Tracking forest fires from space

Published: 21 November 2019

Student researcher pieces together satellite data to help communities monitor wildfires

Morgan Crowley’s interest in sustainability took root early.

As a schoolchild in New Hampshire, she went to summer camp on Pine Mountain – so named for the stately evergreens that used to blanket the site. By the time Morgan started going there, “there were only two pines left” because the rest had fallen victim to a forest fire or to logging. As a result, “I grew up thinking very much about ecological sustainability.”

Crowley’s curiosity about the environment was also fed by a fascination with aerial imagery. Her grandfather was a U.S. Air Force pilot, so the family had “aerial photographs all over our house.” During an eighth grade field trip to Washington, D.C., she got her first look at Google Earth – and immediately searched for her own home in southern New Hampshire, near the Atlantic coast. The bird’s eye view of the area “gave me a new perspective.”

Now, as a PhD candidate in Natural Resource Sciences at McGill, Crowley has found a way to combine her passions for natural landscapes and aerial imagery. She has developed a new technique to rapidly map wildfires from space by piecing together freely available satellite data. Her goal: to create a global dashboard that will help people in timber-dependent regions track wildfires that threaten their lands.


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