Research aims to conserve and protect wetlands via satellite technology

· 4 min read

Research aims to conserve and protect wetlands via satellite technology

Community and Regional Planning Director Zhenghong Tang
Zhenghong Tang is director and professor of community and regional planning in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln's College of Architecture.

In the past 100 years, Nebraska has seen significant loss of its natural resources from tallgrass prairies to wetlands. According to the Nebraska Game and Parks, 98% of the tallgrass prairies and 35% of wetlands have been lost, primarily due to conversion to cropland or construction activities.

However, a regional collaboration, involving University of Nebraska–Lincoln researchers and area conservation management agencies are looking to mitigate flooding and the loss of more wetlands with the implementation of high-tech Sentinel satellites for near real-time wetland monitoring. The work will help local stakeholders identify agriculture lands that are prone to flooding so conservation decisions and efforts can be implemented. Regionally, the current management system lacks scientific data to effectively make accurate conservation decisions or landowner recommendations and guidance.

With the help of a new grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, principal investigator Zhenghong Tang, director of the College of Architecture’s Community and Regional Planning Program, and his collaborators will develop conservation tools created from satellite collected data. The new data will help researchers and managers develop watershed inundation maps identifying areas that are regularly, periodically flooded and also create maps specifying areas suitable for future conservation easement program enrollment.

“This satellite technology has several powerful applications for conservation easements,” said Shawn McVey, easement restoration specialist for the USDA. “The technology can help target watersheds where wetland easements can give taxpayers the biggest bang for their conservation dollars and help determine the ideal ratio of upland to wetlands for different wetland types to improve water quality by filtering sediments and chemicals. The technology also has potential to identify and prioritize wetland easements that may need additional restoration to be fully functional for migratory birds and other wetland dependent wildlife. Our wetland easements protect biological diversity and provides resilience to climate change.”

“Our state’s wetlands and conserved lands are rare ecological gems worth saving,” Tang said. “They are essential ecosystems that seamlessly blend ecological, geological and cultural wonders, rendering them a globally unique, exceptionally biodiverse treasure. Among their standout attributes is their remarkable biodiversity, which nurtures a diverse array of plant and animal species, some of which are found nowhere else on earth.”

The saline wetlands in and around Nebraska’s Lancaster County provide habitat for a variety of native plants and animal species that depend on a saline environment. For example, the Salt Creek tiger beetle, considered to be an extremely rare and endangered insect, has adapted to the highly specific habitat conditions of the Nebraska saline wetlands and currently has a population count of a few hundred. Plant life such as the saltwort are also threatened and listed by Nebraska as endangered.

Plus, the Nebraska wetlands are home to more than 260 different bird species and these preserved wetlands serve as vital breeding grounds, nesting sites and sanctuaries for migratory birds, including sandhill cranes, ducks and geese, providing crucial respite during their challenging journeys. “Conservation efforts have made substantial and meaningful contributions to Nebraska’s ecosystems. Despite these conservation lands occupying a mere 11% of the total hydrological soil footprints, they account for a substantial 40 percent of the current total ponded water and hydrophytes,” said Tang. “This conservation importance harmonizes with the environmental objectives outlined in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and the Farm Bill Conservation Programs, dedicated to addressing greenhouse gas emissions effectively.”

Tang’s research has garnered multiple sponsorships over the years including from the USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These ongoing research endeavors not only elevate the technical expertise and management efficiency of federal and state conservation programs but also provide technical support and research benefits to management agencies and their collaborative partners. The research findings hold the promise of serving as a robust decision support system, facilitating the effective realization of many state and federal conservation objectives.

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