San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

NASA Vet Witnessed Country Transformed

When Armond Joyce finally decides to turn off his radar, he will have left behind a priceless account of Costa Rica’s rugged terrain.

“This is just my thing to do,” the 30-year NASA veteran, now retired, said.

For almost 45 years, Joyce has watched Costa Rica’s landscape morph from densely forested countryside to cultivated fields and pastures, to urban sprawl and, in some cases, back to forests.

Joyce first visited Costa Rica in 1965 to complete work on a thesis for a master’s degree at PennStateUniversity, in Pennsylvania, in the United States. The research, entitled “Aerial Photographic Interpretation of Tropical Vegetation in Costa Rica,” documented 46 geographical sites around the country. The project was finished in 1969, but for Joyce, who married a Tica, those four years weren’t enough.

“When we came back to visit, I went back to those 46 sites and I noticed that things had changed,” he said. “Certain areas had been converted to agriculture and pastures for cattle. I thought that needed some attention.”

By using radar images taken during NASA missions – such as the one that concluded this week – and information gathered by satellites, Joyce has monitored and documented changes to the national territory to date and has published his findings in a book entitled “Land Use Change in Costa Rica: 1966-2006.” He recently added a CD with updates into 2010.

Some of the book’s images are astonishing.

A 1966 aerial photograph of the OsaPeninsula shows undisturbed forest cover with few signs of infrastructure. Next to the picture is the same snapshot taken 37 years later. Roads slice through areas were trees used to be. Farms and pastures cover land that once was mostly woodlands.

One of Joyce’s first observations during his study was that when roads were built, surrounding forests tended to shrink.

That’s when he decided to conduct further research and add a subtitle to his book: as influenced by social, economic, political and environmental factors.

“It wasn’t sufficient to show that the land changed,” Joyce said. “The question is what caused that change. Something triggers change, and change can be caused by anyone of those factors.”

One of the biggest transformations that Joyce observed occurred during the 1970s when the beef market boomed, due in part to the expansion of U.S. fast-food chains, he said. As meat prices soared, cow pastures spread all over the country.

But when a recession struck during the 1980s, ranchers abandoned their fields and secondary forests began to bud.

Joyce also considered key legislation that affected land use, such as the relatively recent forestry and biodiversity laws. He called the establishment of Costa Rica’s national park system “one of the country’s most important pieces of legislation.” He said this action helped guard against excessive logging and deforestation.

Nowadays, while he watches Costa Rica’s continually altering terrain, Joyce works as a liaison between NASA and the NationalCenter for High Technology (CENAT), coordinating radar-training workshops for government agencies in Costa Rica and assisting universities with imagery and data analysis.

Joyce has been retired from NASA for 10 years, but he keeps his eyes on the sites that pulled his focus to Costa Rica more than 40 years ago.

“I guess I will continue to monitor these 46 sites as long as I live,” he said.

Joyce’s book and CD are on sale at

7th Street

Books, Librería Lehman and Librería Internacional. The book also can be purchased via Joyce’s Web site:

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