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Land Remote Sensing Program

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The LRS Program conducts and sponsors research in remotely sensed land data collection, access, distribution, and applications. Scientists and engineers sponsored by the Program are investigating new types of satellite systems and sensors, studying promising new data sources, developing new data acquisition programs and sources, and assessing the potential for new data applications. The Program is seeking new ways to make remotely sensed data products more accessible and to expand and enhance the overall use of remotely sensed data and remote sensing technology.

Project Summaries are organized by the following science topics: Hazards, Sensors and Data, Natural Resources, Earth Observations and Monitoring.


Hurricane Information, Community Vulnerability and Public Policy in the Gulf Coast:
Develop and apply methods for examining the value, format, and transfer of knowledge for societal decision making and policy analysis. Recent scientific evidence suggests we may be entering a period of increased hurricane frequency and intensity, making the need for reliable, useful, and understandable scientific information on community vulnerability to hurricanes even more critical than in the past. The maps, videos, photographs and digital elevation products produced by the USGS in near- real time during hurricanes and distributed via the Internet are widely used by the media, officials from federal, state and local agencies, and the general public. However, very little is understood about the characteristics of the user communities for these products, how effective the products are for hurricane response, recovery and mitigation, or how these products might be improved.

Landslide Delineation and Slope Morphology Characterization:
Slope stability is typically the product of the equilibration of site specific conditions. A slope can become unstable when those conditions are disturbed by human activities, precipitation, or seismic events. An understanding the physical processes that contribute to slope stability provides insight into those processes that can result in slope instability or failure. Clearly defining the physical characteristics of a slope, and the processes or conditions that may result in that slope becoming unstable or failing is at the forefront of current landslide research. One approach to addressing these issues is to refine methods of identifying existing landslides, and describing slope morphology.

Landslide and Debris Flow:
The USGS has signed an agreement with the National Weather Service and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research to develop a debris-flow hazards alert/warning system protocol with input from emergency managers and responders. The USGS responsibility under this agreement is to develop better rainfall threshold models in southern California and elsewhere to aid in issuing public warnings. The pilot study area is in the San Bernardino Mountains within the Los Angeles metropolitan area of southern California. With other partners, USGS is developing a decision support system to assist end users in assessment of debris-flow hazards in recently burned basins.

Tectonic Applications: Early Warning and Environmental Monitoring:
This project will investigate coupling of the recent M9 2004 and M8.7 2005 earthquakes in the Sumatra-Andaman Subduction Zone (SASZ), how these events change the likelihood for other earthquakes in the region, and the use of remote sensing data to constrain the surface deformation estimates generated by finite element models (FEMs). Better information on surface deformation fields will provide improved estimates of earthquake rupture at depth. Improved estimates of rupture will eventually allow increased accuracy in earthquake prediction. A simple static Coulomb stress analysis confirms the M9 event dramatically increased the tendency for rupture to occur along the fault of the subsequent M8.7 event. However, static Coulomb stress cannot account for the three-month delay of the M8.7 event. The delay can be accounted for if we understand the evolution of Coulomb stress following the M9 event, which in turn, requires that we understand the post-seismic deformation mechanisms at work following the M9 event. The incorporation of quantitative and qualitative information on post-seismic deformation (derived from remote sensing datasets) will, thus, play an important role.

Urban Hazards:
Land surface imperviousness is an excellent indicator of environmental quality, especially in regard to the health of hydrologic features on the land surface. Water quality of rivers, lakes, estuaries and wetlands has been found to decrease with increases in the percent of impervious land cover. Increased imperviousness also causes larger quantities of stormwater runoff that contribute to localized flooding. The detection and mapping of impervious surfaces using current remote sensing systems is problematic for different geographic regions of the United States because of unique environmental characteristics. This project is investigating the utility of remotely sensed data sets acquired from current satellite and airborne systems for discriminating and mapping imperviousness in different geographic environs of the country.

