NASA Satellites Reveal Surprising Connection Between Beetle Attacks, Wildfire
If your summer travels have taken you across the Rocky Mountains, you've probably seen large swaths of reddish trees dotting otherwise green forests. While it may look like autumn has come early to the mountains, evergreen trees don't change color with the seasons. The red trees are dying, the result of attacks by mountain pine beetles. Mountain pine beetles are native to western forests, and they have evolved with the trees they infest, such as lodgepole pine and whitebark pine trees. However, in the last decade, warmer temperatures have caused pine beetle numbers to skyrocket. Huge areas of red, dying forest now span from British Columbia through Colorado, and there's no sign the outbreak is slowing in many areas.

The affected regions are so large that NASA satellites, such as Landsat, can even detect areas of beetle-killed forest from space. Today, NASA has released a new video about how scientists can use Landsat satellite imagery to map these pine beetle outbreaks, and what impact the beetle damage might have on forest fire. As the dog days of summer hit full force, some say the pine beetles have transformed healthy forest into a dry tinderbox primed for wildfire. For Yellowstone National Park Vegetation Management Specialist Roy Renkin, those worries are nothing new. "I've heard [the tinderbox analogy] ever since I started my professional career in the forestry and fire management business 32 years ago," he said. "But having the opportunity to observe such interaction over the years in regards to the Yellowstone natural fire program, I must admit that observations never quite met with the expectation."

The idea that beetle damaged trees increase fire risks seems a logical assumption dead trees appear dry and flammable, whereas green foliage looks more moist and less likely to catch fire. But do pine beetles really increase the risk of fire in lodgepole pine forest? University of Wisconsin forest ecologists Monica Turner and Phil Townsend, in collaboration with Renkin, are studying the connection in the forests near Yellowstone National Park. Their work and their surprising preliminary results are the subject of the NASA video. First, the researchers used Landsat data to create maps of areas hardest hit by the recent beetle outbreak. The Landsat satellites capture imagery not just in the visible spectrum, but also in wavelengths invisible to the human eye. One such wavelength band combination includes the near infrared, a part of the spectrum in which healthy plants reflect a great deal of energy. By scanning the Landsat near infrared imagery, the team located areas of probable beetle damage.

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