NASA grant funds CSUMB research projects


Now that California’s governor has declared a drought emergency, NASA-funded research at Cal State Monterey Bay has taken on a new immediacy.

With a NASA grant, CSUMB researchers are devising high-tech tools that help farmers estimate how much water their crops need. Other projects include using satellite data to map changes in land uses around the globe and studying lands in the Mojave Desert to determine their feasibility for solar energy farms.

The researchers are funded through the 10-year, $32.4 million grant the university received from NASA in 2012. Many of the grant-funded projects are continuing collaborations between scientists from CSUMB and NASA as they seek to understand issues surrounding global warming and other changes in our natural environment.

Susan Alexander, professor in the Division of Science and Environmental Policy, has served as principal investigator on Cal State Monterey Bay’s work with NASA since 1997.

“Twenty years ago, NASA Ames Research Center was developing new research partnerships in the area of environmental science,” Alexander said. “It was a logical idea to partner with a university, where you could have many more scientists working in collaboration. It was also a great opportunity for CSUMB, which was a brand new university in the region.”

The competitive grant CSUMB received in 2012 allowed the university to continue and expand its work with NASA. Many of the scientists funded through the grant maintain offices at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field northwest of San Jose.

“We have had a variety of projects. The agriculture work gets a lot of attention because it is very applied, very local. It is the one that has generated the most student involvement, because there is a lot of field work,” Alexander said, citing the opportunities it provides students to gain hands-on experience with emerging technologies in agriculture, including wireless sensor networks and remote sensing.

Forrest Melton is the senior scientist leading the research efforts to use satellite data and surface sensor networks to better monitor agriculture productivity and water demand.

“California farmers are increasingly concerned about the long-term sustainability of our agricultural water supplies, and years like this underscore the challenges facing California’s farmers,” Melton said. “Our goal is to improve access to satellite and weather data for farmers to support them in improving on-farm water management.”

One of the outgrowths of this research is the development of web and mobile applications that allow a farmer to access data from Satellite Irrigation Management Support system. That system provides measurements of the water needs of a specific field by integrating satellite data with surface weather information from the California Irrigation Management Information System, operated by the Department of Water Resources.

Trials in Salinas Valley fields have shown that, through use of improved water management tools, fields of broccoli and lettuce can produce similar yields using 25-35 percent less applied water than current standard practice.

That saves water, and money. Using less water also results in more efficient use of fertilizers with less being wasted or leaching into the groundwater.

Other NASA-funded university researchers are developing datasets to analyze the impact of climate change on local communities; looking at Southern California desert areas to determine their suitability for renewable energy projects; studying how changes in forest lands affect CO2 levels in the atmosphere; and mapping the distribution of croplands worldwide.

The latter project is being led by senior scientist Cristina Milesi, whose team is using satellite and climate data to study how people are impacting the environment where they live.

Maps produced from NASA and NOAA satellites, which have been orbiting the earth since 1972, provide a long-term look at how our earth is changing.

Milesi said changes in the amount of cropland are well documented in North America, but that is not the case in many other areas.

“We don’t always know very well where the croplands are,” Milesi said. “And that is important to know when we are thinking about how secure our food sources are, how much water and other resources will be needed to support agriculture.”

An important aspect of the NASA grants are the research opportunities it provides to Cal State Monterey Bay students.

Julianne Rhodes is now in her final semester of her studies for a master’s degree in applied marine and watershed science. A returning student who received her undergraduate degree in 1987, Rhodes was looking for a research opportunity when she found one in Milesi’s lab that matched her interests.

It had an added benefit, Rhodes said: “It sounds kind of glamorous to work for NASA.”

She is now using her programming skills to help Milesi analyze the mountains of data she uses in her work.

The opportunity has only added to what has been a positive experience for Rhodes, who found the CSUMB marine and watershed science program when she was living in Santa Cruz and ready to make a career change.

“It sounded like exactly what I wanted to do and the program has really exceeded my expectations,” Rhodes said. “I don’t think most people realize the level of research that is going on here.”

Or you might say: Here, there and everywhere. MB


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Photos by Forrest Melton