April 13, 2009
A condensed version of this post originally appeared at Yale e360.
As the discovery in Mozambique suggests, remote sensing is being used for a bewildering array of applications, from monitoring sea ice to detecting deforestation to tracking wildlife. The number of uses grows as the technology matures and becomes more widely available. Google Earth may represent a critical point, bringing the power of remote sensing to the masses and allowing anyone with an Internet connection to attach data to a geographic representation of Earth.
Brief history of remote sensing for environmental applications
A lot of environmental monitoring is possible today only through remote sensing. Detecting changes in sea ice across the sub-freezing Arctic is one example, but remote sensing also allows monitoring of hostile and sometimes war-torn deserts, vast expanses of ocean, the dense Amazon rainforest, and isolated mountain ranges—monitoring which would be cost-prohibitive or impossible without eyes from above.
Landsat image revealing "fishbone" deforestation along roads in the Brazilian Amazon
Early earth observation satellites focused on weather, but scientists quickly devised ways to use their data to analyze vegetation cover. In 1972 Landsat became the first non-weather satellite for civilian use, giving scientists the ability to observe any place on Earth every 18 days. The satellite initially was used for crop analysis but today, seven satellite generations later, higher resolution and additional spectral bands have vastly expanded Landsat's functionality for a wide array of applications.
Since the 1990s, Landsat has become only one example of many sensing technologies. Landsat 7, the most recent Landsat satellite, carries several passive sensors using different wavelengths to decipher Earth’s features from above. A passive optical sensor, for example, is much like a camera, operating off visible light reflected from Earth’s surface. This reliance has its shortcomings—notably it will only take pictures of what it can see. Clouds, smoke, and other factors can interfere with or block its sensing capabilities. Meanwhile, infrared detects the amount of heat emitted from an object at the earth’s surface, making it effective for identifying fires and other sources of heat like cities.
Landsat 7 satellite in the cleanroom prior to launch
But remote sensing isn’t limited to passive sensing. Active sensing—which sends out pulses of energy and reads the radiation that bounces back to the sensor—can provide detailed information about Earth’s surface, including the structure of a forest or the distinction between secondary and primary forest.
These technical advances, which make remote sensing data more relevant and timely, have been accompanied by favorable political and economic trends. Landsat data is now freely available to the public. At the same time a proliferation of commercial satellites offers a range of remote sensing products. Remote sensing data is no longer limited to the military, specialized institutions, or the academic world.
This image shows Arctic sea ice concentration on September 8, 2008, as observed by the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer–Earth Observing System (AMSR-E) sensor on NASA's Aqua satellite. The observations are collected on a pixel by pixel basis over the Arctic. The percentage of a 12.5-square-kilometer pixel covered by ice is shown in shades of dark blue (no ice) to white (100 percent ice). The gray line around the Arctic basin shows the median minimum extent of sea ice from 1979-2000. NASA image created by Jesse Allen, using data obtained courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Caption by Rebecca Lindsey.
Unlike sea ice, fires are relatively easy to detect using thermal infrared bands provided by MODIS sensors. Fire data is acquired at least daily, enabling researchers to monitor, in near real-time, fires burning anywhere in the world. The Fire Alert System—developed by Madagascar's ministry of Environment, the International Resources Group, and Conservation International using data from the University of Maryland and NASA—has put this information to practical use. The system alerts subscribers via e-mail whenever burning is detected, potentially enabling them to take action on the ground when fires threaten protected areas or human settlements. MODIS data is also regularly used to monitor burning in the world's tropical forests. In 2007 when commodity prices were peaking, MODIS revealed a surge in the number of hotspots burning across the Brazilian Amazon.
Presently optical sensing can do a reasonably good job distinguishing between cleared forest and natural forest—assuming cloud cover is minimal, a big assumption in the tropics. It does less well identifying and distinguishing between recovering forests, selectively logged forest, tree plantations, and degraded forests. New active sensing technologies, like cloud-penetrating radar and LIDAR, may change this. Some of these technologies may allow scientists to directly measure biomass in dense forests—currently many sensing technologies are limited by their tendency to "saturate" at a threshold well below the actual biomass in such forests.
