Home Health NASA students make West Nile virus risk map for Monterey County

NASA students make West Nile virus risk map for Monterey County

A map showing the potential risk of West Nile virus being carried by mosquitoes in Monterey County, Calif. is the product of four students who worked this summer at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. The students made ground surveys of mosquito habitat and matched their data with satellite pictures and data to make a countywide map that officials are using to help deploy mosquito abatement teams and equipment. The college and high school students used a computer program that creates maps with special color-coding to identify objects and areas on the ground as varied as specific crops, animal habitats and urban areas. This type of computer program helps scientists analyze and manage large numbers of digital images and other information.

“The students for the first time have produced a risk map for the human population in Monterey County, which includes the general area of Carmel, Calif.,” said Jay Skiles, a research scientist at NASA Ames and mentor for the student team. “The map shows the location of at-risk humans who are 55 and older and their proximity to West Nile virus-carrying mosquito habitat.”

The virus causes a version of the sometimes-fatal disease encephalitis that results in inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. The student study and map enable Monterey County officials to more effectively direct their mosquito abatement program to areas where the West Nile virus would most likely affect human beings, according to Skiles. The students are slated to make a presentation about their study to the county board of supervisors on Sept. 9. In addition, the students will make presentations to the Western Governors’ Association in mid-September in Montana and later to the National Mosquito and Vector Control Conference in Georgia.

Students sampled standing water to gather evidence of mosquitoes that can carry the West Nile virus. The team correlated ground observations with satellite imagery to identify countywide mosquito habitat. They did field work to identify vegetation that is associated with mosquito habitat. Specific combinations of variously colored light frequencies and other energy reflected by the surface of the Earth serve as spectral ‘fingerprints’ that the students used to zero in on where mosquitoes breed. The satellite pictures and data enable scientists to observe and analyze wide areas that otherwise could not be accurately surveyed without the help of thousands of volunteers on the ground.