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Checkup of Earth From on High - Sensors Everywhere.

Jean L. Steiner is research leader of the Great Plains Agroclimate and Natural Resources program, conducted at the USDA-ARS Grazinglands Research Laboratory in El Reno, Oklahoma.

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has an exceptionally broad program in remote sensing, involving more than 20 laboratories around the United States, often in cooperation with other agencies in this country and abroad. Most studies take advantage of remote sensing's ability to view entire regions to monitor, assess, and manage farmland, rangeland, forests, and bodies of water. Sensors are placed at a range of altitudes--from 220 miles in space down to ground and water levels and below--and are used for various purposes.

One important area of research is directed at watersheds (areas drained by streams) because they have a major effect on ecosystems. From studies of watersheds in Oklahoma and Canada, ARS hydrology engineer Jurgen Garbrecht and scientists at the University of Saskatchewan developed TOPAZ--a computer-based evaluation tool that defines and analyzes land-surface characteristics, watershed configurations, and drainage features. TOPAZ creates data files from which images can be generated by most commercial packages of Geographic Information Systems.

Another area of interest is surveying damage by pests. For instance, biologist Norman Elliott and entomologist S. Dean Kindler in Stillwater, Oklahoma, are cooperating with researchers at Oklahoma State and Texas A&M Universities to quickly, accurately, and cheaply map greenbug infestations of wheat fields. Greenbugs are a serious pest of grain and sorghum in the southern plains; during severe outbreaks, wheat farmers lose more than $250 million a year. So far, the Stillwater team has done some field and greenhouse work with the same light-reflectance sensors used on satellites.

Moreover, precision agriculture would have no future without remote- sensing research. Precision farming began with the use of global positioning system sensors to give farmers a square-foot-by-square-foot accounting of crop yields. ARS scientists are now expanding remote sensing to include live monitoring of such things as crop growth, soil conditions, and water and fertilizer needs--down to each square foot of land, over entire regions.

In New Orleans, researchers have designed a submersible sensor to monitor harmful algal species, such as those responsible for red tide and dead zones. They are testing a prototype in St. John's River, in collaboration with regional, state, and federal researchers.

Adapted from "Getting the Lowdown From High Up," Agricultural Research, August 2001.

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Author:Comis, Don; STEINER, JEAN L.
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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