Mapping Plant Stress With Remote Sensing

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The Amazon rainforest is a fascinating mix of plants, animals, watersheds, and weather patterns that only occur in that specific location. The dense vegetation of the rainforest made it difficult to study for many years. With current satellite technology, scientists can now see into the different layers of the forest to conduct their research while still relying on data collected by researchers in the field.

Detecting Amazonian Plant Stress

Although the Amazon certainly does take up a large area, it isn’t invulnerable to climate change. Human and natural activities have had a dramatic influence on this place, which is also known as the lungs of the planet. Deforestation has been caused by logging, deliberate setting of forest fires, and fires exacerbated by the symptoms of climate change. Researchers are now able to use satellites not only to track the destruction of the rainforest, but to detect plant stress in these areas, too.

Detecting and mapping plant stress can allow scientists and conservationists to see what vegetated areas are vulnerable to forest fires and other hazards caused by nature. Scientists are now able to detect plant stress before the plant shows physical damage, at which point it may be too late to save them.

NASA’s ECOSTRESS

NASA has attached a monitor on the side of the International Space Station that is able to track temperature changes in vegetation using a radiometer. The system is known as ECOsystems Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station, or ECOSTRESS. The radiometer detects changes in evapotranspiration of plants. Evapotranspiration is the amount of water that a plant releases to keep cool. Plants in harsh, hot conditions will release less water because they are trying to keep themselves cool; plants in water-abundant areas will be able to release more water vapor because they have a ready source of water available to them. Excess heat and too little precipitation can affect plant evapotranspiration rates.


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Map showing the evaporative stress in part of the study area in the western Amazon rainforest as measured by ECOSTRESS from August 19-26, 2019.  Image/map: Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and evaporative stress data from the ECOSTRESS team.

Map showing the evaporative stress in part of the study area in the western Amazon rainforest as measured by ECOSTRESS from August 19-26, 2019. Image/map: Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and evaporative stress data from the ECOSTRESS team.

The thermal infrared energy that is emitted by the plants is received by the radiometer. This data can be used to show areas of the rainforest that are drier than usual, and may be susceptible to forest fires. Additionally, the data can be used to show how plants are reacting to higher global temperatures and climate change. Already the data gathered has pinpointed areas of high plant stress that were affected by fires in the Amazon; however, it is still unclear as to whether the forest fires caused the plant stress or if that was there prior to the fires.

There is still a lot we have to discover about why certain plant species are more resilient than others. This data continues to show that there are many ways we can view the world around us, and that there are many complexities of plants that still have yet to be discovered.

Reference

Samuelson, Arielle, Carlowicz, Mike. 18 August 2019. Retrieved from https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/145823/detecting-invisible-plant-stress

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