Beavers and Space—Sam Wilson

It’s December here in New Haven, Connecticut. The leaves have all fallen, the grass is done growing, and the days are getting quite short. It also means that Christmas is right around the corner. I was having a conversation with friends the other day about Christmas movies. Afterward, I remembered one that hadn’t come up in our conversation, “Deck the Halls”. It’s a pretty cringey mid-2000’s Christmas movie with an odd yet relevant storyline. The main character, played by Danny DeVito, is absolutely obsessed with creating a Christmas lights display at his house that will be visible from space.

The obsession with trying to be seen from space is one that I feel deeply. My masters research here at the Yale School of the Environment focuses on using satellite imagery to improve our understanding of the variability and distribution of the big sagebrush ecosystem. My work with Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative at Yale involves developing a protocol for monitoring beaver dam analogs’ ecological impact with satellite derived information. So, when I remembered “Deck the Halls”, I felt just like Danny DeVito, obsessed with what we can see from space.

A lot of people are unfamiliar with the applications of remotely sensed data (typically from satellites). I was too until I took a course in the 3rd year of my undergraduate studies, but I think this is a travesty. These data vary from visible light to different types of microwaves and everything in between, spanning up to 40 years and covering the globe! Combined with this incredible trove of data, computing power (specifically in the cloud computing world) has progressed to the point that all is needed is an internet connection to be able to manipulate and analyze this data. On top of that, deep learning is now progressing the field even further, taking what the tech world has done in the application of algorithms to large data sets, and applying it to environmental data using satellite imagery.

As I work with Ucross at Yale and our western partners for the project (The Nature Conservancy-Montana, World Wildlife Fund, and Montana Conservation Corp.) I can’t help but to appreciate the power of what we are trying to do. We are attempting to find an impact that these beaver dam analogs have had on the landscape that can be seen from space. While Danny DeVito had mixed results in his attempts, I know that we will create a product that will be successful and informative.

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 Above: A wetland in central Idaho that has benefitted from a restoration project. I would bet this is visible from space. Credit: Sam Wilson
Above: A stream in southern Idaho that is clearly influenced by beavers, demonstrating the incredible effect that these small creatures have on such large systems. Credit: Sam Wilson