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NASA has funded the project since it began five years ago. Goodin's work was published in 1998 in the International Journal of Remote Sensing.

 

Open up and say 'ah'

Researcher checks ecosystem's health

By Mark Berry

 

 

Sattelite image of Konza Prairie, courtest of spaceimaging.com
Photo courtesy of spaceimaging.com.

Sattelite image of the Konza Prairie.

 

The physician checks several health measurements, such as temperature and blood pressure, during a check-up. The routine lets the doctor know if something is wrong with your body.

Douglas Goodin, associate professor of geography at Kansas State University, is doing the same thing for the Kansas prairie to keep an eye on its condition.

Goodin's research takes a bird's eye look at the dynamic changes that happen to the vegetative cover of the earth's surface. The study of the present will also help scientists predict the future of complex plant ecosystems.

"We want to come up with a series of easily-interpreted indices that can tell us if something is wrong or if something is different. We want an ecological forecast, like a weather forecast, and then we can come up with ways of determining when we are deviating from what we expected," Goodin said.

Many studies look at plant cover on a small scale, but Goodin takes a broader perspective -- the kind you get from looking at the earth from a satellite 750 kilometers out in space. He also uses aircraft and hand-held devices to monitor the prairie's health. The scale of the areas he analyzes ranges from a watershed in the prairie to the entire Flint Hills.

The plant cover, which in geographic terms extends from the top of the trees to a foot below the ground, is a happening place, and Goodin believes it is far more important than people think. Energy is moving and shaking here. Things like rain, human activity and the burning of the grasslands affect more than just prairie vegetation. These alterations of the surface can even affect weather by changing the amount of heat and moisture entering the atmosphere. They might even influence the formation of thunderstorms.

Goodin analyzes patterns of change in vegetation over time, such as how plants change in lightness and darkness. He is developing a library of patterns of the contrast between patches of vegetation and the size of those patches.

"If you go out and look at the prairie, it's not just a sheet of green. It has a mottled look to it. We're looking at the mottling in terms of the health of the prairie and what causes it. We think the change in patchiness is a signature of the grassland's condition," Goodin said. "We found a pattern of change over time and we found that the patterns are not random. There is a structure to it."

The research has practical use, Goodin said. Kansas' economy depends on its land, and Goodin hopes to create tools to allow people to understand its condition. He envisions using the research in the early detection of bioterrorist attacks on agriculture. Though Goodin is focusing on the tallgrass prairie, the results of the project could be applied to other ecosystems with some tinkering, Goodin said.

"The prediction business is a really new thing. The term 'ecological forecasting' has only been in use for a few years," Goodin said. "We would like to say that if the earth's temperature goes up 5 degrees, we know what would happen to the prairie. But there's not enough information now to say."

Fall 2002