Panama - Rainforest at the Crossroads

From January 26-February 6, 2004, an expedition of students, teachers, and scientists visited Barro Colorado Island, Panama, to explore the rainforest there while the JASON network of classrooms all over the world participated remotely via televised broadcasts.

Please see Panama: Isthmus that Changed the World for details on the topography of Panama and how that landscape was formed. Also, a high-resolution QuickBird image of Barro Colorado Island is available.

Zoom of Barro Colorado Island

About 3 million years ago the Isthmus of Panama formed a land bridge between the continents of North and South America. Situated just north of the equator, Panama enjoys a warm climate year round and is mostly covered by lush tropical rainforests. Participants in the JASON XV expedition will visit Barro Colorado Island, which sits like an emerald jewel in the sapphire waters of Lake Gatun at the northern end of the Panama Canal. (SRTM image of Panama courtesy NASA/JPL/NIMA. High-resolution Quickbird image of Barro Colorado Island courtesy JASON Drake, University of Georgia.

Why study the rainforest? Though we often take the plants and trees around us for granted, almost every aspect of our lives depends upon them. They feed us, clothe us, absorb carbon dioxide, provide us with oxygen, and give us building materials and medications. Drastic changes to the vegetation around us affect our health, economy, and environment. Wondrous in their diversity of species, prolific in their plant growth rates, rainforests are particularly important ecosystems. Scientists observe that both natural climate changes and human activities are stressing tropical rainforests in some regions, and so scientists are collecting the data they need to predict how these important ecosystems will respond.

NASA’s Terra, Aqua, and Landsat satellites carry sensors that collect detailed measurements of the land surface every day all over the world, creating a picture of Earth that can be updated every day as the Earth changes. Sensors onboard these, and other, satellites are continually collecting a “mosaic” of image data all over Earth’s vegetated surfaces, including rainforests like those in Panama.

Terra in orbit movie screenshot/link Terra 'painting the picture' movie screenshot/link

NASA’s Earth observing satellites orbit very nearly from pole to pole, measuring the amount of sunlight reflected and heat emitted by the Earth in broad swaths. Over time, these viewing swaths can be stitched together into global scale mosaic images. Scientists use Earth observing satellites to study the forests of our world to determine how they may be influenced by climate changes as well as human activities. (Images and animations by Reto Stockli, NASA GSFC)

NASA, the University of Washington, and the University of Georgia are providing samples of these remote sensing data to help educators and students participating in JASON understand how and why scientists use satellites to monitor Earth’s vegetation characteristics, and to explore the relationships among key vegetation characteristics, including greenness, leaf area, absorbed sunlight, photosynthetic activity, and day and nighttime temperature.

Exercise 1