Remote sensing expert studies relationship between land change and climate change

Zhe Zhu
Zhe Zhu

In January 2019, Zhe Zhu joined the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment as an assistant professor specializing in developing remote sensing techniques to track land changes in the global landscape. Says Zhu, “I am interested in the four W’s—where, when, what and why the land is changing.”

His global environmental remote sensing laboratory  focuses on these issues and how the data relate to climate change.

“The earth is a closed system and we know the increase in CO2 is creating an imbalance,” Zhu says. “The more imbalance, the more danger. We know the CO2 levels are increasing at an alarming rate, but I also notice some positive changes and feedback from current research such as the increase in vegetation and its ability to trap CO2 in the ocean. While nature has ways to reduce the effects from these imbalances, human impact is currently producing a greater negative impact.”

Zhu is a member of the USGS 2018-2023 Landsat Science Team, for which he is working on near real-time monitoring and characterization of land change. Zhu completed his first year of work on the grant while an assistant professor at Texas Tech University. Work on the remaining four-year, $870,000 grant is being carried out at UConn.

“What I am trying to do is make this data management relevant to our environment and resources,” Zhu says. “Any land change is on my target, including ice cap shrinkage, water-land dynamics, urbanization, forest change, fire and disasters such as earthquakes and floods. I want to explore and quantify their frequency, severity, patterns and changes.”

He plans to create a land change website that is updated in near real-time (i.e., every few days) and includes a variety of changes occurred within the entire continuous U.S. Zhu has also received a two-year grant from NASA to study the impact of human night-time activities based on the night-time light images from NASA’s Black Marble products. Some of his past research includes better classification of urban areas; the development of algorithms for automated cloud, cloud shadow and snow detection in Landsat images; and algorithms for continuous monitoring of forest disturbances and land cover change.

As a teacher, Zhu brings cutting-edge technology to his students. “I always show my research results in my class,” he says. “Technology is changing so rapidly, bringing the newest, exciting technology is a good way to attract their attention. I also encourage them to develop their own ideas with the possibility of publishing their results.”

In addition to his research and teaching responsibilities, Zhu is a member of the EROS CalVal Center of Excellence Science Interface Panel and associate editor of Remote Sensing of Environment and Science of Remote Sensing and on the editorial boards of PeerJ and Remote Sensing. Zhu received his bachelor’s degree in remote sensing and photogrammetry at Wuhan University in China and his Ph.D. in geography from Boston University.

Zhu’s primary goal at UConn is to connect students and researchers with remote sensing technology. “One of the reasons I was attracted to UConn is  the exciting environmental research being done in our department,” Zhu says. “I see myself as a bridge at UConn to connect people to remote sensing technology to answer some of the science problems we need to solve. These problems may be global such as climate change, or they could be regional, such as the impact of bears in Connecticut.”

By Kim Colavito Markesich