Few things are more picturesque than a barren wild blueberry full of plump, ripe berries.

But Maine’s iconic berry crop faces a climate crisis that threatens its future. Earlier this year, scientists reported that the Down East region – home to the state’s blueberry moorland – is warming faster than the rest of the state.

Coupled with the ongoing drought conditions, that means Maine’s crops – the only commercially harvested wild blueberries in the country – will be smaller and less likely to survive.

A study by University of Maine graduate student Catherine Chan found a way to alleviate this damage. Using a drone equipped with a special camera to detect areas that need water the most, researchers are helping growers know when to step in sooner and save Maine’s beloved crop.

Chan worked with University of Maine professors Danial Hayes and Yongjiang Zhang, Schoodic Institute forest ecologist Peter Nelson and agronomist Jasper Wyman & Son Bruce Hall. All images were collected from fields owned by Wyman’s.

The research team used software developed by Nelson with Chan and other students that allows drones and special cameras – called spectrometers – to measure light on dozens or hundreds of bands of more than one color. average camera.

“When plants are stressed, they reflect light differently and these [spectroscopy] cameras see hundreds of colors that we don’t see, so it helps you see stress, ”Nelson said.

The images collected allowed the team to measure levels of reflected light not visible to the naked eye. And it turns out it’s what we can’t see that can provide the first signs of damage from water stress and ongoing climate change.

Because the research was funded in part by a grant from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, Chan said she wanted to study a culture important to the state’s economy. And that brought her to the blueberry fields of Wyman.

“When I was talking to Bruce [Hall] at Wyman’s he told me that drought stress is a big problem for them and it’s really hard to deal with, ”Chan said. “It seemed like a perfect place to use spectroscopy technology. “

Hall was in full swing.

“If you get close to a plant, you can say, ‘oh, this plant is stressed,’ but that plant may not be indicative of the entire harvest,” Hall said. “It gave us a different perspective on the physiology of a whole crop across the field. “

The technology the team used, Hall said, not only allowed them to have a vantage point over the fields, but allowed them to see things they couldn’t even see from above. . This information will be used to create refined methods to mitigate damage from weather and climate change.

“If I can learn at a specific developmental stage if I run out of water that halves my crops, that’s what I need to know,” Hall said. “Are there techniques other than irrigation to mitigate unpredictable weather conditions that are nuanced and focused on precision? “

Understanding how to sustainably manage water resources is crucial in dealing with the drought conditions Maine has experienced in recent years, Chan said.

“Warming and drought exacerbated by climate change have compounded their struggles in recent years, alongside frost and pathogens,” Chan said. “There has been an increased need for predictive tools, such as imaging spectroscopy and models that depend on it, for soil conditions to inform mitigation strategies. “

Hall said Chan’s research has established the basis on which he can formulate these strategies.

“This research provides key lessons to ensure the continued viability of wild blueberry crops for generations to come.”


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