Interactions Between Climate, Vegetation, and Fire in the Santa Monica Mountains

Darby Levin doing fieldwork




Senior Lecturer, Earth & Environmental Sciences

Project Summary

In my research project, I am studying the interrelations between climate, vegetation, and wildfire in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California. The overarching goal of the project is to study the effects that climate change has had on vegetation and on wildfire in the area. The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is the world’s largest urban national park, and is also home to a rich and fragile Mediterranean ecosystem. The vegetation is largely chaparral scrub – low lying, drought resistant, and adapted to wildfires (as they are a part of the natural ecosystem). However in recent years, large fires have been becoming more frequent in the area. I wanted to study how this increasing fire frequency affected vegetation’s recovery from fire in different areas of the Santa Monica Mountains.

My primary tool for doing this has been remote sensing. In remote sensing, one looks at satellite images (I primarily used ones from NASA’s Landsat missions) in order to analyze what is happening on the ground. Remote sensing is ideal for research that involves analyzing large-scale trends and change over time. In doing this research, I learned how to code in JavaScript and how to use the remote sensing platform Google Earth Engine. In addition to remote sensing, I also traveled to the Santa Monica Mountains to do fieldwork. Most of this was ground-truthing – making sure my observations in real life matched what I was seeing through the satellite imagery.

In addition to learning many practical skills (remote sensing, GIS, coding, how to take a field plot), doing this project over the summer also got me more excited about the process of research. I realized I enjoyed the process of having a hypothesis, or an anomaly I am curious about, and designing ways to explore and explain it. Remote sensing is a powerful tool for research that emphasizes change over time, large-scale trends, and a strong geographical component – which makes it well-suited for the kind of climate research I am interested in. I also found that I enjoyed fieldwork (even if I didn’t remember to bring enough water) as a counterpoint to the computer work I had been doing.

I will be continuing this project for my senior thesis, and working on it over the summer (which I was able to do because of CURF) was an invaluable experience. I had never conducted my own research (at least not on this scale) before, and I learned a lot about how to design and organize a research project. I also gained valuable experience in the pace of research – the patience it takes to conduct it, but also how rewarding it is when you do make progress.