Landscape ecologist Naiara Pinto and colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to take a long view at forest fires in California, trying to decipher where and how well forests and scrublands are recovering in the years after a fire.
SAR instruments allow researchers to observe changes to Earth’s surface over time – such as land deformation after earthquakes, the extent of flooding, or the exposure of denuded or bare ground after large fires. SAR instruments can observe by day or night and can see land through clouds and smoke, so they are helpful for observing fire fronts and burn scars during and shortly after fire ravages a landscape. SAR instruments are carried on the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellites, while NASA currently deploys its Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR) via research aircraft.
Mounted on the bottom of NASA research planes, UAVSAR has been flown over the same portions of Southern California several times since 2009. Pinto and JPL colleagues Latha Baskaran, Yunling Lou, and David Schimel analyzed that data and developed a mapping technique to show the different stages of removal and regrowth of vegetation (chapparal and forest).