The NASA Land Cover/Land Use Change (LCLUC) Program awarded the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a three-year grant in the amount of $720,000 to examine the effects of social and ecological factors, particularly, human migration and tourism on the environment and on the sustainability of island ecosystems. The principal investigator is Stephen J. Walsh, Lyle V. Jones Distinguished Professor of Geography at UNC and director of the Center for Galápagos Studies.

The Galapagos Islands. Photos courtesy of Steve Walsh.
The Galapagos Islands. Photos courtesy of Steve Walsh.

While the Galápagos Islands are the central area of study for the grant, the project also includes Hawaii and Puerto Rico, as well as islands selected from around the globe that are similarly challenged by the multi-scale and multi-dimensional threats to island ecosystems and their sustainability.

Walsh specializes in satellite remote sensing, spatial simulation models, and population-environment interactions, and the NASA grant will support him and his co-investigators in their examination of the environmental impacts of economic development on remote island ecosystems. The grant, titled “Synthesis of Drivers, Patterns, and Trajectories of LCLUC in Island Ecosystems,” will explore the LCLUC that profoundly affects the natural environment in places like Hawaii, Fiji and the Canary Islands. An improved understanding of these connections is critical for identifying the effects of changing environments on exotic island ecosystems and explaining the impacts of the tourism industry and environmental and economic transitions on broader land use issues.

Rising ecotourism puts Galapagos species like the marine iguana at risk.
Rising ecotourism puts Galapagos species like the marine iguana at risk.

Walsh notes that due to the rise in global wealth, more people seek to visit and experience “special” places around the world, putting more pressure on fragile island ecosystems and introducing new threats to island sustainability. While islands are often relatively small in size, geographically remote and varied in their morphological, ecological, human and topographic settings, they are also fragile and sensitive to changes caused by natural and anthropogenic factors, which are increasingly associated with the temporary migration of tourists to islands.

Walsh’s co-investigators on the project include Richard Bilsborrow, research professor in the biostatistics department and Carolina Population Center Fellow; Phil Page, program manager of the Center for Galápagos Studies; Brian Frizzelle, director of Spatial Analysis Services at the Carolina Population Center; Laura Brewington, East-West Center Research Fellow; Yang Shao, associate professor in the geography department at Virginia Tech University; and Hernando Mattei, professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. Francisco Laso and Sarah Schmitt, graduate students in geography, and Sommer Barnes, staff at the Carolina Population Center, are also involved.

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