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NMSU graduate student explores a passion for geography

Anna Patterson always knew she loved maps. Now, she is putting that love to good use by helping to provide the missing link in key research to improve land management practices for her graduate thesis.

Graduate student Anna Patterson is conducting research on the assessment of arid lands. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Patterson's research is focused on mapping vegetation boundaries. In 2003, Michael DeMers, an associate professor in New Mexico State University's Department of Geography, along with assistant professor Daniel Dugas, began a research project on the Armendaris Ranch to produce a methodology that would allow for rapid assessment of arid land without the use of a lot of technology.

Using landforms derived from the visual inspection of digital satellite images, the two were able to classify potential vegetation classes one would see on the ranch.

DeMers and Dugas did a cursory test on the vegetation boundaries but did not have a technique to determine the accuracy of the boundaries of the vegetation classes. Patterson's thesis is centered on developing a sampling methodology to actually test to see if the boundary lines between different types of vegetation are accurate.

Armendaris Ranch covers a little more than 350,000 acres in south-central New Mexico. It is owned by Ted Turner. The ranch is home to several endangered species.

"It is a relatively pristine northern Chihuahuan desert ecosystem," said Patterson, a graduate student in the Department of Geography. "There hasn't been much development there. It's as close to pristine desert grassland as you're going to get. That is why it was chosen for the calibration site.

"So far, it looks like the boundaries are exactly where they should be," Patterson said. "I gave them very little wiggle room."

Patterson has found a few areas where the wrong vegetation is present, but later learned these areas bordered land that used to be owned by a vineyard and were later acquired by the ranch. She said she needs to extract that land from the potential study area because it has been impacted. If any of the sample areas she has tested end up being land that is impacted, she will be able to compare the impacted areas with those that are not impacted.

Vegetation is difficult to map in an arid environment when remote sensing imagery is used, because more than 50 percent of the ground is bare, Patterson said. If they can create a predictive model of the kinds of vegetation expected on the land, they can take the calibrated area and check it against the Jornada Long-Term Ecological Research project in Las Cruces. The researchers already know which areas of the Jornada have been impacted by woody plant encroachment or land degradation. If the maps match up, they now have a predictive model of the type of vegetation expected to be seen under current climate conditions and can tell if there has been further encroachment or degradation. These tools can be used to assist land managers.

"Both the success and the ultimate adoption of the methodology for assessment of arid lands depends on the successful completion of Anna's work," DeMers said. "When finalized, we will be able to transfer the methodology to developing nations with similar arid lands management issues but with limited technological resources such as high-end image processing software and hardware."

After being a website programmer for more than 15 years, Patterson said she was tired of mapping out Web pages and turned her sights on a new venture.

"I always had an interest in maps," Patterson said. "I just didn't know that was what geography was. I had the same misconceptions that I now fight against, that geography is about place names and capitals. I found out it is more than that. It's about looking for spatial patterns, which is what I've always done. I just didn't know I was doing it."

Patterson earned her bachelor's degree in geography with an emphasis in Environmental and Natural Resources from San Diego State University in 2006. She is working toward her Master's of Applied Geography at NMSU.

Patterson's initial research was a literature review that has been published in the "Papers of the Applied Geography Conference." Her results, along with an expanded version of DeMer's and Dugas' paper on the classification method, has been solicited for publication in the International Journal of Applied Geospatial Research.

"Anna has brought with her to the department a keen mind with an intensity few master's students I have encountered possess," said DeMers, Patterson's adviser. "Her computational skills are outstanding and she possesses a thirst for knowledge."

NOTE: This article was taken from the upcoming issue of NMSU's Research & Resources Magazine, which will be available during the Spring 2010 semester online at http://researchmag.nmsu.edu/2010_SP/index.html.