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UNF Environmental Center 2021 Seed Grant recipients announced

December 15, 2020

UNF coastal research students paddling down a riverThe University of North Florida’s Environmental Center announces the faculty recipients of the 2021 Seed Grants. One project will focus on battling wildfires by using thermal imaging to improve tracking and the second project will study sink holes surrounding Florida’s Silver Spring.  

The competitive, merit-based Seed Grants are awarded annually to UNF faculty members to stimulate and “seed” the creation of environmentally related research and inspire effective collaboration between faculty and students in diverse disciplines.

UNF associate professors Drs. John Nuszkowski, mechanical engineering, and Dr. Alan Harris, electrical engineering, were awarded funding provided by the River Branch Foundation for their project on “Forest Fire Tracking using Machine Learning and Thermal Imaging from an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).”


Wildfires are devastating due to the environmental concerns from the destruction of land, the significant release of greenhouse gases, and the considerable emission of particulate matter that is concerning to public health. Improvements in wildfire detection, tracking, mitigation, and modeling would lessen the environmental impact from wildfires. The objective of this project is to develop a wildfire tracking algorithm, using machine learning (ML), that is based on thermal imaging captured from an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The ML algorithm will be a neural network (NN) model based on object detection for tracking the fire front. Thermal images will be captured by the University’s research team’s UAV on terrain without a fire, with firepit(s), and with a prescribed burn.

Dr. Ryan Shamet, UNF civil engineering assistant professor, was awarded funding provided by the Vulcan Materials Company Foundation for his research project on “Hydrogeological considerations for sinkhole development in the Silver Springs recharge basin in Marion County, Florida.”

The Silver Springs state park in Marion County has played a tremendous role in the development of Central Florida’s national image of beautiful natural resources and unique eco-tourism attractions. However, with an increase in urbanization in the surrounding area, the groundwater emitted from Silver Springs has seen a drastic increase in pollutant concentrations, in turn severely affecting the water quality and ecosystems within the silver river. A major contributing role for the increase in groundwater pollutants is the increase in sinkhole occurrences within the recharge basin for the springs.

Sinkholes essentially provide a “direct connect” to the Floridan aquifer, allowing nutrient-rich surface water to enter the aquifer without any natural filtering or biological degradation processes. This study will investigate the influences of subsurface conditions to sinkhole formation within the area surrounding Silver Springs through implementing soil laboratory testing and numerical modeling. This information will greatly benefit future decision making when designing stormwater management structures (i.e., ponds or roadway swales) to ensure less potential of pollutant groundwater entering the aquifer and deviating Silver Spring’s fragile environment.

The UNF Seed Grant program is supported by an endowment provided by the River Branch Foundation. A recent gift from the Vulcan Materials Company Foundation has allowed the Environmental Center to expand the Seed Grant program and offer two additional grants focused on water issues in Northeast Florida.