Study highlights 'fluid' nature of surface water

Researchers use satellite imagery to develop novel approach to predict presence of wetlands in semi-arid landscapes and changes over time.

Wetlands are critically important for water availability, forage production and maintaining biodiversity. Using satellite imagery, researchers at the University of Wyoming and The Nature Conservancy developed a novel approach to predict the presence of surface water in semi-arid landscapes to identify these crucial wetlands and their change over time.

University of Wyoming researchers Charlotte Gabrielsen and Melanie Murphy, in collaboration with Jeffrey Evans of The Nature Conservancy, detailed their new approach in the October issue of Remote Sensing of Environment. By using field data collected across the U.S. northern Great Plains and satellite imagery spanning more than 30 years, they provide a way to estimate where and how long surface water persists on the landscape. This approach highlights the inherent variability of wetlands across the landscape and over time.

“It’s important that we don’t think about wetlands as static features. In reality, wetlands exist as a continuum of water on the landscape that fluctuates dramatically across years in response to weather and climatic factors,” said Gabrielsen, a doctoral candidate in the program in ecology and department of ecosystem science and management. “Our study views wetlands in a new way: As dynamic landscape components, rather than as discrete features.”

The technique provides cost-effective wetland monitoring over large areas, which, in turn, promotes more informed conservation and management decisions. The approach also lays the foundation to address the effect of climate change on wetlands.

“Changes to surface water location and persistence has major implications for agriculture, wildlife and biodiversity,” Gabrielsen said.

“While some wetlands may only hold water for a brief portion of the year, these wetlands may be essential for maintaining biodiversity in semi-arid environments like Wyoming,” added Murphy, associate professor in the department of ecosystem science and management at the University of Wyoming.

“Ultimately, we hope this study will promote a shift from viewing landscape features as fixed and toward viewing them as dynamic components with a diverse range of ecological functions,” Gabrielsen said.

“Using a Multiscale, Probabilistic Approach to Identify Spatial-Temporal Wetland Gradients” is available at

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