug-smugglers or human-traffickers—onto certain paths. Groups of people tend to move in the flatlands at night and take shelter in the mountains during the day, to avoid capture and the oppressive heat.

We can apply this type of terrain analysis to other places around the world, using Vricon 3D and digital elevation models to predict the path of least resistance for migration.

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