Branching Out: GIS team helps assess state’s tree canopy

The Georgia Forestry Commission wants to know how much tree canopy the state had in 2015, and they have contracted a team from UNG’s Lewis F. Rogers Institute for Environmental & Spatial Analysis (IESA) to conduct the study.

Joan Scales, sustainable community forestry program manager for the Georgia Forestry Commission, said this project will help the agency encourage communities to better manage their trees.

“We are trying to get some data that we can use to showcase different ways that communities can conserve the canopy, as well as ways for them to understand that the use of impervious surfaces in construction is detrimental to the environment,” Scales said. “Those surfaces cause damage in several ways, such as collecting pollutants that wash into our water. Our hope it that this new study will help us see how much canopy we are losing, and we are planning two more phases to the study — phase two will be quantifying our impervious surfaces.”

Dr. Allison Bailey, associate professor in IESA, is the principal investigator of the project leading a team of students to quantify the amount of canopy observed in high-resolution satellite photos taken this past year.

“Urban areas and the amount of tree canopy affect our environmental conditions,” Bailey said. “It’s incredibly useful to know how Georgia’s canopy has changed over time.”

Students Jonathan Stewart and Emily Hunt are working under the direction of Andrew Hilliard, who graduated in August with a Bachelor of Science in environmental and spatial analysis and a certificate in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Along with Bailey, they are analyzing imagery and data from the U.S. Geographical Service and are developing a model that will be transferred onto a map of Georgia.

“We are processing around 1.3 terabytes of data, getting real-world experience of what a client would expect in a product, and we are learning how difficult it can be to deliver that,” Hilliard said. ‘This is definitely good job experience, as well as good professional, team-building and leadership development. Our time spent on this project is also transferable to a professional GIS license, which is a huge plus.”

IESA was formed in 2001 on UNG’s Gainesville Campus; it brings together the perspectives of numerous disciplines through the synthesis of geospatial science and technology, applied techniques, and theory to address social, human and environmental issues.

Measuring changes in the tree canopy can help communities understand the impact on environmental conditions.