A forest can take many different shapes: prickly with oak undergrowth, dim and mossy, or sunlit and full of soft grass. Those structures affect the animals that live there, the amount of carbon the ecosystem can store, and how a wildfire will move through the landscape. But unless a casual hiker knows what to look for, it can be hard to notice those landscape-scale patterns. Forest fire resistance in Yosemite was mapped using lidar by NV5 Geospatial and the University of Washington.
From an article in Popular Science by Philip Kiefer.
A set of remarkable LIDAR scans of Yosemite National Park in California, published by forest ecologists at the University of Washington and the remote imaging company NV5 Geospatial in EOS this month, offers a glimpse into the subtle distinctions in forests—and the huge consequences for wildfire–across an area of 100 square miles.
The project started as part of the US Geological Survey’s 3D Elevation Program, which creates topographic maps of landscapes all over the country. NV5 gathers elevation data for those maps by flying a plane back and forth over Yosemite, and casting a laser over the terrain below. By measuring the time it takes the laser to bounce back to the plane, the technology, called LIDAR, can map out the surface in fine detail, even detecting individual trees.
To make a topographical map, NV5 just needs to figure out where the laser made it to the ground under the trees. But the LIDAR also captures precise detail on the trees and undergrowth above the ground. “[Light] keeps going down through the canopy—some of it gets reflected, and some of it keeps going until it hits the ground,” says Andrew Brenner, a program director with NV5.
Using scans of Yosemite taken between 2010 and 2019, forest ecologists at the University of Washington were able to map how fires change the fabric of a landscape.
Before the wholesale adoption of fire suppression by the US Forest Service in the early 1900s, most North American landscapes burned regularly, including much of Yosemite. And ecologists now know that forests that burn look very different from those that don’t. In the mixed pine and fir ecosystem that covers most of Yosemite, repeated fires once thinned out small trees, creating a patchwork of clumps of mature forest and open meadow.
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