NASA Helps National Parks Track Impact of Noise, Lighting on Wildlife

Originally published: 
October, 2019

NASA and the National Park Service are working together to create a web-based tool that helps park managers better understand the impact of outdoor lighting and noise on animal species in national parks.

When completed, the website will allow park managers to choose a time period, such as the spring or winter seasons, and then zoom into a particular park to see sound and nighttime lights data and determine which animal species might be at risk from those sensory stimuli.

Recently a team of researchers and managers using noise and lighting data discovered that predator-prey relationships of cougars and mule deer were very different in non-park settings surrounding Salt Lake City, Utah, compared to inside national parks such as Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. One factor that might be contributing to this difference in predator-prey relationships is outdoor lighting.

"How cougars hunt their prey appears to be totally different in areas with highly elevated night light," said Neil Carter, lead of the joint project team from the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. He says cougars normally like to hunt in topographically complex landscapes like rocky mountainsides and crags, but researchers found that in brighter areas the cougars were hunting in more open, flat spaces.

"There's something totally changing and shifting in areas of high light, and those changes can alter food webs in unpredictable ways. For example, deer and cougars might change where and when they forage, in turn affecting vegetation patterns. It might also have impacts on human-wildlife interactions, with deer-vehicle collisions increasing or decreasing in certain areas" Carter said. "We're trying to link what we know about these animals from different datasets to information from satellites and remotely sensed measurements.”

Carter's team began the pilot project in February 2017. A goal of the project is to help protect the habitats of wildlife that make the parks their home and to preserve the park experience for human visitors. 

The sound data collected for the website comes from listening stations within selected national parks. For example, stations in Rocky Mountain National Park measure the loudness of sounds, called the amplitude, as well as the pitch or frequency of the sound. Including that data allows park managers to gauge the effects of human-made sounds on the park experience.

The nighttime light data come primarily from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite, a joint mission of NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Kurt Fristrup, science and engineering branch chief for the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division of the National Park Service, says including data from space gives park managers a faster and bigger picture of what's happening in their parks than what they’ve had in the past.

"By the time we measured conditions in a large-enough sample of parks to start seeing trends, the oldest data would be old enough that it'd probably merit a revisit," said Fristrup.

Additional data in the website comes from NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites and from the Landsat series of satellites which are jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey.

"By bringing together data from four U.S. government agencies, this project creates a powerful tool in support of our national parks," said Lawrence Friedl, director of NASA's Earth Science Division Applied Sciences Program. The ongoing project is funded in part by the Applied Sciences' Ecological Forecasting Program. 

With data now coming in on the amount and effect of light and noise, Carter says the next step is to work with park managers and people in neighboring communities to ease the problem.

"Mitigating the effects of outdoor lighting and noise is very doable and practical," said the lead of the project team, Neil Carter. "NASA’s remotely-sensed imagery provides crucial information to help target those mitigation efforts."

The joint project team also includes researchers from Boise State University, California Polytechnic State University, Utah State University and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

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Charlie Feinerman
NASA’s Earth Science Division Applied Sciences Program, Washington