InSar and Great Earthquakes:
Crustal deformation, including folding or tilting of rocks at the Earth’s surface as well as areas of uplift and subsidence expressed as topographic anomalies, pre-date great earthquakes (Castle and others, 1974; Li and Rice, 1983; Berberian and Qorashi, 1994; Castle and Bernknopf, 1996). Geodetic data from tilt, creep and strain meters are used to monitor crustal deformation as a precursor to earthquakes. These data, however, are difficult to collect, reduce, and interpret (Malcolm Johnson, USGS written comm., 1999) and of little value if the geodetic station is more than 50 km from the epicenter of an earthquake. These problems may be resolved by using interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) images. InSAR has been used to measure repeatedly very small changes (2-3 mm) in elevation over areas as large as 10,000 km2 of the Earth’s surface (Lu and others, 2000; Massonnet and Feigl, 1998; Lunetta and Elvidge, 1998). These elevation changes have been associated with volcanic activity, ground water subsidence, or deformation associated with active faults (Lu and others, 1998, 2000; Burgmann and others, 1998). To date, InSAR research on active faults has focused on post-seismic deformation (Massonnet and others, 1996; Peltzer and others, 1998; Pollitz and others, 2001). This research will focus on surface deformation prior to great earthquakes.

Satellite and Airborne Imaging and Analyses: Map and Monitor the Wildland/Urban Interface as it Relates to Wild Fire Hazards:
With the increased resolution of satellite and airborne digital imaging remote sensing is a promising tool that needs to be investigated fully to document its capabilities and limitation for applications dealing with wild fires, including the potential for detecting, mapping, and monitoring the wildland/urban interface. The project team lives in Flagstaff, which is one of the communities identified as ‘at high risk’ to wild fires, and it will be one of the initial study sites. Therefore, this project would be an excellent example of Geography Discipline employees being on the landscape and working closely with the local federal, state, county, and city land managers on a critical and high priority issue.

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Sensors and Data

Evaluate the Vertical Accuracies of Direct Geo-referenced Lidar Elevation Data:
Information concerning the vertical accuracy and reliability achievable of Lidar data is essential to applications research. The emerging Lidar and GPS/INS technology has the potential to greatly reduce the cost of projects and improve vertical accuracy of elevation data. This advanced technical capability, if successful, will enable the feature extraction of Lidar elevation data for contours, hydrographic, and structure information, more accurately and cost-effectively.

Exploitation and Application of Hyperspectral data – Powder River Basin:
The Powder River Basin is undergoing landscape changes related to the development and extraction of coalbed methane. Many environmental and land management concerns relate to this development. The extraction process produces large volumes of water that must be disposed of or put to beneficial use. Common water management strategies are to discharge the water into drainages, stock ponds, or infiltration ponds, or to apply the water directly to the land surface via irrigation or atomizers. The suitability of soils for these purposes varies and it is important to avoid application onto soils containing swelling clays; therefore, land managers need data on the soil types, especially the location of these types of surficial clays, to determine the feasibility of direct land application of these sodium dominated waters. An additional concern is that the addition of co-produced water into the environment seems likely to encourage the spread of riparian related invasive species, including tamarisk.

Exploitation and Application of LIDAR - Gunnison Gorge:
Waterborne selenium and alkaline salts cause major concern and expensive mitigation along the Colorado River. The Mancos Shale unit is known to contribute a majority of the salt, sediment, and selenium to the Gunnison and Uncompahgre River basins, which are major tributaries in the upper Colorado River basin. High resolution elevation and imagery data are required to address science and land- management issues being studied by the Mancos Shale Landscapes interdisciplinary USGS/BLM DOI project. In FY05, high-resolution lidar, orthorectified digital imagery, and a fused product of these (SILC – Spectral Imagery Lidar Composite) were acquired for part of the BLM-administered Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area in western Colorado underlain by selenium- and salt-bearing Mancos Shale. Accurate GPS control was also planned to be collected over some of the data acquisition areas in late FY05.

Applications of Active Remote Sensing Systems: Topographic Science:
Recent advances in data from active remote sensing systems, specifically lidar and SAR systems have set the stage for progress in producing derived information products that are difficult to produce from passive optical systems. This project will conduct research on vegetation and hydrologic derivatives from active remote sensing systems data, and initiate a coordination effort for science applications of lidar data.

