UAH Earth system science major helps map, preserve wetlands in Rwanda

Alex McVey

UAH junior Alex McVey spent the summer in the NASA-UAH DEVELOP lab, using satellites to map wetlands in Rwanda.

Phil Gentry | UAH

For tiny, overcrowded Rwanda, preserving its ecologically important wetlands is a big challenge, made more challenging by the lack of reliable maps. How can you protect what you have in the future if you don’t know what you have in the present?

A team in the NASA-UAH DEVELOP lab in Huntsville is using satellite sensors to help Rwanda get a reliable inventory of its wetland resources, plus developing tools it can use to track how that area shrinks or grows in the future. Alex McVey, a senior majoring in Earth system science at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (AUH), was the project lead this summer for DEVELOP’s Rwanda ecological forecasting project.

"Our goal was to map the extent of wetlands and to create a map of its past extent, so they can forecast changes and analyze degradation as land is changed to meet more agricultural needs," says McVey, who has served as intern with DEVELOP for the last three semesters. "That way they can allocate resources to save the wetlands, because they are such a critical ecosystem."

rwanda map

McVey says about 11 percent of Rwanda is covered in wetlands at present. The DEVELOP team is working with an environmental group based in Germany to help Rwanda come up with a plan for meeting its UN-set goals for sustainable development. That can be a challenge in a country that has almost 13 million people living in a space less than one-fifth the size of Alabama.

During the summer, the team used images from two Landsat satellites to create past and present maps of Rwandan wetlands. "We used to a mostly visual classification approach," says McVey, who had no previous experience with geospatial information systems. "We created a repository of what an area should look like, which parts are grasslands or agriculture or wetlands. We told the computer, and it generated a map. It was pretty fun."

The next group assigned to this project will use satellite-based radar to produce accurate maps of current conditions. "With synthetic-aperture radar you can see the water on the ground, which is what you would like to do," he says. "It's pretty interesting."

A native of Camden County, Georgia, McVey spent much of the past spring getting up early so he could help a team of students prepare weather forecasts and nowcasts for a NASA research aircraft flying missions to study lightning and severe weather over the Southeast. "That was exciting, even if it did mean getting to campus at 6 o'clock every morning," he says. "I got to meet a lot of cool guys doing that."


Department of Atmospheric Science


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