Using Maps to Save the World

Professor David Saah analyzes satellite images to fight climate change

By Sayantika Mandal, USF News Posted Thu, 09/05/2019 - 09:21

How fast are our forests depleting? Where are major floods most likely? How much carbon do we leave in the air when we cut down the trees that absorb CO2?

“Geospatial analysis is gathering map data from all kinds of sources and putting the data together to solve problems,” said David Saah, associate professor of environmental science and director of the Geospatial Analysis Lab (GsAL).

Saah has, for example, analyzed vegetation maps, weather maps, and terrain maps to predict the behavior of California wildfires — how big they will be and how quickly they might spread. He has worked with the U.S. Forest Service to publish his findings on how the atmospheric damage from wildfires is much higher than what it was thought to be in the past.

Collecting Earth Data

GsAL has also collaborated with NASA and USAID, a federal agency that helps in development efforts around the world, to convert the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s original software, “Collect Earth,” into an online platform called Collect Earth Online (CEO).

CEO collects data, from satellite images and maps, that can be used to monitor land all over the world. Unlike the older tool from the United Nations, CEO does not need bulky software installation, and it’s free, making it easier and more accessible for local governments, nonprofits, and citizens to quantify deforestation and desertification and to monitor forests and agricultural land.

“Now everybody has access to CEO,” Saah said. “We’re making all the data transparent and hence, decision-making around that data transparent.”

People who didn’t have a voice in the decision-making process now can have a voice, Saah said. “Indigenous communities that were often kept in the dark about what is happening to their lands and forests now have access to this data.”

A Warming Job Market

In addition to giving voice to communities around the world, the GsAL can help gain jobs for USF students. They can earn a certificate in geospatial technology, the technology behind Google Maps and GPS, and then enter a job market that is growing 35 percent each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fernanda Lopez Ornelas MSEM ’16, one of the first students to obtain the geospatial technology certificate, worked with Saah on the CEO project. “It  helped me learn how to identify different types of land cover, such as forests, grasslands, and croplands,” she said.

After earning a master’s degree in environmental management, Lopez Ornelas was hired as a research scientist at Spatial Informatics Group, an environmental think tank based in Pleasanton, California. She also teaches part time at GsAL.

John Dilger ’16, an environmental science major, was part of a team that used CEO to distinguish between old-growth rubber trees and new-growth rubber trees in Myanmar. Rubber trees significantly decrease producing rubber after around 25 years, so older trees can be seen as timber, ripe for harvest.

By identifying timber to be cleared, Dilger helped reduce logging in protected areas, while other areas could be slated for rubber plantations or development.

“Working on the CEO project has definitely helped me further my career,” Dilger said. He’s been a research scientist at Spatial Informatics Group for the past year.