Scientists take a bird’s eye-view of Bowie’s beetle problem -- Gazette.Net


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Bowie officials have partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NASA on a new program aimed at detecting trees afflicted by the emerald ash borer, a non-native beetle whose larvae feed on and kill ash trees.

The beetle, which is native to Asia, first infested the region in 2003 via a tree nursery shipment from Michigan, leading to widespread infestation reports in Charles, Howard, Anne Arundel, Washington and Garrett counties. Past efforts to eradicate the insect in Prince George’s County have led to the destruction of 27 square miles of trees, according to Gazette records.

Under the roughly $100,000 pilot program paid for jointly by NASA and the USDA, a NASA-owned Cessna plane loaded with sensitive scanners flew a couple of days in late June over Bowie, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center near Laurel, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center near Edgewater and surrounding areas, said J. Morgan Grove, a USDA research scientist working on the project.

The scan is expected to detect infested trees, and this week USDA workers are visiting the areas to see if their visual findings match the results found by the flyover.

There are around 800 ash trees used along area streets in Bowie, Allen said. Researchers chose Bowie for the survey due to its tree population and its close proximity to the Cessna’s airfield in Langley, Va., said Mark Carroll, a contractor with Sigma Space Corp., which is working on the project for NASA.

Using the plane to scan a large swath of land is expected to be cheaper and faster than sending out individuals to visually inspect trees for infestation, officials said.

It also provides benefits for foresters when dealing with areas where much of the tree population is on private land. Inspecting trees on private property can be time intensive to arrange and expensive to perform. A flyover of private property using the scanning equipment would allow foresters to be able to go to landowners with strong evidence of the bug infestation.

Although a tree afflicted with the insect can’t be moved outside the county to prevent spreading the emerald ash borer, it could be broken down and used for everything from making furniture to wood chips, Grove said.

“We’ll be able to work with those landowners so we might be able to link them to people who might be interested in buying those trees,” he said. “We would provide guidance on how to use it as a valuable product without spreading the ash borer.”

Bowie has an arborist on staff in part to keep an eye on the spread of the borer, said Bowie Mayor G. Frederick Robinson. Ash trees were planted extensively across the city when the community was laid out in the 1960s, said Gary Allen, chairman of Bowie’s environmental advisory committee.

“I’m very optimistic about the value of this kind of pilot,” Allen said. “I’m hopeful about the results.”

The plane used to scan area trees was loaded with about $500,000 worth of sensitive equipment installed in a mounted fiberglass tube, Carroll said. Inside the roughly 80-pound module, called the Goddard Lidar Hyperspectral and Thermal, or GLiHT, were three types of scanning equipment: one that detects the trees’ dimensions to help map each tree; one that senses leaves’ unique chemical signature, which is altered when a tree is infested; and a thermal sensor, as trees tend to give off more heat when sick or injured as their bodies work to repair damage, researchers said.

The data from the plane flight most likely won’t be fully analyzed until late this year, to allow time for researchers to develop the correct algorithms to identify healthy and unhealthy trees scanned during the survey.

“It’s a huge amount of data,” Grove said. ”We should have data results in December of how well we were able to pick out ash trees and stressed ash trees.”

If the program is effective, the USDA will push for forestry services across the country to consider implementing flyovers of their trees as part of their forest maintenence, Grove said.

amccombs@gazette.net