Rain, science, and fried plantains

Its 2:30 in the afternoon, there’s a fresh breeze coming in through the window behind me.  Last night’s rain relieved Moyobamba of the oppressive humidity that had been mounting.  I sit at a long wooden table, littered with laptops, binders, pens and pencils, calculators, rulers, headlamps, and cell phones.  Staff come in and out asking questions and joking with one another, others are glued to their computers trying to get the day’s tasks accomplished, and now and then I hear a flutter of conversation from one of the international volunteers Skypeing home.  The walls are filled with white boards, posters with each staff member’s area of focus, stacks of binders chronicling PMT’s research, and an assortment of labels in both Spanish and English for light switches, storage closets, and wall sockets.  And here I am, only 5 days into my summertime adventure, and I find myself writing every other word in Spanish.  Too bad my head doesn’t let me do that when I actually speak – I’ve always been a better communicator in writing.   Which brings me to my fundamental question of the summer: how does one effectively communicate complicated, jargon-filled science into a language that one only has a basic skill set in?  I’ll have to get back to you on that.  For now, let me attempt to dive into it in English.

It all begins, as most good things do, with the sun.  As radiation streams down into the atmosphere, it comes in contact with all sorts of things, big and small – particulates, water vapor, trees, a parking lot – and here the radiation waves have 3 choices: be absorbed into the object (think about how objects in the sun will heat up or how plants convert this energy into food), pass through the object (like how some light is still transmitted through a leaf allowing the forest floor to be illuminated), or be reflected back out into space.  We are most concerned with what gets reflected back out because this radiation can be recorded by the many satellites that pass overhead each day.  In conservation science, we use this information as imagery to help make sense of our world: how to identify, quantify, and plan the use or conservation of our natural resources.  The image below shows my particular area of study for the summer.  Last year, Danica was able to map the Northern range, and this year my focus will be on the Southern range.


For this project, we are mainly concerned with understanding what we have, for example, how much suitable habitat remains for the tocon and how well these patches are connected to one another.  Identifying these areas will allow us to better prioritize where to conserve, how much to conserve, and who to involve in the conservation strategies.  So, by using satellite imagery (for those interested, we have been using ASTER, SPOT, and Landsat at resolutions ranging from 10-30m) it is possible to run algorithms that essentially clumps features in the image into classes with similar spectral signatures (think about how radiation will be reflected off objects differently).  For example, a spectral signature reflected from a building will look very different from a spectral signature reflected from a forest.  This classification is the first step towards identifying what we have to work with.  Below is a VERY rough classification map I have been working on.


The SPOT imagery I am working with is from 2012, but I overlaid this with Landsat images from 1987 in order to get a rough idea of how deforestation has changed over time.  For instance, from this I was able to detect areas of secondary forest growth, areas that have been deforested for decades, and areas that only recently have been deforested.  The next step in our analysis would be to model connectivity between suitable habitat patches, but before this can be done, we need to make sure that the classification is true to the reality on the ground.

This is what brings me to the beautiful country of Peru.  One of my biggest priorities for the summer is to collect GPS points around my area of study.  The goal is then to verify if the point I took reflects the same land cover type as my map generated.  If (fingers crossed) my map seems to be representative of what is really happening on the ground, then we can continue our analysis.

Eder, another PMT staff member, and I plan to leave next Monday to begin collecting these points.  I am excited to get out of this city and under the trees.  It will be a great opportunity to see more of this country, get acquainted with the local culture, and, of course, work on my Spanish.  Till then, I am mapping routes to take, doing research, getting acclimated, and enjoying a full belly of rice and fried plantains on this warm afternoon.