DOD tests software to reclaim land

A Defense Department environmental research program is using image-analysis software to assess damage to plants caused by military maneuvers in the desert and other arid areas.

DOD's Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) has been evaluating software developed by SPSS Inc. to determine how well the product can diagnose environmental damage and assist in reclaiming the land at several sites in the western United States, including the Nevada Test Site.

One of the roles of SERDP, which also receives funding from the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, is to support the effort to restore damaged lands so that they can be reused by the military, said W. Kent Ostler, a scientist with Bechtel Nevada, which manages the Nevada Test Site.

"We are there to help restore the environment and make sure [the Army] can train on it without degrading it to the point where it's not valuable for training," Ostler said.

About 70 percent of all DOD training and testing takes place on arid or semi-arid land. Military planners are examining software tools that will help diagnose the impact of those maneuvers on the land and on vegetation.

In February, SERDP started using SPSS' SigmaScan Pro - a program that originally was developed for use in identifying cancer cells in tissue samples - and will evaluate its effectiveness for several more months, Ostler said.

The software analyzes digitized aerial photographs of the desert to produce quick counts of plants such as shrubs, said Dennis Hansen, a senior scientist with Bechtel Nevada. It also can gather more detailed information about the plants, such as the amount of water the plants draw, by analyzing the color of the shrubs or the surface area of leaves.

The detailed analysis is used to help scientists determine where to plant seeds and how much seed is needed to restore plant life.

Scientists say the software saves time because scientists or other employees no longer have to travel to the site to count the types of vegetation, Hansen said. "The only other way of getting that data is putting more people on the ground with tape measures," he said.

SERDP, established in 1991, receives about $50 million annually to fund about 90 projects that help DOD comply with several guidelines, including waste control, conservation and pollution prevention, said Bob Holst, SERDP program manager at DOD.

SERDP also is active in the Mojave Desert and at Fort Irwin, Calif., Holst said.

Bechtel Nevada scientists also are testing a technology called laser-induced fluorescence imaging to evaluate desert flora, Ostler said. That technology bounces a laser beam off plants, making it possible to measure a particular wavelength as the plant's chlorophyll fluoresces to provide clues about the plant's stress level.

Bechtel Nevada is a consortium formed by Bechtel Nevada Corp., Johnson Controls Nevada Inc. and Lockheed Martin Nevada Technologies Inc. in 1996 to manage the Nevada Test Site. Nuclear weapons testing has not been done at the Nevada Test Site since 1993.

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