EWU Students Use LiDAR to Combat Climate Change


Courtesy of Kristy Snyder

EWU Science students take inventory of all the trees on campus.

By Cannon Barnett, Reporter

A student research project at Eastern Washington University aims to use laser technology to document all of the trees on campus, analyzing the economic cost and production of each one. Staff and students are working together in order to ensure this data is used to create a more sustainable campus environment in the face of a changing global climate.

Kristy Snyder, a biology graduate student from EWU, had the idea to use non-invasive LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology in order to create a comprehensive, three-dimensional representation of all the trees on the EWU campus, called a point cloud graph. She began this project last winter, and it has since been picked up by graduate student Katelin Killoy. 

Using LiDAR for this sort of analysis has never been done on EWU’s campus before, according to Dr. Eric Budsberg, director of sustainability. The way data is being compiled in this project provides a picture not only of the physical properties of trees such as location and height, but also the amount of shade produced, carbon dioxide sequestration levels (or, the amount of carbon dioxide the tree absorbs from the atmosphere), and care requirements. Essentially, it allows a monetary value to be assigned to each tree.

A diagram of how LiDAR works. The way data is being compiled in this project provides a picture not only of the physical properties of trees such as location and height. (Courtesy of Kristy Snyder)

“It helps to take an abstract concept like carbon in the air and give it an actual tangible value,” Snyder said.

According to Budsberg, having an inventory of all the trees on campus and their economic value is important for the future planning of the university in order to help prevent climate change and work towards being a carbon net-neutral university.

There are a number of projects in the sustainability department that are currently in the works, such as the Climate Action Plan and the Prairie Restoration Project. The data collected in Snyder and Killoy’s research will be useful in planning future sustainability projects like these, Budsberg said.

For Snyder and Killoy’s research, each of an estimated 1,700 trees on campus must be individually inspected. Snyder was able to document all of the conifer trees during her time with the project, while Killoy currently is focusing on documenting the deciduous trees.

A point cloud graph (Courtesy of Kristy Snyder)

Dr. Brian Buchanan, Snyder and Killoy’s professor and mentor for the project, claimed that once Killoy finishes with the deciduous trees and the remaining data is recorded, the project will be peer-reviewed and submitted to a journal. There are also plans to present the research method to other universities across Washington as a way to approach becoming a carbon net-neutral institution.

“[The project] brings awareness to our natural resources,” Budsberg said. He said that trees are easy to forget about in our day-to-day lives, but the project allows us to look deeper into each species of tree, what they need, what they give us, and how they help the world.Thursday, Nov. 17th from 9 AM-12 PM there will be an open house discussing the Climate Resiliency Landscape Masterplan in the JFK Library.