UMF Professor Andrew Barton extracting a core from a tree.  UMF Submitted Photo

FARMINGTON — NASA has awarded Dr. Andrew Barton, professor of Biology at the University of Maine at Farmington, and a team of five other forest scientists a $597,000 grant to continue their research on whether the thinning in Arizona ponderosa pine forest increases water supplies for wild ecosystems and human communities alike.

The investigation will be a three-year project and will also feature scientists from Wesleyan University and Northern Arizona University, including the team leader, Dr. Temuulen Sankey.

“We had a meeting with [Sankey],” Barton explained in a phone interview on Thursday, Jan 26. “And we said, ‘Hi, would you like to write a proposal for NASA, with us?’, and she said, ‘Sure’.

He continued, “We wrote a proposal because NASA sent out a message saying, ‘we would like people to send in proposals for doing second generation validation of ECOSTRESS.’”

ECOSTRESS, according to Barton, is a thermal instrument on the International Space Station that measures the temperature of plants and uses that to understand plant stress. Barton, Sankey and others were involved in the first round of validation test, wherein they performed tests on the ground to compare the accuracy of ECOSTRESS.

The first generation of validation test was held from 2020 to 2023. For the second generation, Barton and his team submitted the proposal in June of 2022 with the grant being awarded in November later that year.


According to Barton, the Arizona ponderosa pine forest, which is near Flagstaff, is in a unique position with its high rate of uncontrollable wildfires.

“I’m interested these days in how changes in the climate and changes in wildfires, and how they are driving changes in forests,” Barton explained.

“If we look at forests like the ponderosa pine forests, and some other forests I have worked in, those kinds of forest naturally would have burned frequently,” he explained. “They probably would have burned every five, ten or 15 years. A wildfire would have come through, but it would not have been a big wildfire that burned all the trees off, it would have been wildfire that stayed on the surface of the forest, and sort of thinned the forest out. It never got to be intense, or really severe.”

Bowen weather station in a ponderosa pine stand at the Chimney Springs field site near Flagstaff, Arizona UMF Submitted Photo

These kinds of fires, Barton stated, would naturally occur during a dry season with lightning strikes igniting the wildfires. These wildfires would have only thinned out the forest of dead trees and other combustible elements, but due to the intervention and fire suppression from local communities, these fires burn much less frequently.

This resulted in an excess buildup of these combustible elements, which means within the last 30 years, the wildfires burn much hotter and more out of control than they did previously.

“So, the problem in these frequent fire forests is that these trees are not adapted to big fires that burn up the whole canopy,” he said. They’re adapted to fires coming through frequently, and just sort of thinning out the forest. And now there’s too much fuel. So, when you get a fire, you often will get a really hot fire.”

The research team will employ on-site weather stations, underground soil moisture meters, sap-flow sensors inserted into trees, laser-equipped drones, LIDAR [Light Detection and Ranging], and sensors on the Landsat satellite and the International Space Station. These instruments will measure how thinning alters temperature, water balance, drought severity and tree growth in ponderosa pine forests in northern Arizona.

In a press release for the project, Barton stated, “Drought and wildfire are causing widespread death of trees in western forests and serious impacts on human communities. I’m very excited that our project has the potential to demonstrate how we might make these forests more resilient to these impacts. Thinning is not an appropriate climate solution for all forests, but in ponderosa pine forests, it might just be a route to helping protect this precious resource.”

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