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Climate and Environment

NASA Begins Mapping California To Understand Climate Change's Toll On Plant Life

Lush green trees sway in the wind of the Los Padres National Forest. They swing over a glistening river, amid a backdrop of grassy hills covered in tan and green shrubs. The river is outlined by bushes of lush green grasses as if moving along a slow current.
The new NASA program will track a vast 640-square-mile region—from the Los Padres National Forest in the east to the Central California coast in the west—to get a sense of the effects of climate change on vegetation.
Flickr Creative Commons)
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Researchers are mapping the geography and plant growth in two Santa Barbara nature preserves this spring to learn more about the effects of climate change.

Kimberley Miner, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist at NASA, is leading the field campaign and says the locations are emblematic of what the whole state is experiencing.

“I know we're all really concerned about drought. We're all really concerned about the increase in wildfires," Miner said. "All of the information that we're getting about the local plants will give us an understanding of what is going on right now. What's happened in the recent past and what we could potentially expect in the near future.”

The program, titled SHIFT, or Surface Biology and Geology High-Frequency Time Series, is a collaborative effort led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, The Nature Conservancy and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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The campaign will track the health of plant species to oversee how California’s vulnerable plant life is surviving amid a drier climate. The state is already in its third year of a prolonged drought, with a record dry spell earlier this year due to lack of precipitation.

This information collected will also be critical for creating strategies to conserve and protect the ecosystem from the threats of climate change and biodiversity loss.

“This is what it’s about for us: to understand the change that’s happening, anticipate the change to come, and to influence the trajectory of conservation, now and for future generations,” said Mark Reynolds, a SHIFT co-investigator and director of the Point Conception Institute at The Nature Conservancy’s Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve.

The process will be a combination of airborne scientific instruments recording imagery along with scientists collecting data on the ground. The Earth System Observatory, which was established in 2021, will give scientists the most up-to-date images of the effects of climate change on a planetary scale.

The data gathered over the 640-square-mile area— from Los Padres National Forest in the east to the ocean in the west— will help focus the work of a global satellite system launching in 2028.

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