Effects of Data Resolution on Land Cover maps:
Land surface heterogeneity can affect how well land cover values are related at different scales. Vegetation type and condition can change dramatically between the site and spectral data at the pixel level for most airborne and space-borne sensors. Direct application of site information to larger areas is only reasonable over homogeneous stands that are at least as large as the pixel being used. As one increases the area observed using remotely sensed information, heterogeneity increases due to a complex interacting increase in biological (vegetation types and conditions), physical (topographic influences), and atmospheric (optical density) influences on the data recorded by the sensor, therefore making the classification of land cover at different scales problematic.

Vegetation Surface Model: Quantification of Urban Vegetation:
Current methods of quantifying urban biomass and regional studies are often at a coarse scale and ineffective for ecological decision makers attempting to address policy decisions. Lidar data provides a new opportunity to reduce field collection and data interpretation for quantifying vegetation at a scale appropriate for land use managers to improve the health and resilience of ecoregions.

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Natural Resources

Land Surface Hydrology:
A complete understanding of environmental processes requires knowledge of the impact that spatially and temporally variable land surface properties have on hydrology and climate. Models are one tool scientists use to refine understanding of processes and inform resource management. Theoretically, hydrology and climate models require the best land cover information possible. In practice however, what constitutes 'best' or even 'adequate' land cover information is not known by model developers or users. This task derives and analyzes land surface information to measure the importance of land dynamics in hydrologic and climate processes and improve land cover information use for specific resource management activities.

Ozark Plateau Study:
To date no National Water Quality Assessment Program (NAWQA) study unit has had a historical land cover chronology completed for its study area. Nor has any study unit used the remote sensing technology to look at the relation of biotic reflectance to the chemical and physical constituents collected within the NAWQA program or the effectiveness of using remote sensing as a generalized surrogate water quality monitoring tool. This project tries to address these issues.

Modeling Watershed Erosion Vulnerability in Coastal Regions
New efforts dealing with modeling landscape erosion vulnerability and methods to do high temporal monitoring of sediment loads eroded from different portions of a watershed will be of interest to not only these groups, but also to many others on the main-land who have similar concerns about the impact of watershed erosion on the surrounding landscape and total sediment loads in small and large rivers. New algorithms and/or procedures to map and monitor erosion vulnerability of watersheds, as well as the design and development of a new low-cost field based instrument to monitor total sediment load at a high temporal resolution, will be applicable to large rivers and surrounding watersheds/drainages.

Developing and evaluating new in-the-field protocols to detect and monitor watershed erosion:
At the Hanalei watershed the river flows year round with sediment load increasing during runoff events. Mt. Waialeale, the uppermost point of the Hanalei watershed, averages over 400 inches of rainfall annually. Much of this watershed has been impacted by natural events (two major hurricanes in the past 25 years), and alien factors (feral pigs destroying the ground-layer vegetation), with the spread of alien plant species after disturbance by both hurricanes and pigs. Because of the need to calibrate and validate our spectral radiometer results with either extensive water sampling and/or using an existing proven method for sediment monitoring we will make the Hanalei watershed/river in north Kauai our initial study site. Most of the work to design and develop the new low-cost two band spectral radiometer and test it will be done at the Hanalei watershed site, with follow up testing at a very different watershed on east Molokai. The Molokai drainages are dry except when runoff occurs. Reducing erosion and sedimentation at the Molokai site is extremely important to NPS, FWS, The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, and other private landowners relative to reducing down slope sedimentation, particularly along the shoreline and in the near-shore marine environment. With the combination of the Hanalei and east Molokai sites we will be able to investigate the capabilities and limitations of our new procedure in very different watershed environments.

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Earth Observations and Monitoring

Consequences of Potomac Watershed Land-use and Land Cover Change:
The Potomac Watershed has been changed by human-induced and natural processes, some of which have significant impact on ecosystem health and sustainability. Improved information and understanding about the state of the land surface; and the rates and patterns, causes/drivers, and consequences of landscape change are needed to help scientists and decision-makers in land-use planning, land management, and natural resource utilization/conservation. The need to integrate and apply information to help understand the consequences of land surface change on sediment erosion and deposition, forest quality, habitat fragmentation, overall ecosystem and watershed health, and other factors operating at local and broad regional scales is critical to managing the natural resources of the Potomac Watershed and Chesapeake Bay.

