Department of Geography Invigorated by New Professor

Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Analysis Lab a Reality at Last

It's been a long time coming, but Cesar Caviedes's Geography Department finally has the technology they've been working for well over a decade to get. Room 3018 in Turlington Hall has been transformed into a Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Analysis Lab. Instead of a chalkboard and student desks, it now houses a local area client-server system with 14 user terminals, a large digitizing tablet, a computer LCD display and several printers. "This lab is the first of its kind in the College and really puts Geography at the forefront technologically," Caviedes explained at the lab's September 25 opening.

Dean Harrison does the honors during the opening reception of Geography's new lab, while Cesar Caviedes and Mike Binford look on.

Caviedes also claimed that convincing Harvard professor Mike Binford to join his staff was the major precipitating factor in securing the lab. Binford spearheaded funding negotiations and supervised construction of the facility, and now teaches remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) courses in the recently completed lab.

Although Binford just moved here from Boston, he is no stranger to Gainesville. After finishing his PhD in zoology (with a minor in geology) at Indiana University in 1980, he spent six years working at the Florida Museum of Natural History. "Gainesville and UF are at the top of my list for places to live and work," he says, "so when I had the chance to come back, I was thrilled."

It was during his 11 years at Harvard that Binford trained himself to use remote sensing and GIS technology. While teaching in the landscape architecture department, he began using these systems to create environmental (landscape and aquatic ecology) models to test the environmental impact of students' and colleagues' designs. "By using the models," he explains, "they could design responsibly and gauge the effect of their designs on the ecological systems present at specific development sites."

So just what is remote sensing? "Remote sensing," Binford explains, "is simply a technique for collecting information about the earth's surface." Groups of satellites, orbiting between 180 and 20,000 km above us, use reflected visible and infrared radiation to measure how much light is reflected off the ground below. Sensors store the information as digital images, with each pixel representing a land space of 5-30 meters, depending on the type of sensor used. Another group of satellites record data in 1 km pixels, so that scientists can view large areas (whole continents, say) at one time.

Once these images are collected, geographic information systems are used to analyze and apply the digital information. The data, which can show topographic relief and bodies of water, is read in up to 7 band widths, each corresponding to a slightly different wavelength of light. Because all material on the earth's surface reflects light differently, studying the color of the pixels in each band helps scientists to understand what they're looking at. "If you're looking at a remote sensing image of Florida," says Binford, "and you see large patches of green pixels in one area, you'd know that green is being reflected as opposed to absorbed at that location, so you could assume it's most likely a densely treed or vegetated area."

A student in Mike Binford's remote sensing and geographic information systems class learns to interpret satellite images of the earth's surface.

There are many other applications for remote sensing. Landscape architects use it to ascertain land-use possibilities for planning and designing appropriate development projects (similar to the work Binford did at Harvard). Agronomists use it to develop precision farming methods and to locate fertile areas for potential planting or study. NASA uses the technology to document tropical deforestation. Scientists use it to do "global mapping," which allows them to track changes in seasonal patterns of a given area over time. One such study recently proved that the growing season in the Boreal Forest is now a week longer than ever before, apparently the result of global warming trends.

Binford's own remote sensing research, which focuses on Thailand and Bolivia, is unique and interdisciplinary. Thailand, for example, has experienced a documented and dramatic increase in its citizen's average income in the past 25 years, almost raising it to the status of an industrialized nation. But, oddly, these increases have occurred in the center of the country only. The eastern and northern regions remain very poor. Working with an economist, who collects demographic data, and a soil scientist, who takes samples of soil in different regions of Thailand (coordinated with the creation of the satellite images to insure accuracy), Binford hopes to uncover a direct correlation between Thai upward mobility and long-term soil productivity.

Geography's new lab makes for more than interesting research, however. "It's a good teaching lab," Binford emphasizes. "Our PhD and MA students learn important research skills, and the exposure even our undergraduates get in the lab may help them land good jobs after graduation. Because more and more state and federal agencies are using the kind of technical programs we teach, there's a growing demand for technology-trained geography graduates." These same types of technologies, which may ultimately entice students interested in modern techniques of environmental analysis to major in geography, have also revolutionized the discipline of cartography - no longer a "pen and ink" science. UF computer cartography students can use the lab's digitizing tablet, which looks like a large drafting table, to convert paper maps into digital data.

Binford's obvious enthusiasm for the lab and his new position is tempered only by technological reality. "This is not a state-of-the-art lab," he admits, "yet. Right now we don't have the power to perform certain complicated tasks." But just having the lab, he says, is the first step toward pulling in the kind of outside funding necessary to finance needed hardware upgrades. "We spent $72,000 on the lab, and we've already been awarded a grant from NASA for $100,000." That's an immediate 138% return. Not bad for three months on the job.