Canadian Underwriter

University of Calgary professor using NASA satellite data to help forecast forest fires

July 26, 2016   by Canadian Underwriter

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An engineering professor from the University of Calgary is using freely accessible satellite data from NASA to create five classes of forest fire risk to help accurately predict where these hazards might strike.

Results from University of Calgary engineer Quazi Hassan’s initial research have led the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to renew his funding to continue his multi-year research into forecasting where forest fires might strike. Photo by Colleen De Neve.

Quazi Hassan, a geomatics engineering associate professor in the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, is using the data to accurately predict where forest fires may strike, even in the most remote locations in the province, UToday, a University of Calgary publication, noted on Monday.

Hassan, whose funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) has just been renewed to continue this multi-year research, said that “there are only so many weather stations in the province, so there are remote areas where we don’t get very much data. My idea is to use remote sensing to forecast where forest fires are likely to occur so we can mobilize resources and get to the areas earlier.”

Currently, the system for forecasting forest fires is reliant on weather stations where data is captured on rainfall volume, temperature, relative humidity and wind speed, UToday said. But using data captured by NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite, Hassan’s team has been able to capture data on precipitable water (the amount of water vapour in a column of the atmosphere that could fall as rain) as well as surface temperature and moisture of vegetation, to create five classes of forest fire risk.

Using historic data, Hassan’s team found that their high, very high and extremely high classifications coincided with 77% of the fires in Alberta from 2009 to 2011. “His findings were promising enough that after five years of NSERC funding, his project has received money for another five years,” Hassan said. “As this project continues, his team will tackle more questions including how wildfire behaves and smoke migration patterns.”

Hassan’s hope is to develop his research into an accurate system that can augment what is already in place to provide forecasting for areas that are less accessible while also bolstering the reporting from established weather stations.

Currently, Hassan’s research team includes a postdoctoral fellow, three PhD students and two Master of Science students. This project is one piece of a broader interest Hassan has in finding ways to use technology to help mitigate natural disasters caused by fire, drought and flooding.

“These natural hazards can have a huge impact on our existence on the earth’s surface,” he said. “And especially with the effects of climate change now being felt, finding solutions is very important.”