Josef Kellndorfer, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, says that a new JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) satellite—known as ALOS for the Advanced Land Observation Satellite—offers great promise for monitoring deforestation and degradation.
Radar image mosaic is a composite of nine individual scenes (45,000 km2) of Bali, Indonesia acquired by the PALSAR sensor carried on board ALOS. The image acquisitions were made between September 9 and October 10, 2007. From New Eyes in the Sky
PALSAR will allow scientists to get an annual snapshot at 20-meter resolution of all the world’s biomes, allowing the scientists to establish a baseline for forest cover every year. The sensor also has a 100-meter resolution mode that provides near-global coverage every six weeks and can be used to detect illegal logging activities even under cloud cover.
“These capabilities are exciting because we have the complete pan-tropical forest cover for 2007. We'll get the same on an annual basis for the life of the ALOS mission. This will enable us to build a data record of forest cover on an annual basis no matter what the cloud conditions are,“ Kellndorfer said.
“Every year, within three months, we will have a full resolution pan-tropical assessment of forest cover,” he continued. “ALOS and future missions with dedicated observation strategies can thus be used as a tool to complement the overall remote sensing and monitoring effort of forests.”
Deforestation data from INPE
Dark green trees are the highly invasive strawberry guava tree from Brazil. This invasion is occurring in a remote rainforest reserve in Hawaii.
This CAO image shows the march of invasive albizia trees (pale reds and pinks) and highly invasive strawberry guava trees (intense red) in Hawaii.
- This 3-D image shows an invasion (red-pink trees) into a protected forest reserve (blue-green trees) in lowland rainforest. Images and captions courtesy of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory
“Infrared reflectances of tropical forest canopies are often unique signatures for species,” Asner said. “This new technology will help us to capture previously hidden ‘chemical fingerprints’ of rainforest species ... It will be a new era in rainforest research.”
Satellite data is also providing insights into the drivers of deforestation. Researchers at the Woods Hole Research Center are using remote sensing to map logging roads and anticipate future forest disturbance in the Congo and the Amazon. Meanwhile, Holly Gibbs, a researcher at Stanford University, recently used remote sensing data to evaluate shifting patterns of tropical deforestation. She found that 80 percent of agricultural expansion since the 1980s came at the expense of forests
“I recently analyzed the Landsat database created by the UN FAO to estimate the probable land sources for expanding croplands,” she told mongabay.com. “I was also able to consider changing patterns of agricultural expansion during the 1980s and 1990s and demonstrate that the amount of cropland expanding into forested areas, rather than grassland or previously disturbed forests, is increasing. Documenting changing patterns in land use is becoming increasingly important as we see mounting demands for global food, feed, and fuel, highlighting the importance of continuing the longtime history of Landsat into coming decades.”
Gibbs says increased accessibility has been key to wider use of satellite data.
“Satellite data is becoming increasingly accessible to everyone from a local park ranger to scientists at major universities, opening the door to more diverse analyses,” she said. “The creation of ‘free’ global Landsat mosaics, for example, is a major push for initiatives to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation [REDD] across the tropics that rely on what used to be very costly data.”
While most remote sensing work remains the domain of specialists, the emergence of Google Earth has leveled the playing field, offering the potential that Google Earth can do for remote sensing what the iPod did for digital music—reach and engage the masses. In the process it is enhancing the ability of researchers to communicate their work to policy makers, other scientists, and most importantly the general public.
Google Earth aggregates and organizes satellite imagery, aerial photography, and GIS 3D from a range of sources and presents it in a format that is easily consumed by the general public. Indeed, its ease of use and presentation is driving public interest in geospatial technology and applications. Through KML, Google Earth's programming language, users “interact” with the planet, attaching images and other information to geospatial data. The functionality makes Google Earth a tool for conservation. Google is playing an active role in this development through its Google Earth Outreach program, an initiative that works with nonprofits to develop tools using Google Earth.
Logging plan notification and map received by local residents.
