High-altitude plane to be used to spy on beetles

Posted: Monday, July 30, 2001

SOLDOTNA (AP) -- The U2, a high-altitude spy plane made famous when one was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, will conduct reconnaissance over Nikiski late this summer.

Rest easy, it isn't the CIA at the controls this time. It's NASA. And instead of prowling for Communist missile sites, the mission is to track a far more insidious foe: spruce bark beetles.

Hyperspectral cameras aboard the plane, which see on ultraviolet and infrared wave lengths beyond what the eye can see, will produce images of a 60-square-mile swath of mixed birch and spruce forest just north of the city of Kenai.

The hope is that infrared energy captured on film will allow experts not only to discern dead and live forest but to actually pick out stands that are in danger. The experts will spot trees still alive but stressed out by the gnawing bugs, said Marvin Rude, head of mapping for the Kenai Peninsula's spruce bark beetle mitigation project.

It's a $271,000 experiment, one of eight in Alaska funded by a special $3.5 million congressionally mandated NASA grant.

Rude selected the area north of Kenai because its rolling hills and boggy tundra contain a mixture of birch and spruce trees, some infested with beetles and some healthy. It's also on the road system, so information collected from the plane can be matched against ground observations.

The old spy plane, flying at 30,000 feet after taking off from Anchorage, will shoot pictures with a relatively blurry 10-meter resolution. That means a single pixel, or point of color on a photo, can discern something the size of an individual rooftop.

The test will also involve another set of images, these taken by a passing satellite. While the satellite camera has a surprising 1-meter resolution, which can single out individual trees, it is limited to pictures in the band of light visible to the human eye. In other words, it can just take a color photograph. It can't see ultraviolet or infrared.

Rude said he doesn't know which technology might work best. But if he can come up with a system that quickly tracks beetle migration, he said, he would like to use it across the Peninsula.

The swarming beetles can mow through stretches of timber so fast that it has been tough for mappers to keep up with them, he said. ''What you see today isn't necessarily what's going to be there tomorrow,'' he said.

Entomologists say the infestation, which has wracked 1.4 million acres of spruce forest on the Kenai Peninsula, appears to be winding down because the bugs' prime targets, old growth spruce trees, are mostly dead.

But Rude said people are reporting that the burrowing insects have changed tactics. In desperation, the beetles are attacking smaller and smaller trees, down to 2 and 3 inches in diameter.

Their legacy, miles of standing dead timber and its associated wild fire risk, will be around for years to come, Rude said.

Spying on spruce bark beetles will be just one application of NASA's highflying powers of observation in Alaska.

The largest of the eight projects to be funded through the grant is a $1.2 million effort to detect high-seas driftnets, according to the office of Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, which managed the grant process.

Starting in September, various types of imaging equipment will be used to ferret out so-called ghost nets, which are lost or discarded driftnets that can stretch up to 35 miles, snaring all kinds of marine species, said Paula Scavera, a special assistant to Ulmer.

Also funded by the grant will be vegetation mapping of more than 11,000 square miles and 15 villages in the Tanana Valley. Data from that mapping is to be used to identify potential wildfire risks.

Other projects funded by the grant include the mapping of commercial kelp beds in Southeast Alaska, a high-altitude review of land formations to scope possible untapped placer gold mining reserves in Northwest Alaska, a survey of Pacific walruses, the creation of an earth science alliance to teach about global climate change, and creation of three-dimensional images of 11 mountain passes to improve aviation safety.

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