URI researcher to use satellite remote sensing to study changing ecology Appalachian Trail

KINGSTON, R.I. – October 29, 2009 – A University of Rhode Island researcher will lead a team of scientists from seven government agencies and public and private institutions to monitor the changing ecological conditions along the entire length of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

Yeqiao Wang, a URI professor of terrestrial remote sensing, will use data collected by satellites to assess the historical and current ecosystem conditions and forecast future conditions in order to provide proper management of the 2,175-mile trail. The project is being funded by a four-year, $1.15 million grant from NASA’s Earth Science Division.

“Climate change, human developments and agriculture are all having an impact on the environment along the Appalachian Trail,” said Wang. “It is important that we protect this resource for recreation, biodiversity and the water resources it holds.”

The Appalachian Trail runs from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. Along the way it crosses 14 states and intersects with eight national forests, six units of the National Park System, more than 70 state parks, forests and game management units, and 287 local jurisdictions. The trail and its surrounding 250,000 acres of protected lands harbor forests with some of the greatest biological diversity in the country.

Wang said that remote sensing of the trail using satellite data is the most effective way of learning about the large-scale changes taking place up and down the trail. He noted that the trail’s north-south alignment represents a cross-section of the eastern United States forests and alpine areas, making it an ideal setting for collecting scientifically valid and relevant data for early detection of undesirable changes to the region’s natural resources.

“With studies conducted on the ground you can clearly see a tree but you can’t see the whole forest,” he said. “And you certainly cannot learn much about the phenology and dynamics of the whole system without using satellite data.”

According to Wang, satellites can provide a wide range of spectral information, such as electromagnetic radiation and energy levels reflected by the landscape, as well as information beyond the range of human visibility, like infrared and thermal images that provide insight into soil moisture levels and transpiration.

“It really extends the human power of environmental monitoring,” said Wang.

The satellite data will be combined with ground monitoring information to build prediction models through facilities at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The results can be used by decision makers to appropriately manage the trail’s natural resources.

In addition, an Internet-based system will be created to enable the public to share information and create visual models to better understand the impacts of changes to the Appalachian environment.

In addition to Wang and colleagues at URI, other collaborating institutions include the NASA Ames Research Center, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the State University of New York at Syracuse, and partners in the Appalachian Trail MEGA-Transect monitoring program.