The Relationships and the Consequences of Land-use and Land Cover Change in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed:
Throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, post-colonial settlement transformed the region from predominantly forested in the 17th century to predominantly agricultural in the 19th century. Land cover changes in the 20th century and at present are mostly characterized by a transition from agriculture to urban and forests. Urbanization is the dominant trend within commuting distance to major job centers. These phenomena and other landscape changes in the Bay watershed pose both constraints and opportunities for meeting the water quality and habitat restoration goals of the Chesapeake Bay Program Partnership. In response to these phenomena, the Bay Program Partners have expressed a strong need for understanding the environmental implications of past, present, and potential future land cover changes on the health of the Chesapeake Bay and on efforts to restore it.

Biodiversity Characterization: Landcover Applications, Landscape Dynamics, and Global Change:
Biodiversity in North and Central America is diminishing at an alarming rate resulting in serious ecosystem and societal consequences (Chapin, 2000,CEC, 2002). Yet, our understanding of the characteristics and dynamics of biodiversity is limited. Neither biodiversity resources nor their associated threats and consequences are evenly distributed. In response, conservation organizations have identified priority conservation areas (PCA) including "biodiversity hot spots", "global-200 ecoregions", and "priority conservation regions". Although boundaries of these areas are reasonably well demarcated, we do not know how much of a given habitat remains in and around those areas, what is the biophysical condition, what is the extent and scale of habitat fragmentation, what are the major threats, and what changes are likely to occur in the future under various global climate change scenarios? To answer these research questions and support planning and management in the conservation areas, a regional synthesis of North and Central America is urgently needed. It is also necessary to explore the applicability of recently available MODIS-500m data for land cover characterization and mapping at regional/continental scale focusing on what can be discerned and what is needed. Development of new methods and techniques combining satellite data interpretation techniques, geo-spatial analyses, and climate modeling are equally important.

Carbon Cycle Research: Landcover Applications, Landscape Dynamics, and Global Change:
Rangelands are expected to be useful carbon sinks given their large spatial extents and the fact that most of their carbon is stored below ground. Overgrazing and degraded rangelands represent opportunities to make rangeland improvements with benefits for carbon sequestration and the reduction of erosion. Identification of degraded rangelands is needed to focus extension efforts and water quality reporting requirements. As ecosystems respond to climate change, we expect changes in vegetation communities and ecosystem functionality, particularly on fringe areas where two or more plants systems are operating at their climatic or competitive extremes. Alteration of ecosystem function is dramatic is some cases, such as the conversion of a deep rooted perennial sagebrush system to a short rooted annual grass system (for example, Cheatgrass). In this task, remotely sensed data will be combined with spatial climatic data sets to monitor how vegetation productivity (remotely sensed vegetation indices) respond to climate. Consistent changes in “ecosystem functionality” over several years will indicate areas of probable changes in plant communities.

Biological Applications: Early Warning and Environmental Monitoring: Website
Biological Applications (BA) is focused on developing and extending applications for earth observations in local-, regional-, and national-scale monitoring of terrestrial biological processes (in regards to the vegetation canopy). Within this task, we support a number of applications for and users of remote sensing phenology. Phenology involves the study of periodic biological events as influenced by the environment, especially weather and climate. Global change studies have a growing need for measures of phenology over large-areas. Droughts are one type of cyclic climate-driven phenomena with broad spatial and temporal variability and far-reaching, often costly consequences.

SLC - Off Agriculture: Early Warning and Environmental Monitoring:
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is one of the largest customers of Landsat imagery. The Scan Line Corrector (SLC) failure on Landsat 7 has resulted in a serious data gap for USDA who rely on Landsat data to continuously monitor crop condition and develop annual crop maps both nationally and internationally. This research focuses on development and testing of a gap-fill method that meets the needs of the agricultural community for date-sensitive monitoring information.

