S.D. Researchers Track Rain Forest Biodiversity

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is paying researchers on the cool prairies of South Dakota to help track biodiversity in the steamy rain forests of the Brazilian Amazon.

Mark Cochrane, a professor in South Dakota State University's Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence (GIScE), said much of the work relies on interpreting satellite imagery, one of the strengths of the center. Cochrane and his colleagues are mapping three specific kinds of forest disturbances in the Amazon: fragmentation of the forest into smaller parcels, logging, and fires.

In addition, Cochrane has two doctoral students on the ground in Brazil performing survey work to determine how certain indicator taxa, or groups of organisms, are affected in those disturbed forest areas compared to undisturbed areas.

NASA is funding the three-year project with a grant of about $1.1 million, of which $83,104 is a subcontract to Hobart and Smith Colleges. The SDSU component of the study is just over $1 million.

"Basically what we're looking at is the biodiversity effects of human land use in the Brazilian Amazon," Cochrane said. "Typically when we've looked at the Amazon for, say, the last three decades, we've all heard about slash/burn deforestation.

"And yes, there has been a lot of deforestation in the Amazon. About 17 percent of it has been cleared.

"But what people don't appreciate is that an equal amount of forest, or potentially even more, has been impacted in other ways."

Brazil is taking important steps to protect its rain forests, Cochrane said, but the task of simply mapping forest disturbance is enormous.

The international study involves not only SDSU, but also researchers in Brazil and at other universities in the United States and United Kingdom. Working together, scientists will analyze more than 2,000 satellite images from two different satellite systems -- Landsat and MODIS -- to map different types of forest disturbance.

To do that, researchers will rely, in part, on methods they've developed themselves. For example, fires in the Amazon rain forest -- many of which are set by man to clear forest or maintain clearings -- are anything but spectacular. Since a single pixel of a Landsat satellite image carries information about a land area that is 30 meters to a side, it requires careful analysis of those images to detect such damage, Cochrane said.

The initial analysis of Landsat imagery is made by colleagues in Brazil, where collaborators on the project include Carlos Souza Jr., director of Imazon, the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment. Other collaborators in Brazil include the Federal University of Lavras and the Emilio Goeldi Museum.

Jos Barlow of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom also collaborates in tracking the biodiversity impacts of fire disturbance. Assistant professor Eugenio Arima of Hobart and William Smith Colleges is contributing research about socio-economic forces that play a role in forest disturbance.