NASA funds UD-led research on carbon dynamics in Mexico

October 8, 2013 under CANR News

Rodrgio Vargas works with NASA on REDD+ activitiesWorking with a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grant, University of Delaware researcher Rodrigo Vargas is collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service and multiple institutions in Mexico to provide information to support implementation of the international program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) by improving forest management, carbon stock enhancement and conservation.

It has been estimated that greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation around the world may contribute up to 20 percent of global emissions. A key REDD+ goal is to make forests more valuable standing than they would be through logging by creating a financial value for carbon that is stored, or sequestered, in vegetation.

Vargas, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural ResourcesDepartment of Plant and Soil Sciences, is working as the principal investigator on the three-year project with a team that includes members from UD, the U.S. Forest Service, six different Mexican institutions and the National Forestry Commission of Mexico (CONAFOR).

The overarching goal of the project is to analyze carbon stocks and dynamics from ecosystems to the regional-scale to improve a framework for monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) to support implementation of REDD+ in Mexican forests.

The project could lead to UD becoming a key research institution on REDD+ initiatives and an important repository of information about carbon dynamics in Mexico to be made available throughout the scientific community.

The work builds on research that Vargas started as an assistant professor at a national research center in Baja California, Mexico, where he worked with scientists to establish the Mexican network of eddy covariance sites (MexFlux). The eddy covariance technique allows measuring the exchange of mass (e.g., carbon dioxide and methane) and energy between terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere; in other words it is possible to measure how ecosystems “breathe”.

In that past work, Vargas was able to facilitate collaboration between a network of 11 eddy covariance sites across Mexico in different vegetation types.

“Some of them are in forests and in those specific sites, we want to create intensive monitoring sites in collaboration with the participating institutions,” said Vargas, explaining that those intensive monitoring sites would provide the research team fundamental information of how the forests are growing and breathing.

The research will consider data from NASA satellites, the MexFlux sites, as well as intensive forest inventory plots that CONAFOR has established, for information on MRV of REDD+ activities.

“REDD+ is an initiative for the reduction of emissions by deforestation and degradation and includes conservation and sustainable management of forests and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries,” Vargas said, and the MRV models are important as they lend credibility to REDD+ activities concerning forest dynamics and carbon sequestration potential.”

Many nations would be interested in being a part of REDD+ activities so monitoring systems towards credible measurements are critical if they are going to implement the program — which is where the MRV models come in.

Providing important assistance to the project is Richard Birdsey, distinguished scientist with the U.S. Forest Service. Birdsey is a specialist in quantitative methods for large-scale forest inventories and has pioneered the development of methods to estimate national carbon budgets for forest lands from forest inventory data.

“He has led the establishment of several intensive monitoring sites in Mexico and has coordinated a USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) program there which aims to improve monitoring of forests for REDD+ and biodiversity conservation, among other objectives,” Vargas said.

The group will be using capabilities from NASA’s carbon monitoring systems program and Vargas said the agency is very interested to test those capabilities in verifying these specific issues.

IMG_4295The research team will be using information from NASA satellites, which can provide data related to photosynthesis of forests. “Remote sensing platforms provide such information and we can validate and cross-validate those estimates from direct forest measurements and using ecosystem process based models,” Vargas said.

The team will start the research looking at a few specific sites that had already been selected by CONAFOR, and then hope to scale the research to encompass a gradient of forests across Mexico.

Vargas said that the project has a strong collaborative component with scientists across Mexican institutions. “Our collaborators know their sites and are critical partners for day-to-day activities at the study sites. In collaboration with them we will work to produce value-added products and synthesis studies about carbon dynamics across forests in Mexico,” Vargas said.

Working in Mexico provides a great opportunity to look at different types of ecosystems and gradients. Mexico is a mega-diverse country where nearly 40 percent of its territory is covered by forests. The long-term impacts of land use and anthropogenic changes have fragmented and fundamentally transformed the nation’s landscapes, creating a challenge to measure and estimate the carbon sequestration potential of these forests.

“It is a mega-diverse country and highly heterogeneous in terms of climates and ecosystems. If you go to the northern part of Mexico, there you will have arid and semi-arid ecosystems similar to the southwest of the United States — like in Arizona, Texas and southern California,” Vargas said. “But as you move south, then you have coniferous forests, tropical dry forests and tropical wet forests mixed within a matrix of agricultural and urban developments.”

Vargas said that the spatial heterogeneity proves challenging as it pushes the models and the satellite observations to the limit. “We can’t measure everywhere all the time but we can identify some ecosystems and some sites from which we can get intensive information, and from that we hope to upscale to similar sites — specifically in this case to identify potential for REDD+ activities and verify the information retrieved from satellites and predicted by models.”