Logging proposal elements remapped in Google Earth. Image courtesy of Google Earth. See more at NAIL case study
Moore’s experience was an early demonstration of the power of organizing data spatially as a visual tool for communication. Environmental groups around the world have now seized on the possibilities, but researchers, too, have found that Google Earth is an effective way to publish results in an accessible format: many of the remote sensing applications described above now have Google Earth components.
“Because Google Earth provides, for many areas, such a realistic model of the real Earth, you almost feel as if you are 'on that mountaintop' or 'looking over that valley,’” said Moore, who is now the manager of Google Earth Outreach. “This immersive experience enables conservation organizations to convey complex environmental issues more quickly and persuasively to busy decision-makers, the media, and the general public. Many environmental groups have already achieved tangible successes as a result of these projects, and we're honored to be a small part of that."
Exchanging bows and arrows for GPS units
One of the early Google Earth Outreach projects involved indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest. Facing an onslaught of threats to their forest lands and culture, the tribes have embraced advanced technology as a means to protect and better manage their rainforest homeland. The tribes—including the Surui in western Brazil and the Wayana and Trio in Suriname, are using GPS to map their lands and plot rivers, sites of spiritual significance, and their resources, including medicinal plants and rich hunting grounds.
GPS mapping of Tumucumaque in Brazil. Image courtesy of ACT.
"The Surui know little about the Internet, but Google knows little about the forest, so working together we will be stronger," Chief Almir Surui of the Surui tribe said through a translator. "We are mapping and monitoring our lands to protect our resources from loggers and ranchers."
Mark Plotkin, founder of ACT, adds that the technology has brought an unexpected benefit: strengthening generational ties in communities.
"The younger generation needs the older generation to fill in the gaps on the maps," he said. "No amount of technology is going to tell these guys the history of their land or where to find the plants needed to cure an infection. It is only the tribal elders who have this information."
The Rainforest Foundation UK and the Global Canopy Programme are taking a similar approach in Congo and Cameroon, respectively, helping communities map their lands to protect against illegal loggers and other forms of encroachment.
“Villagers are trained how to map field data with GPS units. All data is logged and put into a database that can be displayed on Google Earth,” said Andrew Mitchell, founder and director of the London-based Global Canopy Program. “Communities swap information and can see things like when illegal loggers or miners are encroaching into their forest.”
Google Earth has expanded beyond activism to aid scientists, emerging as an ideal way to publish scientific results in an accessible and meaningful format. While Google Earth is not going to replace scientific journals any time soon, it offers a concise and visual format for presenting research that can be more compelling than data points on a chart, rows in a spreadsheet, or a four-color map.
"The Healthy Planet Foundation's Guardian project is about connecting people with conservation by using the World Database of Protected Areas in Google Earth and Google Maps as the canvas for conservation organizations to present projects in particular protected areas. Donors can support these projects by adopting 1 hectare or 1 km square slices of protected areas in order to help map and monitor land-use change in and around protected areas," he explained. "Conservation, environment, and development organizations submit proposals which are first reviewed by our conservation advisory board before making it onto the maps. 'Armchair' conservationists are then directed to these projects and can choose to give their time, funding, or both to support a specific project in a particular park."
Another visualization, Costing Nature, allows users to trace stream flow in an urban area back to the protected area where it fell as rain, providing a potent example of the value of ecosystem services. Mulligan's group has also developed KMLs examining the impact of oil production in the Ecuadorean Amazon, sea-level rise under different climate scenarios, and the distribution of tropical cloud forests.
"The rationale for these tools is to provide an easy mechanism for visual change detection for non-remote-sensing specialists who may be interested in environmental change research, awareness raising, and conservation monitoring or prioritization uses," Mulligan said.
"Google Earth brings remote sensing to the masses. Traditionally, remote sensing data are difficult to get hold of, difficult to process, and beyond the means of many of the smaller conservation organizations. Google Earth allows these organizations to look at their projects from space and draw upon a wealth of environmental data in addition to the imagery."