Alaska 1980's Land Cover Map:
Over the past 25 years, Federal Agencies have mapped approximately three-quarters of Alaska using a variety of imagery including aerial photography, Landsat (MSS and TM) and SPOT; the remaining one fourth to one third of the state has no coverage. The resolution of these data range from 50 to 30-m pixels. The majority of existing map classifications used have been cross-walked to either an Interim Land Cover Classification or an International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP) scheme; however, some have not. This proposed project would 1) using existing circa 1980 satellite imagery to produce complete statewide land cover data and 2) produce a single map at one scale using consistent map classes using a variety of existing and new data sources.

Assessment of Lake Change in Alaska:
Recent studies have reported that lakes in Alaska are drying up; however, these studies have occurred over small sample areas within Alaska and it is not known how widespread the problem is, if it is related to any specific region, nor is it known about the rate of drying or the type of lakes that are involved. This study would use a number of different aerial and satellite imagery to assess the extent, rate, and type of lake drying occurring across Alaska. Initial, a sampling approach similar to that of the Status and Trends project will be used to select sample areas within the various ecoregions of Alaska. The intent of the sample would be to provide sufficient information that would report on the amount and distribution of drying lakes within each ecoregion and across the state. Initially, there would be two types of lakes mapped, those that are fed by surface run-off and those that have inlet/outlets; there may also be a third, ephemeral, if we can identify them. Once the sample regime was in place, lakes would be identified using aerial photos (circa 1950s, 1970-80s) and Landsat (1970's to present) to assess the type of lake, the location, the amount of drying, and trends. For the more near time (circa 2000) lake database, MODIS data would be assess to see if 1) the type and amount of lakes could be monitored at the courser resolution, and 2) if MODIS data could be used as a monitoring tool to be used on a yearly basis. Other types of high resolution satellite imagery would also be used for assessment of using Landsat data for assessing lakes smaller than the nominal Landsat pixel size.

Analyze Land Use Change in the Tahoe Basin:
Human activity in the Lake Tahoe Basin has increased substantially in the past four decades causing significant impacts on the quality and clarity of the lake's famous deep, clear water. Protection of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding environment has become an important activity in recent years. In spite of past and ongoing efforts to understand how the lake functions and to what extent humans have affected its landscape and ecosystem processes, there remains a lack of comprehensive temporal land use/land cover (LULC) change data and analysis for the Basin.

Landscape change, Grassland Health, Bark Beetle and Tamarisk Infestation on the San Carlos Indian Reservation:
Using LANDSAT imagery scenes (spatial resolution 30 M Color, 15M Panchromatic and approximately 20M merged Color and Panchromatic) delineate surface area of water bodies (at maximum capacity) that includes; lakes, ponds, sediment traps, earth embankment tanks and stock tanks falling within the spatial resolution of the Landsat Imagery, which normally requires 2 – 3 pixels to identify features. Compute total water surface area, as identified on Landsat imagery, for the F.A.I.R. Compare water bodies identified with Landsat imagery with High resolution aerial photography acquired by the FAIR, determine percentage of water bodies identified using Landsat imagery and make determination as to use of high/very high-resolution satellite or aerial photography to identify and quantify remaining surface water bodies. Develop techniques to monitor, on a regularly scheduled basis, status of surface water on FAIR using remotely sensed data.

Salton Sea air quality investigation as it relates to dust: On-land surface characterization using remote sensing:
As water transfer mitigation measures in the Salton Sea Basin end, the water surface level of the Salton Sea will systematically decrease and shoreline sediments will be exposed to wind-driven erosion and may become an airborne health hazard. Airborne particulate matter poses a risk to human health. Little is known about the airborne suspension potential of sediments in the Salton Sea and there is a significant concern about the current air quality within the Salton Sea sink. The concern will increase, at both local and regional levels, as the potential for air quality conditions worsen due to future inflows into the Sea decreasing and exposed sediments increasing. There is a need to establish current baseline sediment/air quality characteristics of the Sea (sediment types, re-suspension potential, wind characteristics, point source localities, etc.) and to determine future potential conditions as physical conditions of the Sea changes through time.

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