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Using Google Street View to save vulnerable pines

Kirk Klausmeyer, a climate scientist with The Nature Conservancy, wears Google's Trekker during a hike in the Santa Cruz Islands on Thursday, March 26, 2015. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Bishop pines on Santa Cruz Island are dying at high rates. Conservationists are using Google technology to monitor the pines’ decline with hopes it will give them clues for how to preserve the trees if necessary.

The pines are considered to be vulnerable. They only occur naturally in a handful of places along the West Coast. In some stands on Santa Cruz Island, as many as 90 percent of adult trees have died. 

“This is a really important place to figure out what’s going on with these pines, because it’s one of the maybe half dozen to a dozen locations where these pines are found,” said Kirk Klausmeyer, a climate scientist with the Nature Conservancy. 

A cluster of dead Bishop Pine trees line Pelican Trail near Prisoner's Harbor on the Santa Cruz Islands. Klausmeyer thinks the orange hue of the dead trees will help with identification in satellite images.

Drought is believed to be a factor in the pines' deaths. Another catastrophic die-off that occurred in the 80's and 90's was tied to an extended dry period. More droughts are expected to occur in the future as the climate warms.

“The current theory is that the drought stresses the trees, and then there’s a pest, a bark beetle, that goes in, and the tree can’t fight it off with its normal defenses,” Klausmeyer said.

The pines have closed cones that typically drop seeds after fires. With wildfires occurring infrequently on the Channel Islands, scientists are concerned that drought-related die-offs may inhibit the ability of the pines to reproduce normally.

Losing the pines would have a detrimental effect on local species such as scrub jays that rely on the nuts the cones provide. 

"Part of their population has evolved to eat the pine seeds out of the pine cones, so if we lost all of the pine trees on the island, that population of scrub jay wouldn’t have anything to eat, and only the scrub jays that eat acorns would be able to survive," Klausmeyer said. "We’d be losing even more diversity, and each piece of the puzzle that we lose can have cascades throughout the whole ecosystem."

Tracking with Trekker

Klausmeyer recently stayed on the island for three days as part of an effort to document the Bishop pines. By analyzing which areas have living pines and which have dead ones, scientists will be able to compare conditions and begin to forecast the future of the species. 

“The first thing when looking at a phenomenon like this is trying to map it. Where are the locations where it’s happening, and how extensive is it," Klausmeyer said. "We want to map both the dead pine stands and the live pine stands and compare them. What’s the difference? Is the soil different? Are they just isolated so the pests can’t reach them? There’s a really important component in just learning what is going on here.”

To map the trees, the Nature Conservancy applied to borrow Google Trekker, a backpack camera unit that photographs trails in all directions as users hike. The result will be a three-dimensional photo tour that will let anyone with an Internet connection travel the trail virtually.  

Klausmeyer strapped into the 45-pound unit and hiked around the island for three days. 

Kirk Klausmeyer of The Nature Conservancy is looking for a way to identify dead Bishop Pine trees in satellite photos. He will sync the Trekker images with Google Earth satellite images to help find an identification method.

By comprehensively photographing the pines, Klausmeyer and other researchers will be able to track declines or recurrences over time. That will help them identify spots where conservation efforts can be directed.

”If we start to see that these droughts are happening more often, we can think about trying to plant pinecones in locations where there’s getting more moisture from fog,” Klausmeyer said.

It will also allow researchers to compare the snapped images of dead Bishop pines with ones seen by satellites. If it's found that the researchers can identify dying pines from Google's satellites, that could save Klausmeyer from having to return to track the changes. 

And of course, the photographs will allow anyone with a computer to tour the island. Though, they'll have to deal with seeing a whole lot of dead Bishop pines. 

Kirk Klausmeyer of The Nature Conservancy hikes Pelican Trail in the Santa Cruz Islands on Thursday, March 26, 2015. Each of the 15 cameras take overlapping images that are stitched together by image processing algorithms into a 360-degree image.