Because of the wealth of information available, Vargas said the team can “ask very high level questions about carbon dynamics in Mexico. Hopefully with that information we can understand how the systems works with the goal that similar methodologies can be applied in other places. Mexico is a test bed but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be applied in other places, specifically across forest in Latin America for implementation of REDD+ initiatives.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Danielle Quigley and courtesy of Rodrigo Vargas

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.


The Nature Conservancy Partners with NASA to Study Bird Migration Patterns on the Delmarva Peninsula

August 22, 2013 under CANR News

A high-tech radar designed to study precipitation patterns will help identify migrating songbird stopover hotspots

Photo by NASA/David Wolff

Photo by NASA/David Wolff

Berlin, Md. — The Nature Conservancy and a team of researchers are partnering with NASA to use a high-tech radar designed to track precipitation patterns to also study the migration patterns of migratory songbirds that stop over on the Delmarva Peninsula.

“This is one of the most powerful and sophisticated research radars in the world,” said Chief Conservation Scientist for the Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve Barry Truitt, who is coordinating the project and partnership for the Conservancy. “This partnership with NASA is an exciting opportunity to use a precipitation tool in a novel way to benefit conservation.”

NASA uses the transportable radar, known as NPOL radar (which stands for NASA Polarimetric weather radar), to study weather patterns and precipitation around the globe. The Conservancy’s Maryland chapter helped NASA locate and secure a site for the radar near Newark, Md., just outside of Berlin.

It’s a tool sensitive enough to track the size, shape, speed and direction of individual raindrops. On dry nights, when there isn’t any rain for the radar to track, NASA is sharing the radar with the Conservancy and its research partners to track migrating songbirds that are traveling to Central and South America for the winter. Truitt explained that birds in the air look, to the radar, like large drops of water. Just like with the raindrops, the radar will track their size, speed and direction.

The radar detects birds as they emerge at dusk from daytime resting and foraging sites, known as stopover sites, to embark on their nocturnal migration. The research teams’ primary goal is to analyze where the birds stop over and identify the habitat they use for refueling. A high number of migratory songbirds—such as prothonotary warblers—stop during their migration in this region, particularly on the southern Delmarva Peninsula along the Pocomoke River. Data collection began last week and last night, Aug. 20, a team of scientists from NASA, the Conservancy, the University of Delaware, Old Dominion University and the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center reviewed the radar’s first scans.

“Using this radar, we’ll be able to identify the stopover hotspots that are most important for migrating bird species, many of which are declining in numbers,” Truitt said. “This is going to allow us to prioritize The Nature Conservancy’s protection of land and best adapt our management practices to ensure the birds have the habitat and resources they need when they rest here.”

While NASA’s radar scans the skies, scientists from Old Dominion University and the University of Delaware will be busy on the ground, using more traditional methods to study the birds. They’ll identify species, and note what the birds are eating and how they’re using habitat. Jeff Buler, of the University of Delaware and one of only a handful of expert radar ornithologists in the country, and ornithologist Eric Walters of Old Dominion University will analyze the data from the radar and field surveys.

“The primary purpose of the NASA Polarimetric (NPOL) radar is to support NASA precipitation science and ground validation studies for the Global Precipitation Measurement mission,” said Walt Petersen, Ground Precipitation Measurement ground validation scientist at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. “A byproduct of our science, and an efficient means of using the resource, is that we are in fact able to collaborate with The Nature Conservancy in collection of bird data because birds occur naturally in our radar data collections. We really have to do very little different in our daily operation to facilitate the collection of data that supports some of the work that the ornithologists are doing on the Delmarva Peninsula. This collaboration is making great use of NASA resources.”

This is not the first time scientists have shared radars to track birds in addition to weather. Buler and USGS wildlife biologist Deanna Dawson recently completed a study for the US Fish and Wildlife Service that used data from National Weather Service radars to map migratory bird densities at stopover sites across the northeastern United States. Their research in this project will help to validate the models that they developed in their previous research. They’ll also compare data from the National Weather Service radars with data from the NPOL radar and the field surveys to verify that the data from the radar matches what researchers see in real time.

Data from the NPOL radar and two National Weather Service radars will give researchers a picture of how migrating birds use habitat across the Delmarva Peninsula, including most of Delaware, southern Maryland and parts of southeastern Virginia. The NPOL research will continue throughout the fall migration season, ending Nov. 7, 2013.

Project funders are: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries; Virginia Department of Environmental Quality/Coastal Zone Management Program; and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Lindsay Renick Mayer
The Nature Conservancy in MD/DC and VA

The Nature Conservancy is the leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Conservancy works to protect our lands and waters in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, from the mountains and forests to the coasts, Chesapeake Bay, and Atlantic Ocean. Throughout the region we connect people with nature. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the web at and