The Panama Canal Watershed is affected by several natural hazards including but not limited to: deforestation; urban development; an invasive species known as canal grass; extreme weather events and their impacts; and threats to the tropical biological diversity.

With the use of aerial photographs, information concerning environmental history can be observed.  With over one thousand photos ranging from 1927 to 1983, the database will continue to grow and provide us with invaluable land cover change data.  Monitoring these changes helps understand the potential impacts and how to adapt to or mitigate future threats.

Since satellite data did not become available until the mid 1970’s, there is an immense value in the aerial photographs.  The photographs contribute to: understanding the complex topography of the canal watershed, comparing to satellite imagery including LANDSAT and ASTER, as well as investigating historical deforestation and changes in the landscape. sky


Several research projects are ongoing including:


This research is being sponsored in part by a generous grant from the Office of the Vice President of Research (OVPR) at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Additional support has been provided by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), The Office of Bioinformatics, and the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC).


Relationship Between Land Cover Change and Climate

blueThe Panama Canal Watershed supplies millions of gallons of water to the major urban centers of Panama City and Colón.  Sections of the watershed are undergoing rapid alterations in land use.  We believe that these variations have also led to changes in the climatic trends of the watershed region as well as more severe, frequent weather events.  One example is the recent December 2010 flooding event.  This was the rainiest month ever recorded in Panama, with nearly 1200 mm of rain; in one day’s time, 217 mm were recorded.

With the use of aerial photographs as well as satellite data, we are focusing on land cover change around the Panama Canal Watershed.  Each image is classified as either forested, deforested, urban, etc.  After this, precipitation data will be gathered from various organizations including STRI, CATHALAC, and SERVIR.  Once all of the data is compiled, comparisons will be made and increasing or decreasing rates of precipitation will be calculated.

Land Cover Change in the Panama Canal Watershed

blue About half of the Canal watershed has been deforested, and the official policy in the Canal watershed (Law 21) is to reforest in anticipation of regaining ecosystem services (Stallard and others 2010). Studies have shown that in the past as much of 80% of the basin was covererd by forest and the mid-80's that ratio had dropped to around 30%. It was estimated that from the 1950’s to the 1990’s, over 180,000 hectares have been stripped of their forest cover (Moreno 1993).

In Panama’s healthy rainforest the rainwater saturates the soil and then feeds the streams supplying Gatún Lake. With deforestation the region's excess water floods the watershed. The floodwaters also fill the lake with sediment, which is harmful to the ecosystem. With an increase in sediment and strain on the water supply it can force local residents to filter the lake water or rely on bottled drinking water.


Monitoring Canal Grass Expansion

blueSaccharum Spontaneum is a wild grass species native to the Himalayan Valley. Commonly called Canal Grass, or Paja Canalera, Saccharum Spontaneum is an invasive species in the Panama Canal watershed greatly impacting the local biodiversity, capable of growing up to three meters tall. By claiming open land where natural or human-induced deforestation has occurred, for example agricultural fields or construction zones, Canal Grass replaces the native vegetation with a vast root system and quickly growing stalks.

The problem with Canal Grass is that it often establishes itself in agricultural fields, impacting the growth of the desired crop. Perhaps even more troublesome is that Canal Grass maintains itself by fire and is a fire hazard during the dry season. Numerous experiments are currently taking place in Panama studying the effects Canal Grass has on the rainforest biodiversity as well as techniques for eradicating the grass.



Earth System Science Program
University of Alabama in Huntsville
National Space Science and Technology Center
Huntsville, AL 35805
Telephone: (256) 961-7754
Fax: (256) 961-7751

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