Why should the U.S. continue to invest $2 billion a year in earth monitoring satellites? According to speakers at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies and its Alliance for Earth Observations, real-time environmental data collected from NASA’s Landsat is crucial to managing climate change and other natural disasters such as the ones that happened in Japan and Haiti over the course of the year. Space-based environmental monitoring infrastructure is also needed to track deforestation rates in the world’s rainforests and gauge environmental damages from oilspills and other man-made catastrophes.
To spread real-time environmental images around the world, Fernando Echavarria, Office of Space & Advanced Technology, U.S. State Department, said the U.S. government has been adopted an “open data” policy that has proven to be a challenge to other countries, even those in the E.U. In practice, this has meant making all U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) satellite-collected environmental imagery freely available via NASA’s Landsat, a tool that has been accessed nearly 4 million times worldwide in the last 6 months.
The U.S. is also working through development organizations to help countries in the Middle East set up their own environmental data monitoring operations. In Egypt, Echavarria said the issue was clearly freshwater and energy has been focused on tracking changing flows. There’s also a focus on “geospatial data for cities.” Echavarria thinks this is smart because “if you are going to do sustainable development, you need to be focused on where the people are: cities.”
For Marty Spitzer, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), accessing satellite data is crucial to establishing a baseline for ecosystem restoration. “We need to understand the baseline conditions, and watch the changes over time in order to restore an ecosystem to its former glory.” Satellites are important because many of these domains are simply too vast and hard to navigate on the ground.
National Geographic, which has been involved in mapping the earth for more than 100 years, is focused on using imagery to tell the story of planetary change. Frank Biasi, Director, Digital Maps and Atlases, National Geographic Maps, said National Geographic and other conservation organizations first “establish an inventory, map a place out, and evaluate how species relate to each other. Next, we assess the threats to those ecosystems. Then, we plan and design actions to sustain those threatened resources. Finally, we do those conservation actions, whether its managing resources or prescribing fires.” However, on the ground, the availability of data is “still patchy” for field work so National Geographic is hoping for newer tools to track water resources.
“Collecting all this data is one thing, but getting useful information in a useable format for policymakers is another,” said Kit Batten, climate change coordinator at USAID. She said it’s the role of scientists in government to intepret scientific data clearly for policymakers. However, many scientists don’t even know where to start when communicating the complexities of climate science and navigating the D.C. political minefield. Spitzer agreed, arguing that during his time at the House Science Committee, “you couldn’t put 85 percent of scientists in front my boss” (the committee chairperson).
Perhaps, even more depressing, is another idea Spitzer brought up. He said he initially thought “most people were rational and wanted more data. Who would say no to more information?” However, in some cases, some elected officials “don’t want to know more” because that knowledge will negatively impact the interests of their supporters. “I’ve seen that again and again.”
Despite the controversy over climate change and ongoing debate on how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, he said the U.S. is still the number one investor globally in climate change data, more so than all other countries. This earth satellite capability must be maintained in order to improve the “resolution” and ability to track changes over time. Echavarria added: “We don’t want other countries taking this role from us. This is a gift to the world.”
Also, check out ESRI’s free landsat “Change Matters” tool, which shows how any place on the globe looked in 1975 and 2000.
Image credit: South America vegetation cover change 1975 – 2000. Landsat / ESRI