Ceiba Tree, The Peten, Guatemala

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Biosphere Change Detection

The Petén, Guatemala

Temples at Tikal, GuatemalaThe Petén, northern Guatemala, was once inhabited by a population of several million Maya before their collapse in the 9th century A.D. The seventh and eighth centuries were a time of crowning glory for millions of Maya; by 930 A.D. only a few scattered houses remained. It appears that at the time of their collapse, the Maya had cut down most of their trees. After centuries of regeneration, the Petén now represents the largest remaining tropical forest in Central America, but is experiencing rapid deforestation in the wake of an invasion of settlers. The successful adaptive techniques of the indigenous population are being abandoned in favor of the destructive techniques of monoculture and cattle raising. These techniques also contribute to the destruction and looting of unrecorded archeological sites. Remote sensing and geographic information system (GIS) analysis are being used to address issues in Maya archeology as well as monitor the effects of increasing deforestation in the area today. One thousand years ago the forests of the Petén were nearly destroyed by the ancient Maya, who, after centuries of successful adaptation, finally overused their resources. Current inhabitants are threatening to do the same thing today in a shorter time period with a lesser population. Through the use of remote sensing / GIS analysis, we are attempting to answer questions about the past in order to protect the resources of the future. We cannot rely strictly on remotely sensed data, it is necessary for the research team to travel into the jungle to verify what we think we see from the air. This is called ground truthing.

Central American countries have established dozens of national parks for preservation, including the Petén. Change detection analysis, using satellite data between 1986-1997, shows increasing deforestation of the Petén's tropical forest as a result of an influx of settlers. The large expanse of the forest makes it hard to monitor and protect. Satellite imagery is proving to be a valuable tool in monitoring this area.

Deforestation in the PetenThe Maya Biosphere Reserve was established in 1990 through an agreement between three neighboring countries, Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The reserve represents the largest contiguous tract of tropical forest remaining in Central America. Within the boundaries of the reserve are extensive seasonal fresh water wetlands (bajos).

Effects of burning the rain forests:
The cleared landscape causes the thin soils to quickly erode away. The flora and fauna are destroyed. The archeological sites are destroyed by the heat and erosion. The cleared landscape also makes the sites more accessible to looters.

Things seen in the Petén using Remote Sensing:
1. Different types of vegetations,
2. The pattern of deforestation,
3. Mayan roads that lead to unrecorded sites,
4. Archeological sites.

The protection of the rain forest is synonymous with the protection of archeological sites.

Selected Papers

"Human Migration and Agricultural Expansion: An Impending Threat to the Maya Biosphere Reserve," with S.A. Sader, C. Reining, and C. Soza. Forestry, Volume 95, Number 12, December 1997.

"Validating Prehistoric and Current Social Phenomena Upon the Landscape of the Peten, Guatemala," Special Publication of the National Academy of Sciences / National Research Council on People and Pixels: Using Remotely Sensed Data in Social Science Research, National Academy Press, May 1998.

"Time-series Tropical Forest Change Detection: a Visual and Quantitative Approach," with S.A. Sader, and J.C. Smoot. SPIE, 2818:2-12, 1996.

"Forest Change Estimates for the Northern Peten Region of Guatemala- 1986 to 1990." In Human Ecology. September, 1994.

"Applications of Ecological Concepts and Remote Sensing Technologies in Archeological Site Reconnaissance," with F. Miller and D. Lee. (In Applications of Space-Age Technology in Anthropology, edited by Clifford Behrens and Thomas Sever. NASA, Stennis Space Center, MS, 1991.)

Responsible Official: Dr. James L. Smoot (James.L.Smoot@nasa.gov)
Page Author: Tom Sever
Page Curator: Diane Samuelson (diane.samuelson@msfc.nasa.gov)