In response to one of the worst wildfires in Colorado history, scientists from the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University are leading a first of its kind, large-scale wildfire impact study on the High Park Fire in partnership with Colorado’s newest research facility, the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).
The study will provide critical data to the communities still grappling with how to respond to major water quality, erosion and ecosystem restoration issues in an area spanning more than 136 square miles.
Supported by a National Science Foundation RAPID grant, the collaboration will integrate airborne remote sensing data collected by NEON’s Airborne Observation Platform (AOP) with ground-based data from a targeted field campaign conducted by CSU researchers. This is the first time a comprehensive airborne remote sensing system of this caliber will be used to enhance research on wildfire causes and impacts. The system will be able to detect remaining vegetation, identify plant species, ash cover, soil properties and other details to help illustrate how the fire burned — over the span of the entire fire scar.
“The NEON Airborne Observatory is transforming research by providing data to researchers and resource managers at temporal and geographic scales that could not previously be captured,” says Elizabeth Blood, NSF program director for NEON. “By combining ground measurements with data gathered from cutting-edge instruments in NEON airplanes, scientists are gathering potentially pivotal information about small scale and large scale processes that affect the spread of fires through forests and subsequent forest recovery.
NEON will be to ecological health what an EKG is to heart health. Like an EKG generates snapshots of heart health by measuring heart activity at strategic locations on a patient’s body, NEON will generate snapshots of ecosystem health by measuring ecological activity at strategic locations throughout the U.S. Resulting ecological data will enable scientists to generate the first apples-to-apples comparisons of ecosystem health throughout large regions of the U.S. and the entire country over multiple decades.
Some of NEON’s data collection and educational operations have already begun, and others will begin incrementally until NEON becomes fully functional in 2017.
All of NEON’s data, synthesized data products and associated educational materials will be made freely available on the Internet. These materials will thereby provide grist for groundbreaking analyses and educational activities by researchers, students, decision-makers, educators and the public.