"Clearly conservation needs good conservation professionals working with communities on the ground, but it also needs to harness the significant body of interested citizens who can do their bit, now that Google and partners have supplied some of the tools, and conservation organizations have supplied the data and information to enable this."
Disappearing Forests of the World. This KML shows deforestation data from a number of sources for different countries, including a live ticker for each country. The world has lost close to half of its forests already today, and the continued high pace of deforestation contributes greatly to climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Google Earth file.
"A decade or more back something like high-resolution satellite imagery for the whole planet would have been accessible only to a handful of people working in government agencies, in resource extraction, or as scientists,” Tryse said. “Today it is in the hands of hundreds of millions of people. It's impossible to care about something if you don't know it exists, but now people can fly across the planet and zoom in to ‘see for themselves’ in a whole different way many of the issues of today, whether it's a humanitarian crisis like burned-down villages in Darfur or an environmental issue like how very little forest is left for some of the world’s most endangered animals on the EDGE list."
Tryse added: "In seconds anyone can zoom in to see, for example, the huge fires from Shell's gas-flaring operations in the Nigerian delta or follow the discolored toxic runoff along a hundred kilometers of (recently pristine) rainforest river downstream of a goldmine in Peru or Indonesian Papua."
Even though Google Earth is primarily limited to optical sensing, even veteran GIS experts find themselves using it beyond presentations and outreach, particularly for getting an overview of a landscape for further investigation.
“We use Google Earth a lot to get a sense of what's there,” said Columbia's DeFries. “We use it to decide where to take a look at great detail and whether to order a time series. “
A case in point occurred in 2005 when Tanzanian ecologist Julian Bayliss spotted a 7,000-hectare tract of forest on Mount Mabu in Mozambique which, to his knowledge, had never been biologically assessed. Three years later expeditions to Mount Mabu turned up hundreds of species of plants and animals, including some that are new to science.
Google Earth is also being used for original research. A highly publicized example was the finding last year that cattle, along with grazing deer, tend to align themselves with the Earth's magnetic field lines, in a north-south direction. The work, published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS),” was based on analysis of 8,510 cattle spotted in Google Earth images of 308 pastures and plains around the world. Overall, 60-70 percent of cattle were oriented north-south.
As Google Earth continues to use cutting-edge remote sensing technologies it seems likely that it will become an increasingly important tool for research, adding to its value for organization and outreach.
"Many scientists are publishing the results of their studies (maps and imagery) in Google Earth as a means of enabling policy makers to engage better with the policy outcomes of scientific research," Mulligan said.
David Tryse hopes Google Earth will go beyond that.
"I am convinced that transparency and ease of access to information provided by Google Earth is a great example of how citizens of the future will use technology to choose their governments and products they buy."
Development of Google Earth a watershed moment for the environment
(03/31/2009) Satellites have long been used to detect and monitor environmental change, but capabilities have vastly improved since the early 1970s when Landsat images were first revealed to the public. Today Google Earth has democratized the availability of satellite imagery, putting high resolution images of the planet within reach of anyone with access to the Internet. In the process, Google Earth has emerged as potent tool for conservation, allowing scientists, activists, and even the general public to create compelling presentations that reach and engage the masses. One of the more prolific developers of Google Earth conservation applications is David Tryse. Neither a scientist nor a formal conservationist, Tryse's concern for the welfare of the planet led him develop a KML for the Zoological Society of London's EDGE of Existence program, an initiative to promote awareness of and generating conservation funding for 100 of the world's rarest species. The KML allows people to surf the planet to see photos of endangered species, information about their habitat, and the threats they face. Tryse has since developed a deforestation tracking application, a KML that highlights hydroelectric threats to Borneo’s rivers, and oil spills and is working on a new tool that will make it even easier for people to create visualizations on Google Earth. Tryse believes the development of Google Earth is a watershed moment for conservation and the environmental movement.
Deforestation maps for Sumatra now available on Google Earth
(03/31/2009) Despite many years of research in conservation biology, precise maps of tropical deforestation that document the global spatial extent of tropical forests destruction are generally not available outside of the scientific community, says David Gaveau a researcher from Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) points out. For nearly seven years, Gaveau has been documenting forest destruction on the entire island of Sumatra since early 1970s using satellite technology, and he has found the way to make his full-resolution maps and scientific results public using Google Earth.
