Blue Heron Nature Preserve, Georgia Tech teams up to analyze 30-acre tree canopy

By Hannah E. Jones

With over 80 percent of the US population living in urban areas, Atlanta residents are fortunate to reside in an urban center referred to as the city in the forest. The people at Blue Heron Nature Reserve are committed to ensuring that Atlanta lives up to its legacy as a green city.

Blue Heron is a 30-acre natural oasis nestled near Chastain Park, with a mission to foster a personal experience with nature for every visitor through conservation, education, and art. This year, the Blue Heron team partnered with the Georgia Institute for Technology to track the preserve’s tree canopy and its changes through the seasons via drone.

Blue Heron in fall versus summer. (Courtesy of Blue Heron Nature Preserve, Georgia Institute of Technology.)

Georgia Tech’s Javier Irizarry is the expert behind the drone, visiting Blue Heron four times in a year to capture photos and data points – including temperature, height and GPS coordinates – to track the nature reserve in each season. The project started this summer and will continue until next spring, with plans to follow up in the next few years.

Javier Irizarry demonstrates the data collection process. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

To collect this data, Irizarry divided the 30 acres into five segments. From there, he spends about 15 minutes per section flying the drone 250 feet above the ground, scanning the tree canopy. The images can be viewed in real time through regular and infrared camera and are uploaded to DroneDeploy, a program that provides 3D mapping and analysis.

Once the project is complete, the Blue Heron team will use this research to better manage and protect their pocket of nature. For example, drone images allow the team to identify changes in the landscape or potential issues impacting forest health.

“We want to compare what our forest cover looks like,” said Denise Cardin, director of conservation and operations for Blue Heron. “We want to observe how our landscape changes over time. Like our pond drying up and changing from a pond to a swamp. [It’s important to know] how our landscape is changing and how to better nurture and maintain it.

As a by-product, the team is also able to use the data to track nearby neighborhood changes. For example, after reviewing recent data with SaportaReport, they saw that a nearby development had clearcut a section of land that appeared to cross Blue Heron’s property.

(From left to right) Javier Iziarry, Denise Cardin and Melody Harclerode. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

Once the project is finalized next summer, the nonprofit plans to share the information with local governments, universities and environmental groups to educate them about the project and advocate for additional tree cover protections. of the region. In an area as hot and prone to flash flooding as Atlanta, trees are a vital part of mitigating these effects.

“Those who are stewards of these parks and green spaces, using a tiered approach, can be even stronger stewards because we now have additional tools in our arsenal,” said executive director Melody Harclerode.

She continued, “Our reach is multi-generational and this information is not only for adults, but we can also inspire children through our camps and after-school programs to help them understand the importance of trees in their community. We like to find ways to not be siloed in our [efforts].”

This dataset will be used to compare Blue Heron in summer. (Courtesy of Blue Heron Nature Preserve, Georgia Institute of Technology.)

For Blue Heron, this initiative is about taking matters into our own hands rather than looking to local municipalities to lead the charge in strengthening our green assets. The team hopes others will follow.

“A healthy forest canopy does more than just remove carbon dioxide from the air, it is also a very healthy resource for watershed management. All runoff water enters the reserve, filters through the ground and enters the aquifer as cleaner water,” Cardin said. “I think Atlanta is slowly appreciating a health canopy and we want to be part of it.”

Cardin added, “Data curation helps us nurture nature as it should be in the Atlanta area, and helps us make any decisions that may arise in the future.”

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