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Professors Enlist Airborne Lasers to Study Earth's Processes

February 24, 2010

Federal stimulus will fund imaging project at Critical Zone
Observatories throughout U.S.

Airborne Laser Image
Images like these will soon be
available to observatories across the United States thanks to a
stimulus-funded grant and the work of UC Merced professors.

MERCED, CA— Early next month, airplanes
equipped with lasers and high-tech GPS equipment will begin a
series of data-gathering flyovers designed to answer many pressing
questions about our planet’s physical, chemical and biological
processes and the ways in which they interact.

Qinghua Guo
, a professor in the
School of Engineeringat
the University of California, Merced, is heading up the project
with the help of a three-year, $935,457 grant from the National
Science Foundation and fellow professor

Roger Bales
, director of UC Merced’s
Sierra Nevada
Research Institute
. The award is funded by the American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Most of the grant will go toward the contracting of flights that
will use Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology on the
NSF’s six
Critical Zone
(CZOs), a project that has already been featured
on the Web site of

Scientific American

The Earth’s Critical Zone is the area that stretches vertically
from the groundwater to the lowest layer of the atmosphere. Over
the past three years, the NSF funded the formation of six CZOs
across the United States — including one operated by UC
Merced in the
Southern Sierra
— that would serve as natural laboratories where
top scientists across several disciplines study the many processes
that occur within the Critical Zone.

Guo’s project will provide scientists throughout the CZO system
— and, eventually, the public at large — with
remarkably detailed, three-dimensional images of the ground,
vegetation and other layers that will help lead to greater
understanding of erosion, weathering, soil formation, water
movement and nutrient transport.

Professor Qinghua Guo
Qinghua Guo, an engineering
professor at UC Merced, is leading leading a project that will
improve understanding of Earth’s processes.

“Professor Guo’s project will provide scientists at CZOs across
the country with the data they need to better understand our world
and how it works,” said

Samuel J. Traina
, vice chancellor for research. “It gives me
great pride to see UC Merced leading the charge in such a valuable,
interdisciplinary, multisite endeavor.”

LiDAR uses lasers to accurately measure distances to vegetation
cover and other layers. Powerful software then aggregates the data
into 3D images in which each individual layer can be removed. For
example, a layer of trees can be removed to show detailed images of
streams and creeks that would otherwise be obscured.

Because data from all six CZOs will be collected using the same
method, researchers will be better able to share data and
collaborate on their studies with colleagues from other CZOs, Guo said.

“The goal of the CZOs is to build a network to advance
interdisciplinary studies of Earth surface processes and foster
collaboration among scientists and engineers from different
disciplines,” Guo said. “This LiDAR data will replace the existing
data, which is incomplete, outdated and insufficient in resolution
and scale.”

Each CZO has its own questions it hopes to answer using the
LiDAR data, Guo said. The Southern Sierra CZO, for example, is
interested in how vegetation affects the melt and runoff of snow.
The LiDAR data will give researchers precise measurements and
unparalleled images of the canopy cover of trees, the depth of the
snow and the topography of the ground.

Guo said each CZO will get two flyovers. The Southern Sierra CZO
will get one set of images with snow and one after the snow melted.
Other sites will gather either snow on/off or leaf on/off scenes.

“This will provide a platform for us to study hydrological,
geomorphic and biogeochemical questions,” Guo said. “All of them
rely on this important data.”


James Leonard