Interview with Kyle Cavanaugh: Floating Forests

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Kyle Cavanaugh, Scientist for Floating Forests

The recent White House Citizen Science Forum, “Open Science and Innovation: Of the People, By the People, For the People showcased the work of many amazing people whose work we consider part of the citizen science spectrum. We wanted to get to know some of these individuals better so we asked a few of them to tell us a little more about themselves and how they engage others in public participation in scientific research. We hope you may learn from their experiences and find new connections to the work you do.

We also consider this the launching point for a new, ongoing series of blog posts about people who are working to design, manage, and/or research efforts along a spectrum of citizen science. Watch for more posts throughout the year!

Here we spoke with Kyle Cavanaugh, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography at UCLA about his project, Floating Forests.

CSA: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get to where you are today?

Kyle: Much of my research involves using long-term time series of satellite imagery to document changes in coastal ecosystems. I started my career working as a satellite imagery analyst for a company based outside of Washington DC called Earth Satellite Corporation (now MDA Federal). For 2 or 3 years I worked for EarthSat making maps of land cover, coastal resources such as oyster beds, and fault lines for oil exploration.

This work inspired me to go back to grad school at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), where I specialized in using satellite imagery to study coastal ecosystems such as giant kelp forests. This research also gave me to opportunity to get out from behind my computer and do some SCUBA diving in the kelp forests around Santa Barbara, which gave me a powerful appreciation for these incredible ecosystems.

After I finished my PhD I worked as a postdoctoral scholar at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Institute, where I used similar satellite based methods to observe the response of mangrove forests to recent warming. In November 2014 I started as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at UCLA and am currently building on these and other projects.

CSA: Describe your citizen science/public participation in scientific research project for us.

Kyle: During my PhD work I developed a method for mapping giant kelp canopy from Landsat satellite imagery. One problem with this method is that it requires a lot of work. We haven’t yet been able to fully automate the method and so each image has to be screened by humans. In order to map kelp forest changes along the coast of California we employed a large number of undergraduate and graduate students. However, it took us years just to get data for California. Classifying the 10s to 100s of thousands of images needed to map kelp forest dynamics on global scales seemed impossible.

One day I was at a meeting organized by kelp forest scientist Jarrett Byrnes (currently a professor in the Department of Biology at University of Massachusetts Boston). Jarrett introduced me to a group called Zooniverse who specialize in developing citizen science based projects in fields ranging from astronomy to zoology. Jarrett and I submitted a proposal to Zooniverse and they helped us develop Floating Forests.

Floating Forests basically outsources the work that our undergraduate and graduate student research assistants were performing: it enables citizen scientists to outline kelp canopy on Landsat satellite imagery. We then use this data to understand how kelp forests around the world have been changing over the past 30 years.

CSA: Kyle, why are you excited about citizen science?

Kyle: In recent years the amount of satellite imagery that is available from both commercial and government sources has increased exponentially. For example, Landsat 8, one of the satellites we use in Floating Forests, covers the entire globe every 16 days, and all of its images are made freely available to the public. The Landsat program has been collecting imagery for over 30 years now, and Landsat is just one of many earth-observing satellites. There are countless uses for this type of imagery, but all this data also presents a challenge: how do we make sense of this flood of imagery? How do we sort through it all? I believe that citizen science can provide one solution to this problem.

CSA: Thanks for taking a moment to share your story with us Kyle! We look forward to hearing what Floating Forests uncovers with the help of citizen science.

Want to learn more about Floating Forests? Follow them on Twitter @floatingforests

Posted on: October 1, 2015  |  Category: Blog
Tags: citizen science, floating forests, kelp, landsat, ucla, white house