NASA Satellite Technology Helps Fight Invasive Plant Species

If you’ve spent much time on rivers in the Southwest, you know that tamarisk (also known as saltcedar) is a much-hated invasive species– and a threat to the region’s water supply.

Introduced from Eurasia in the early 1900s as an ornamental and erosion-control shrub, it has since spread through most of the Southwest’s riverways (and as far east as Minnesota), choking out native species and crowding out the good cottonwood-shaded beaches that river rafters favor. As well:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently identified saltcedar as one of the most harmful invasive species in the United States, because the plant’s long roots tap into underground aquifers. Its groundwater absorbing qualities may be adding to the severity of the drought in the western United States. Saltcedar also increases the salt concentration of the soil and degrades habitats for native species along river systems.

But even low-tech ecological conundrums can be aided by satellite technology. NASA reports:

Products based on NASA Earth observations and a new Internet-based decision tool are providing information to help land and water managers combat tamarisk (saltcedar)… This decision tool, called the Invasive Species Forecasting System (ISFS), is being used at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Institute of Invasive Species Science in Fort Collins, Colo. It is the result of combining USGS science and NASA Earth observations, software engineering and high-performance computing expertise….. The ISFS uses observations and science data products from NASA’s Terra, Aqua and Earth Observing-1 satellites and the USGS-operated Landsat satellites, together with field data from government and non-government contributors. The satellites observe and measure sunlight reflected by plants and their environments. The satellites lock in on unique aspects of the reflected light to determine saltcedar’s locations and habitats vulnerable to invasion. During the plant’s blooming season, ISFS-generated maps predicting locations match observations of it in the field. These predictive maps are an important new tool for land managers involved with saltcedar-related control and restoration efforts. "Satellite data coupled with computer modeling helps us understand where saltcedar is likely to be growing, even in remote locations that field researchers cannot easily reach," said John Schnase, principal investigator of the ISFS project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.