Advancements in satellite technology will help scientists and policy makers map and monitor forest carbon
(03/29/2009) Given that deforestation accounts for nearly one fifth of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, reducing forest clearing and degradation is increasingly seen as an critical component to any framework addressing climate change. By some estimates, a mechanism that compensates countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) could funnel billions of dollars per year towards forest conservation. However the effectiveness of such a mechanism will hinge on the quality of data. Effective mapping and monitoring of forest carbon stores is absolutely key to any mechanism that compensates countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.
37,000 sq km of Amazon rainforest destroyed or damaged in 2008
(03/19/2009) Logging and fires damaged nearly 25,000 square kilometers (9,650 square miles) of Amazon rainforest in the August 2007-July 2008 period, an increase of 67 percent over the prior year period, according to a new mapping system developed by Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE). The damage comes on top of the nearly 12,000 sq km (4,600 sq mi) of rainforest that was cleared during the year.
Carbon dioxide monitoring satellite crashes immediately after launch
(02/24/2009) The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, a $273 million satellite that would have collected measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth's atmosphere to help better forecast the climate impacts of changes in CO2 levels, crashed about three minutes after launch, reports NASA. Researchers say the accident is a major setback for science.
Google Earth now allows ocean exploration, tracking of sharks
(02/05/2009) Google Earth now allows users to dive beneath the surface of the world's oceans to see coral reefs, trenches, and other marine wonders. The new version, Google Earth 5, includes layers showing locations of shipwrecks and surf spots; routes for ocean expeditions; the movements of GPS-tracked sea animals; and information (including videos and images) about the ocean environment from sources including National Geographic, the Cousteau Society, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Photos: Google Earth used to find new species
(12/22/2008) Scientists have used Google Earth to find a previously unknown trove of biological diversity in Mozambique, reports the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. Scouring satellite images via Google Earth for potential conservation sites at elevations of 1600 meters or more, Julian Bayliss a locally-based conservationist, in 2005 spotted a 7,000-hectare tract of forest on Mount Mabu. The scientifically unexplored forest had previously only been known to villagers. Subsequent expeditions in October and November this year turned up hundreds of species of plants and animals, including some that are new to science.
Google Earth reveals cattle have a built-in compass
(08/25/2008) Cattle, along with grazing deer, tend to align themselves with the Earth's magnetic field lines, in a north-south direction, report researchers writing in the early online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The finding suggests that cows seem to have a built-in magnetic compass.
New mapping system shows how detailed climate changes will affect species
(08/06/2008) A new computer simulation from the Nature Conservancy shows greater detail than ever before on how climate change will affect the world's biodiversity, according to an article in New Scientist. In worst case scenarios—using the example of Bengal tigers in Sundarbans mangrove forest—the article's author, Peter Aldhous, writes that some species will be forced into a "condemned cell", literally having no-where to go while their region becomes inhabitable.
First carbon map of America released by NASA
(07/15/2008) For the first time, one can have a whole view of America's carbon output: region by region, city by city. The Vulcan Project has undertaken a holistic inventory—including electricity, heat, transportation, and industry—of local carbon emissions across the nation to create the first carbon map of America. Texas leads the fifty states, and the county of Harris, Texas (encompassing Houston) records the nation's largest emissions by county. Although Texas is second in population after California, its massive industry puts it over the top.
New Google Earth layer offers insight on global deforestation
(06/15/2008) A new Google Earth KML file presents a geographical account of global deforestation.
Indigenous peoples of Congo map their forests with GPS in an effort to save them
(04/13/2008) This week over five hundred villagers in the Democratic Republic of Congo's rainforest will employ GPS technology to map their forests in an effort to preserve their territory from logging companies.
