Looking to the stars

Man with strong La Grande ties set to begin studying at NASA research center

By Dick Mason, The La Grande Observer, @lgoMason

Nearly 10 years have passed since Adam Moreno introduced young people in southeast Paraguay to the basics of computers while on a 27-month Peace Corps mission.

Soon, Moreno will experience life at the top end of the computer spectrum.

Moreno, a forest ecologist who grew up in La Grande, has been awarded a fellowship from NASA to do research at its Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California’s Silicon Valley. He cannot believe his good fortune.

Upon learning earlier this year he had received the NASA fellowship Moreno said, “I was super excited.”

At the Ames Center, Moreno will do research with assistance from NASA’s Pleiades supercomputer and data from the space agency’s satellite system. Moreno will use these tools to develop a model for forecasting when a forest is reaching the verge of catastrophic collapse.

“I want to develop an early warning system,” Moreno said.

Moreno, who has a doctorate in forest ecology and remote sensing, hopes that the model he develops can be used everywhere.

“The hope is that this system can become a global system that can predict any kind of nature disturbance in any ecosystem all over the world,” the forest ecologist said.

Moreno was inspired to do this in part because of what happened in Syria. He said the civil war in Syria, which has claimed more than 300,000 lives, was triggered in large part by a drought that devastated farmers. Syria’s farmers moved into urban areas and launched protests against the government when they became frustrated by lack of employment and poor standards of living. This unrest helped start the civil war.

Moreno believes that if a warning system had been in place to forecast the catastrophic drought, which started in 2006, steps could have been taken to address the needs of farmers, which may have prevented the violent uprising.

“I want to use my skills to prevent this from happening again,” said Moreno, the son of Rey and Shelley Moreno of La Grande and a 1999 La Grande High School graduate.

NASA’s satellites are an excellent tool for determining if trees or other vegetation are under drought stress because they can detect growth rates. Slow growth is an indication of drought stress, Moreno said.

A forest under drought stress is vulnerable to major fires and devastating attacks from insects like bark beetles. Moreno said that if scientists can detect that a forest is under such stress, steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of fires and insect attacks. These steps include prescribed burns and thinning the forests to reduce their density.

Thinning a drought-weakened forest reduces the number of trees drawing water from the soil. This makes the remaining trees stronger and less vulnerable to insect attacks because more soil moisture is available to them, Moreno said.

Satellites allow scientists to measure forest growth because they can detect the frequencies of the type of solar energy bouncing off them, Moreno said.

“Satellites measure how much is absorbed by vegetation and reflected back,” he said.

The forest ecologist is interested in more than drought stress. For instance, he also wants to determine to what degree rising minimum temperatures put a forest at risk of fire.

Moreno started his post high school academic journey at Eastern Oregon University, where he studied for a year before transferring to Oregon State University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering at OSU. Then he began his 27-month stint with the Peace Corps in Paraguay, where he was based in Caazapa.

Moreno introduced many students in the village to computers in an intensive nine-month class designed to teach students to become teachers. None of his students had seen a computer before taking the class. Many of the students were quick studies and three of them later received certificates from Paraguay’s Ministry of Education to teach computer classes.

The 27 months Moreno spent in Paraguay opened his eyes.

“I learned what it means to be a subsistence farmer living day to day,” Moreno said.

After leaving the Peace Corps, Moreno enrolled in graduate school at the University of Montana, where he earned a master’s degree in ecological modeling. He recently earned a doctorate in forest ecology and remote sensing from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria.

Moreno, who just visited La Grande for a week, wants the success he has enjoyed to be an inspiration to young people in La Grande and Northeast Oregon.

“I want to let the current students in Union County know that with an education from Union County, Eastern and OSU you can compete academically with anyone around the world,” Moreno said.

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The La Grande Observer
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