Alaska wildfires and Iowa droughts topics for NASA DEVELOP presentations

Iowa Agriculture & Food Security team members present their research findings.

Michael Mercier | UAH

Three students and one alumna at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) recently made presentations to NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) officials regarding their research as part of the UAH-hosted MSFC node of NASA DEVELOP.

DEVELOP is a capacity building program within the NASA Applied Sciences Program that offers short-term research opportunities to students, recent grads and early career professionals.

UAH Earth system science students Christine Evans, Ryan Marshman and Abigail Whiteside, and biology alumna Brittany Greene made the presentations.

Alaska Disasters team

Evans and Marshman discussed how the Alaska Disasters project team used remotely sensed data to observe vegetation and moisture changes in affected areas before and after wildfires.

The team obtained data from the Aqua Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), Terra MODIS, Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-20 (NOAA-20) VIIRS from April through September of 2004, 2005, 2015 and 2018.

Using the Atmosphere-Land Exchange Inverse (ALEXI) Evaporative Stress Index (ESI) generated by the NASA Short-term Prediction Research and Transition Center (SPoRT), the team determined if ALEXI ESI provided officials with additional lead-time on the evaluation of vegetation stress. The team then compared the utility of the ALEXI ESI to the Canadian Fire Weather Index (FWI) to evaluate the benefit of using ALEXI ESI in conjunction with current decision-making processes in Alaska.

Alaska’s wildfire season has progressively increased in duration and intensity over the last decade, leaving forested areas subject to devastating destruction. With these results, the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center (AICC) and Alaska Fire Science Consortium (AFSC) are able to make better-informed decisions when determining fire management techniques and assessing the risk of future wildfire outbreaks.

Iowa Agriculture & Food Security team

Whiteside and Greene compared their Iowa Agriculture & Food Security team’s new drought prediction techniques to other methods used to determine drought.

The team gathered remote sensing data from the International Space Station (ISS) ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on the Space Station (ECOSTRESS) Evaporative Stress Index (ESI), Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) and Landsat 8 Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) to determine the feasibility of detecting droughts sooner.

The team compared its new techniques with existing methodologies to determine if NASA Earth observations can enhance the procedures used by the Iowa Climatology Bureau (ICB) in the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) to analyze drought and alert decision makers of emergency situations.

The team also completed a crop vulnerability assessment to determine areas in which corn and soybeans are more sensitive to water shortage. The ICB will be able to use these tools to supplement its current drought-tracking methods in Iowa, which dedicates 92 percent of its land to agriculture.

"It never ceases to amaze me, the amount of work the DEVELOP participants accomplish in 10 weeks," says Dr. Jeffrey Luvall, a NASA senior research scientist and MSFC NASA DEVELOP science mentor. "Many of the participants do not have a background in remote sensing or Geospatial Information Systems."

The students’ projects demonstrate the value of NASA remote sensing data products and models in providing another set of tools resource managers can utilize for making decisions, Dr. Luvall says.

"Oftentimes, these projects provide a unique perspective on challenges faced by managers," he says. "In addition, I have seen participants utilize these skills later as they move into their professional careers."

The NASA DEVELOP program is a terrific opportunity for UAH students to be involved in research, says Dr. Robert Griffin, associate professor in atmospheric science and DEVELOP science advisor at UAH.

"The projects are conceived, designed and completed by participants, so the program is designed to put them in the driver’s seat and learn the whole process of applied science," Dr. Griffin says.

"We certainly have a lot of Earth System Science and Geographic Information System (GIS) and Remote Sensing students apply, but we have brought on students from across many departments at UAH, from the College of Engineering to departments as wide-ranging as biology, art history and political science."

Since 2008, DEVELOP participants have worked with science advisors at UAH and NASA to create project ideas.

"These projects can be as diverse as identifying forest fires in Alaska to studying manatee habitats in the Gulf of Mexico," Dr. Griffin says.

"DEVELOP conducts projects during the fall, spring and summer," he says. "Once the application window opens for the term, applicants from around the country are able to view project opportunities and apply to the program."

Project terms are 10 weeks long and during that time groups of students and recent graduates learn about NASA and about GIS and satellite remote sensing. They conduct data analysis, develop end products and participate in professional development activities.

"At the end of the term, they present their group projects to NASA and UAH researchers here on campus, " Dr. Griffin says. "It’s a holistic approach to student development and a terrific asset to the community of young scholars here at UAH."


Dr. Robert Griffin

Jim Steele