Fire monitoring by satellite becomes key conservation tool
(03/26/2008) Remote sensing is increasingly used as a tool for conservation management. Beyond traditional satellite imagery popularized by Google Earth, new sensing applications are allowing researchers located anywhere in the world to track fires, illegal logging and mining, and deforestation in some of Earth's most isolated regions using a computer or handheld device. The Fire Alert System is one example of an application that is harnessing the power of satellites to deliver key data to conservation managers. Developed by Madagascar's ministry of Environment, the International Resources Group, conservation International using data from the University of Maryland and NASA, the Fire Alert System enables near real-time monitoring of fires anywhere on the island of Madagascar, a hotspot of biological diversity. The system, which sends subscribers regular email alerts on newly-detected burning, will eventually be expanded to include all the world's protected areas, allowing managers to detect not only fires but potentially related activities like road building, logging, and even hunting.
Satellite could help reindeer in the Arctic
(03/17/2008) Researchers have used satellite data to detect Arctic conditions that cause mass starvation of hoofed animals depended on by native peoples. Some 20,000 musk oxen died on Canada's far-northern Banks Island because of such conditions during the winter several years ago. Yet, their deaths went unnoticed until the next spring. The new satellite-detection method could provide an early warning to native people, giving them a realistic chance of getting food to herds to prevent mass starvation.
Accurate forest data will help guide climate policy
(03/10/2008) As forests are increasingly seen as a means for fighting climate change, proper forest assessment becomes all the more important. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO) says it will call on member states to provide "accurate data". FAO data has been criticized by analysts for offering an incomplete picture of forest cover and trends.
'CAT scan' shows Hawaiian forests invaded by alien species
(03/03/2008) Invasive plant species are altering the ecology of Hawaiian rain forests, reports a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Complete map of world forests to help REDD carbon trading initiative
(02/27/2008) Policymakers, conservationists and scientists have high hopes that REDD, a mechanism for compensating countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, will spur a massive flow of funds to tropical countries, helping preserve rainforests and delivering economic benefits to impoverished rural communities. To date, one of the biggest hurdles for the initiative has been establishing a baseline for deforestation rates -- in order to compensate countries for "avoided deforestation" it first must be known how much forest the country has been losing on a historical basis. Until now, with some notable exceptions, this data was based largely on spotty satellite assessment and surveys of national forestry departments by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.
NASA releases high-resolution map of Antarctica
(11/27/2007) A team of researchers from NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Science Foundation and the British Antarctic Survey today unveiled a high resolution, true-color map of Antarctica. The map is expected to help scientists better understand changes occurring on the icy continent.
Madagascar fires mapped with Google Earth in real-time
(10/29/2007) Every year as much as one-third of Madagascar, one of the planet's most biodiverse islands, goes up in flames. Now a new tool gives scientists the ability to monitor and track Madagascar's fires in real-time through the Internet.
Google Earth adds endangered species info
(10/24/2007) Google Earth users can now learn about 100 of the world's most endangered species through a new KML developed by the Zoological Society of London's EDGE of Existence program.
New maps reveal causes of Amazon deforestation
(01/26/2007) Brazil's National Statistics Office (IBGE) released a set of maps showing how farmers are converting the Amazon rainforest into cattle pasture and soybean farms. The maps show for the first time the impact of deforestation and agricultural expansion on the Amazon rainforest, according to the agency.
Satellite imagery to be used to detect illegal logging, determine sustainability
(12/21/2006) A new project aims to use advanced satellite imagery to monitor illegal logging activities and help certify the sustainability of timber harvesting in some of the world's most remote forests. The effort could reduce the cost of forest management and certification, while helping to crack down on illicit tree-felling.
Amazon Indians use Google Earth, GPS to protect forest home
(11/15/2006) Deep in the most remote jungles of South America, Amazon Indians are using Google Earth, Global Positioning System (GPS) mapping, and other technologies to protect their fast-dwindling home. Tribes in Suriname, Brazil, and Colombia are combining their traditional knowledge of the rainforest with Western technology to conserve forests and maintain ties to their history and cultural traditions, which include profound knowledge of the forest ecosystem and medicinal plants. Helping them is the Amazon conservation Team (ACT), a nonprofit organization working with indigenous people to conserve biodiversity, health, and culture in South American rainforests.