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Satellites for a Changing Planet
Jamais Cascio, 23 Dec 05

esasrilankamap.jpgSpace-based scientific research has an underappreciated role in building a better world. This week alone has three stories of important work being done from space on issues critical to WorldChanging.

The timelist example is the European Space Agency's retrospective piece on how satellite-based tools helped the rescue, recovery and rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of the December 26, 2004, tsunami. Readers who followed our posts at the time will recognize some of the projects discussed, including the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters and the Respond group. The ESA article provides useful details as to how the ICSMD and Respond helped out, including examples of the images and maps given freely to rescue and relief organizations, such as the French ADU (Architects de l'Urgence, or Emergency Architects):

The objective of ADU in both locations is to return economic opportunity to local people, repair schools for childrens' education, and re-house disaster victims, carried out with sensitivity to local conditions and a strategy of mitigating further natural risks. In both cases, their intervention has been guided by satellite imagery, with Respond partner UNOSAT - provider of satellite data for UN agencies - delivering ADU detailed before-and-after damage maps of affected areas. [...]
"It is important to have this sort of images to make a first evaluation before going into the field," explained Alice Moreira of ADU. "To have these images of before and after the disaster allowed us to make a rapid evaluation of local situations, and of the damage done. We can consider in a more effective way how best to intervene."

A less-ambitious, but still very important, application of satellite sensors is a project to compare satellite observations with ground-based data to support water management efforts at the edges of the Sahara desert.

Working with partners including African water agencies, ESA has commenced a project called Aquifer to develop satellite-derived products and services to support the sustainable management of ground water. Planned products include land-use and land-cover maps, change maps, surface water extent and dynamics, digital terrain models and estimates of water consumption and extraction. These required products were identified by the involved water agencies, in Tunisia specifically the Direction Générale des Ressources en Eau (DGRE) under the Ministère de l’Agriculture.
Aquifer takes place within the framework of the TIGER Initiative, aimed at applying Earth Observation technology to improve availability and management of water resources, with a particular focus on Africa.

The main focus of the Aquifer project is the determination of the extent and sustainability of the "fossil water" deep undergound, leftover from the last Ice Age; this water percolates up through the rock and soil, and is a primary resource for agriculture. Overuse is a real risk, especially with the expansion of the desert and the dynamics of global warming.

The connection between deforestation and global warming is the subject of another ESA program, highlighted in the closing days of the Montreal Climate Change Conference. As many of the countries and regions facing serious deforestation problems lack their own space or satellite programs, the ESA's provision of satellite data is extremely valuable. The data makes possible more accurate determinations of the speed and extent of deforestation, as well as ongoing monitoring of direct environmental results.

Alan Belward of JRC [the European Commission's Joint Research Centre] explained that the regular information provided by Earth Observation served to reduce uncertainties in global forest cover change and related carbon emissions.
His colleague Frédéric Archard explained that medium-resolution imagery could be used for large-scale surveys of forested areas, with higher-resolution views acquired for closer study of particular deforestation 'hotspots'. He also introduced results from Global Forest Watch, noting that the availability medium resolution satellite data meant a team of only ten people have essentially been able to map intact forest cover across the globe.

NASA has similar programs underway, and its Earth Observing System and the Global Earth Observation System of Systems are proving to be extraordinarily valuable in the effort to understand changes to the planet. But the ESA is, frankly, doing a far better job of getting the word out about its environmental and humanitarian programs; for better or worse, perceptions are very important in a world placing greater emphasis on cooperation and international collaboration.

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