Tracking forest fires from space

Student researcher pieces together satellite data to help communities monitor wildfires

Morgan Crowley’s interest in sustainability took root early.

As a schoolchild in New Hampshire, she went to summer camp on Pine Mountain – so named for the stately evergreens that used to blanket the site. By the time Morgan started going there, “there were only two pines left” because the rest had fallen victim to a forest fire or to logging. As a result, “I grew up thinking very much about ecological sustainability.”

Crowley’s curiosity about the environment was also fed by a fascination with aerial imagery. Her grandfather was a U.S. Air Force pilot, so the family had “aerial photographs all over our house.” During an eighth grade field trip to Washington, D.C., she got her first look at Google Earth – and immediately searched for her own home in southern New Hampshire, near the Atlantic coast. The bird’s eye view of the area “gave me a new perspective.”

Now, as a PhD candidate in Natural Resource Sciences at McGill, Crowley has found a way to combine her passions for natural landscapes and aerial imagery. She has developed a new technique to rapidly map wildfires from space by piecing together freely available satellite data. Her goal: to create a global dashboard that will help people in timber-dependent regions track wildfires that threaten their lands.

Crowley is also part of an eight-member team of grad students collaborating through the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI), an ambitious program launched by the University three years ago to tackle some of the most complex issues in sustainability. Crowley’s team, which includes students from Economics, Geography and Epidemiology, is examining how “ecosystem services” -- nature’s contributions to human well-being – factor into globally traded commodities such as food or timber.

From Arts to Sciences

When she started as an undergrad at McGill in 2009, Crowley had no idea she’d become a scientist. “My dad was a salesman, my mom was a schoolteacher,” she recalls. “I didn’t see science as an option.”

Besides, she recalls, “I loved the Arts program, because you could take whatever worked for you.” An introductory course on religious ethics and the environment led her to major in Environment and Development in the School of Environment.

Her program included a hefty dose of Economics and some Geography classes. One class, co-taught by a Philosophy professor, included a retreat at McGill’s Gault Nature Reserve in Mont St-Hilaire, Quebec. The weekend of reflection in the countryside “was awesome,” she says. An epiphany of a different sort emerged from a Geography course that brought together her childhood interests in landscapes and aerial photography. “When I took a class with Margaret Kalacska,” a professor who uses satellite imagery to research environmental issues, “it all clicked for me.”

During the summer before her final undergraduate year, Crowley conducted an independent study project under the supervision of Elena Bennett, a Natural Resource Sciences professor and leading expert in ecosystem services. The project involved studying golf courses that shun the use of chemicals. Crowley spent one day a week doing ground work – literally – on a golf course along the New Hampshire coast. She also led community outreach efforts to help the course get the word out about its environmentally friendly approach. “They hadn’t publicized it,” she says.

That summer project “is what really got me into research. Elena helped me realize that science was an option for me,” says Crowley, who now runs the Women in Science group on the Macdonald Campus.

Eye-opening experience

After earning her BA in 2013, she went on to complete a Master’s in Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of New Hampshire. Her research there involved forest management in wildfire-prone areas in eastern Oregon --an experience that proved eye-opening, as well.

“I had grown up in New England thinking loggers were the bad guys. When I went to Oregon, I realized there’s a lot more to it,” she says. The logging industry, a traditional mainstay of many Oregon communities, had been buffeted by environmental restrictions and other factors. “Sustainability is very complex. Depending on your lens, you might only think about the ecological side, but not the human side. You need to think about the people in those communities, depending on those resources.”

Crowley returned to McGill in 2017 to start her PhD program. “One of the main things I learned in Oregon is there is a lack of information – especially freely available data – for people to learn about when and where wildfires may spread onto their land.”

With her supervisor, Jeffrey Cardille, and co-authors from the Canadian Forest Service, Crowley published a paper in June showing how her technique could be used to map British Columbia forest fires from space in near real-time.

“Morgan’s work is very important and timely, given that fires are becoming an increasingly prevalent part of everyone’s experience, particularly out west,” said Cardille, a professor in Natural Resource Sciences and the McGill School of Environment. “But are these fires really more frequent now than in the past? Are they larger? Do they burn longer? Morgan’s work can help provide the answers to these vital questions for Canada.”

Landscape scholars

With encouragement from Profs. Cardille and Bennett, Crowley applied last year to join the MSSI “landscape scholars” program. With team members coming from a variety of disciplines across McGill’s campuses, “finding a common language was probably one of the biggest challenges when we gathered around the table,” says Kerstin Schreiber, a PhD student in Geography who brings an expertise in food systems to the team.

“Our problems today require expertise from more than just one perspective,” said Bennett, who is also a professor in the McGill School of Environment. “The landscape scholars are drawn from all around McGill’s incredible talent pool, and they represent the best minds working together to make a better future in our nation’s landscapes.”

Now that the team members have agreed on a common approach for looking at ecosystem services, they are preparing to form smaller groups for the coming year, with members pitching projects that will dig deeper into specific industries. Crowley is proposing a timber project “that will bring together human and ecological sustainability.”

The team members are also learning skills from each other, and their work on the MSSI project could well lay the groundwork for long-term collaborations, says Crowley, who aims to carve out a career as a professor. “When I think of someone who knows food systems, I won’t have to guess at who I could collaborate with. I’ll always be able to call my new colleague Kerstin.”