UNL researchers collect images before oil reaches Gulf coast


UNL's involvement in a national research project expanded in the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Members of UNL's Center for Advanced Land Management Information Technologies (CALMIT) were in Mississippi in early May collecting data before the oil slick reached the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. The project is part of a federal undertaking funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Environmental Cooperative Science Center.

"We are collecting and analyzing vegetation data for all of the national estuary reserves," said Rick Perk, an assistant geoscientist with CALMIT. "We were scheduled to do this at the end of May, but events in the gulf pushed it up so we have another set of pre-oil slick images."

Perk and pilot Bob Moser used a Piper Saratoga airplane fitted with a specialized imager to fly over and record data of the reserve. A graduate student, Paul Merani, worked on the land and sea to collect additional data in the area.

Perk said the hyperspectral imager in the plane collects 63 discrete bands of data - from visible to near-infrared portions of the spectrum. He extrapolates the data in to maps that showcase the kinds and condition of vegetation in an area.

"At Grand Bay, we are specifically looking for species identification and the number of species in the area," Perk said. "We are here to document the species in Grand Bay now. And, we'll come back in the future to do further analysis to see how this area has been affected."

The CALMIT air-based remote sensing program started in 2000 when a National Science Foundation grant allowed for the airplane purchase. A NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grant provided funds for the airborne sensor system. The UNL program is called the CALMIT Hyperspectral Aerial Monitoring Program, or CHAMP.

Through an ongoing collaboration with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, CHAMP is involved with monitoring Nebraska lakes. The airborne imagery allows for accurate and detailed analysis of the toxic algae levels throughout every square meter of the lake system and eliminates the need for additional ground data collection. CHAMP has also been involved in similar efforts at Lake Minnetonka in Minneapolis, the Choptank River near Easton, Md., and three lakes in the greater Indianapolis area.

Other work has included monitoring invasive species along coastal and inland waterways, carbon sequestration, wheat streak mosaic virus and evapotranspiration related to cropping systems and riparian areas.

Perk estimated that it took 18 passes and about six hours to complete the scans of the Grand Bay estuary, which he conducted May 4-5.

"We thought we could see the oil slick when we were up in the air (on May 4)," Perk said by phone from the gulf. "It was only a mile or two from the barrier islands just south of Grand Bay."

Perk said, for the most part, the oil has stayed away from the Grand Bay area.

CALMIT has been involved with NOAA's National Estuarine Research Reserves initiative for six years. The project includes 30 reserve areas in 22 coastal states and Puerto Rico. The reserves serve as living laboratories to support coastal research and long-term monitoring, and to provide facilities for on-site staff, visiting scientists and graduate students. They also serve as reference sites for comparative studies on coastal topics such as ecosystem dynamics, human influences on estuarine systems, habitat conservation and restoration, species management, and social science.

The Grand Bay Reserve is one of the most biologically productive estuarine ecosystems in the northern Gulf of Mexico and includes part of the Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Located between Pascagoula, Miss., and the Alabama state line, the reserve's habitats support rare and endangered plant and animal species, important marine fisheries and archeological sites. The 18,400 acre reserve encompasses black needle rush marshes, maritime pine forests, pine savanna, salt pans, and pitcher plant bogs. Sea turtles, bottlenose dolphin and manatees can be found in the deeper waters of the reserve. Many species of carnivorous plants and orchids are present in the higher savanna habitats. Its productive oyster reefs and seagrass beds serve as nursery areas for important marine species, such as shrimp, blue crab, speckled trout and red fish. The Nature Conservancy has dedicated the area as one of its "Last Great Places in America."

- By Troy Fedderson | University Communications

More details at: http://go.unl.edu/573