UW’s Yang Wins NASA Grant to Study Land Use and Fire in Western US Forests

woman standing outside
Di Yang

University of Wyoming School of Computing Assistant Professor Di Yang has been awarded a NASA Early Career Investigator Program grant to study how land-use decisions on Western U.S. forests have affected fire activity.

“I am thrilled and deeply grateful to receive this prestigious grant,” Yang says. “We’re going to be time-traveling through satellite and aerial images, uncovering the untold stories of how our actions in the past have shaped the wildfires we face today.”

The three-year project, funded by NASA’s Earth Science Division, is titled “Evaluating long-term impacts of land-use transformation on fire regimes over western U.S. Forest.” It will leverage an unprecedented fusion of historical and modern NASA Earth observation data to study how land-use changes have altered fire activity.

“The project aims to address critical knowledge gaps about the long-term legacy impacts of human-driven landscape changes, such as logging, agriculture and development, on contemporary wildfire patterns,” Yang says.

By integrating diverse NASA datasets spanning over 60 years, Yang and her team will examine the complex interactions between historical land use and fire regime shifts across broad ecological gradients in the West.

Central to the project is the use of declassified satellite imagery from the 1960s to the 1990s, which offers a unique glimpse into past land cover and vegetation patterns. These historical images, primarily from NASA’s CORONA missions, will be combined with modern high-resolution data from NASA’s Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation lidar and Landsat satellites to reconstruct land-use change trajectories and their influence on fire dynamics.

“Integrating these historical satellite images with cutting-edge lidar and multispectral data allows us to paint a comprehensive picture of landscape transformation over more than half a century,” Yang says. “This long-term perspective is key to understanding how past land management decisions have shaped current wildfire risks to communities and ecosystems.”

The project also will use data from a network of forested sites within the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), along with high-resolution remote sensing data from the NEON Airborne Observation Platform and field measurements of vegetation structure and fuels. By leveraging NEON’s standardized data collection protocols and processing workflows, the team will be able to efficiently integrate and scale results across the spatially distributed study areas.

“NEON’s infrastructure and data products are critical for enabling this type of large-scale, integrative research,” Yang says. “We look forward to working with the NEON team to advance our understanding of the complex drivers of changing fire regimes.”

The NASA Early Career Investigator Program supports innovative research by exceptional early-career scientists and engineers. Yang’s project was selected through a competitive peer-review process and demonstrates NASA’s commitment to investing in the next generation of Earth system science leaders.

UW’s School of Computing aims to provide UW students, faculty and staff, and Wyoming businesses and citizens with the computational tools, skills and approaches to drive transformation and innovation in the state.

For more information about the project and Yang’s research, email dyang1@uwyo.edu.

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