Satellites and a partnership between the National Parks Service, NASA DEVELOP and other organizations helped UVa-Wise students Brooke Colley and Austin Counts conduct research on environmental issues in the Northern Great Plains and the Grand Canyon.

Colley used NASA Earth Observations to detect changes in annual snowpack coverage in the intermountain natural parks, specifically in Glacier, Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. The communities raised concerns that ice and snow melt in the national parks have the region seeing changes in vegetation cover and fire regime because of receding ice sheets. Mapping the changes is a positive way to build management plans to respond to the changing landscape.

In her presentation, Colley explained that the areas that were previously covered by persistent ice and snow are now exposed. A study of the yearly changes in the ice and snow cover allowed researchers to see areas of glacial boundary recession.

According to Colley, national parks in the Northern Great Plains are seeing the glacier and ice melting due to changes in climate. In Grand Teton National Park, only 10 glaciers are left, and two-thirds of the glaciers in Glacier National Park have disappeared since the 1980s. Yellowstone National Park has no glaciers, but ice and snow cover has receded.

Colley said her research had limitations caused by shadows in the photos of the region. Cloud covers also created some false positives, she said. Overall, she was pleased with the results of her research.

Counts, using similar resources and partners, conducted research on a project to assist the National Park Service monitor shoreline land cover change in the lower Grand Canyon. He worked on the Lake Mead area.

According to his research, Lake Mead’s water levels have decreased because of an ongoing drought in that part of the country. The drought, which started in 1998, has caused Lake Mead to fall to historic lows, and that has exposed thousands of acres of lakebed sediment, which contributed to changes in riparian vegetative cover. The low water has also harmed air and water quality because of wind disturbance of the exposed sediment. Counts found that invasive plant species colonized parts of the lakebed sediment, which altered habitats for land and avian organisms.

Counts concluded that the water level decrease correlates closely with the drought measurements. He said the changes directly impacted the riparian ecosystem.

Counts and Colley are two of several students working with NASA DEVELOP on a variety of research projects. For information on NASA DEVELOP, contact Michael Brooke at