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Viewing ecosystems from above

The role of space -- based observations on global ecological studies

“New technology and global observations have improved resource-management decision making from disaster detection and mitigation of fires, insect outbreaks, storms, and floods, to agricultural management and basic ecological research,” says Dennis Ojima (Colorado State University).

Our first views of Earth from space remind us that the planet is an integrated system of organisms, water, land, and atmosphere. These views have helped scientists observe Earth across continents, through oceans, and gain a better understanding of ecological systems at multiple levels. In symposium 9, to be held at the Ecological Society of America Annual meeting, scientists will discuss current research practices involving remote sensing (use of satellites, airplanes, and other distance-related technologies).

Technology Michael Lefsky (Colorado State University) will open the symposium with a talk about the use of airborne and satellite-based laser technologies (lidar). Lidar instruments directly sense vertical structure by recording the “echo” from laser pulses reflecting off vegetation and ground surfaces.

Satellites provide synoptic views with the potential to make repeat observations. Yet the technology, according to Susan Ustin (University of California, Davis), is limited by today’s spatial and spectral resolutions and their fixed overpass schedules, often limiting the use of satellite data for ecological studies. In her presentation, Ustin will provide insight on the uses of and instruments available for aircraft observations. According to her, high fidelity imaging spectroscopy and small footprint lidar, are two new technologies that provide essential information needed to characterize landscape dynamics. She will discuss the types of landscapes that are measurable using those instruments and examine how ecosystem functions related to biogeochemical cycling and landscape dynamics can be quantified.

Gregory Asner (Carnegie Institution) will focus on recent progress in ecological and remote sensing science, and how this has opened up new research opportunities in regional studies.

Studies Many African countries have adopted national plans for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management, but often lack basic information on the rates and extent of environmental change. According to Nadine Laporte (Woods Hole Research Center), space-based earth monitoring technologies can provide detailed analyses of the state of tropical ecosystems. Laporte will discuss two projects designed and adopted to conservation and forest management in the talk, “Remote sensing tools for conservation policy: INFORMS and PAWAR.” The Integrated Forest Monitoring System for Central Africa (INFORMS) is focused on Africa’s entire tropical forest region, while Protected Area Watch in the Albertine Riff (PAWAR) focuses on the greater Albertine ecosystem, which extends across 330,000 kilometers of six countries. Laporte will focus on management decisions as they relate to African tropical biodiversity and associated economic activities in these regions.

The migration of large mammals over large distances is a prominent yet threatened occurrence. Using remote sensing and landscape modeling, researchers can describe and predict major landscape changes that may affect these migrations. In “Landscape analysis and ungulate movement in the Greater Yellowstone Region,” Fred Watson (California Stare University, Monterey Bay) will describe research done on bison in Yellowstone National Park.

Future directions Based on the recent National Research Council report, “Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperative for the Next Decade and Beyond,” David Schimel’s (National Center for Atmospheric Research) talk will discuss the impacts of recommended space missions from this Decadal Survey.

“These new missions will revolutionize ecology from space, but will also challenge the theory, algorithms and models the community now uses to analyze space-based data,” says Schimel.

Annie Drinkard | EurekAlert!
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