It’s become a destructive cycle in the western U.S.: Warmer temperatures and drought conditions prolong the life cycle of mountain pine beetles, allowing them to prey on the pine, spruce and fir trees that blanket the mountains.
The trees turn reddish-brown before dying off–a phenomenon the National Park Service deemed “an epidemic stretching from Canada to Mexico.” There’s widespread concern that such tree mortality creates an excellent fuel source for wildfires.
Until recently, scientists were left to survey the damage from the ground, with little ability to understand the causes and processes. But now new technology is enabling them to use satellite imagery to identify the sources of small, ecosystem-altering events–some of which, for example beetle outbreaks, are related to climate change drivers.
A computer program called LandTrendr, developed by Boston University Earth and Environment professor Robert Kennedy, allows scientists to combine data they collect on the ground with satellite imagery from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and NASA to get a better understanding of environmental disturbances.
Since 1972, NASA and the USGS have deployed satellites that snap specialized digital photographs of Earth’s landscapes. They’re able to capture details that exist in wavelengths invisible to the human eye, including those slightly longer than visible light called the near infrared. Healthy plants reflect energy in the near infrared, and by scanning the imagery, scientists can detect disruptions in Earth’s landscapes.
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