ISU Magazine

Volume 41 | Number 2 | Spring/Summer 2011

Remote Sensing

A Contribution From Above

Spring 2011 Issue | By Chris Gabettas

Inside the Boise Center Aerospace Laboratory in downtown Boise, Idaho State University researchers are monitoring the effects of climate change in Idaho.

They're poring over vast amounts of data gathered by remote-sensing technologies-the use of sophisticated sensors or cameras that photograph the Earth's surface from satellites, airplanes and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

"Remote sensing is ideally suited for monitoring the effects of a changing climate," said BCAL director and ISU geosciences research professor, Nancy Glenn. BCAL, established in 2004, is southern Idaho's only remote-sensing laboratory.

Remote sensing is like taking a DNA fingerprint of the Earth's surface without touching it, says Glenn. Thanks to the technology, scientists can monitor changes in glaciers, wetlands, vegetation, soil distribution and greenhouse gas emissions over lengthy periods of time.

NASA-the National Aeronautics and Space Administration-has compiled 30 to 40 years of remotesensing imagery in a public database, an invaluable resource to Glenn and her team. Because satellites are collecting the same information over and over, scientists have the opportunity to obtain a consistent and unbiased view of the data, she explained.

In recent years, Glenn and geosciences research assistant professor, Teki Sankey, along with scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service, are using remote-sensing technology to study the effects of climate change on vegetation in the Reynolds Creek Watershed southwest of Nampa.

Ultimately, they'd like to develop methods using NASA satellites to monitor the change in vegetation biomass- the amount of living matter-over large areas of the western United States.

"In Idaho, we are concerned how climate change affects vegetation, habitat and water availability, so we are developing quantitative methods to monitor these changes," Glenn said.

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Glenn's postdoctoral student, Jessica Mitchell, is using remote sensing to map sagebrush distribution in portions of the vast Idaho National Laboratory site in eastern Idaho, a vibrant habitat for mule deer, grouse, pygmy rabbits and antelope.

Mitchell and her INL research team are mounting hyperspectral sensors on UAVs that weigh about 80 pounds and fly 1,000 to 3,000 feet above the ground.

"We're looking at nitrogen in sagebrush to determine the nutritional status of the vegetation. Typically, the more nitrogen you have, the healthier the patches of sagebrush, which indicates a better quality habitat for wildlife," said Mitchell. That kind of information is useful to land managers who want to protect rich wildlife habitats.

Glenn and Mitchell view their research as tools that can help public and private agencies, the corporate and agricultural communities, and recreationists manage lands effectively in the face of a changing climate.

"We want to provide data and information that will help them make the right decisions," said Glenn.