Satellite Images Bridge Understanding Gap between Climate Change and Individuals

By Kevin Corbley

The geospatial community can play a vital role in global warming research by helping to make a connection between climate change and individual people. The best way to accomplish this is by making satellite imagery and derived information more easily accessible and understandable to the general public, so they can see the impact that climate change has at the local level.

That was the consensus of representatives from SPOT Image Corp., CNES (the French Space Agency) and Google Earth, who engaged in a lengthy discussion following the "Space and the Polar Regions" seminar held in Arlington, Virginia. Sponsored in April by the Embassy of France and George Mason University to kick off the International Polar Year, the event focused attention on the environmental monitoring data that Earth observation satellites have collected over the poles and their importance to research.

In their meeting, Spot Image, CNES and Google Earth picked up on the theme of the conference and examined ways the geospatial industry, specifically organizations providing imagery, can do a better job assisting with climate change research. The three entities elaborated on their own current and future activities to support environmental monitoring initiatives.

Jean-Jacques Tortora, CNES space attaché to the Embassy of France, explained that polar regions are crucial to understanding global climate change because the poles are affected more rapidly and dramatically than other parts of the Earth. And, he added, the changes occurring there influence the oceans, atmospheres and land masses around the globe.

"We are now realizing that indicators of the future of our planet lie at the poles," said Tortora.

Despite this importance, the challenge for environmental scientists in general, and polar researchers in particular, has been getting people to understand that what happens at the North and South Poles impacts their daily lives in France, the United States and elsewhere. The poles are the most remote places on Earth, and few individuals have visited them, so it's hard to make a personal connection.

"The role of Earth imaging satellites should be to fill the missing link between environmental change and human beings," said Antoine de Chassy, president and CEO of SPOT Image Corp. "Global climate change remains an abstract concept until people visualize what it's doing in their own backyard."

The personal connection is invaluable, said Pascale Ultre-Guerard, head of Earth Observation Programs for CNES France. Once people see the impact that climate change has on them, "they realize they can also change the atmosphere and the environment," she said.

Making that connection with satellite imagery, however, has its own challenges. SPOT's de Chassy pointed out that while Earth observation satellites have been extremely successful at identifying environmental change, the link with everyday citizens has often been difficult to establish because imagery historically has been too expensive to obtain and too difficult to analyze for anyone but a trained scientist.

But this has all changed in the past two years, according to de Chassy, with the introduction of Web-enabled technology like Google Earth, which has spanned the last mile between the satellite image and the average person. And de Chassy believes this same technology will fill the same gap between climate change and individuals, with the help of imagery, because it's readily accessible and easy to use.

Google Earth Chief Technologist Michael Jones agreed with the analogy that Google Earth has bridged the gap between remote sensing and individual people, resulting in greater understanding of environmental issues. The ability to use Google Earth and drill down from the global panorama to the neighborhood level enables people to understand natural and man-made events on a human scale.

Jones explained that Google Earth users often zoom in on their houses and then pan around their neighborhoods. They get a different perspective on the influences of human activities, such as development, right in their immediate surroundings, which they understand because they also see those impacts in their daily lives. Then when they pan out and zoom back in on similar changes in other parts of the world where they've never been, a global connection is made. This helps them internalize the concept that environmental processes are inter-related regardless of where they occur.

"That range of information is very important to satisfy both parts of the human cognition system," said Jones. "We built Google Earth because we want people to understand."

Turning Imagery into Action
The discussion then turned to specific initiatives that SPOT, CNES and Google have undertaken, or plan to begin soon, that will leverage remote sensing data and heighten the public's awareness of climate change issues.

(c) CNES 1994 - Mount Erebus in Antartica, by SPOT5. Distribution Spot Image. (Click for larger image)

The Google initiative began with the introduction of Google Earth and Google Maps, which provide users all of the tools they need to build virtual globes that can be accessed by anyone via the Web. In the hands of environmental researchers, these virtual globes allow interested users to drill down from satellite and aerial imagery to view photographs, video and other documentation illustrating in a personal way the research being done to delve into specific atmospheric, societal and ecological changes occurring around the world. Virtual globes are a new medium for conveying information.

Millions of people are using Google Earth to explore environmental and humanitarian issues. There are more than 50,000 Google Maps API-based Web sites. Some examples related to polar research can be accessed on the International Polar Year website. One of the best climate change research sites, in Jones' opinion, is EarthSLOT, which enables visitors to view multiple layers of terrain data linked geographically to their locations on Google Earth images.

Earlier in the day at the International Polar Year seminar, Jones had encouraged other climate change scientists to take advantage of the free Google Earth tools and create websites to publicize their research. He reminded them there are 200 million Google Earth users, many of them in influential positions, around the world. He pointed out that environmental scientists have tremendous potential to make a difference, but only if someone hears their message.

"It's very important to keep information in the public eye and keep sharing that information," he said.

For its part, SPOT Image is teaming with its parent company, Spot Image, S.A. in Toulouse, France, to launch a global program called Planet Action. The goal, according to de Chassy, is to get satellite imagery and other resources into the hands of local communities so they can take positive action in response to environmental change.

Planet Action will use Web-enabled technology like Google Earth to facilitate sharing information among scientific and non-governmental organizations and industries, schools and individuals at the local level. The ultimate goal is to create a worldwide network of citizens who have access to geospatial information and know how to apply it locally to influence positive change where they live.

"Our archive of SPOT imagery is a gold mine for environmental change research," said de Chassy. Since 1986, Spot Image has successfully launched and operated five Earth observation satellites, three of which are still functioning. The company has catalogued and archived millions of high resolution scenes covering nearly every square kilometer of the Earth's land mass.

One aspect of Planet Action will involve Spot Image directly supplying new and archived imagery to support research projects. The company is also looking to its worldwide network of 30 direct receiving stations to play active roles in fostering programs within their local communities where they already have relationships with academic, governmental and civic organizations.

The influence of Web technology won't be limited to non-profit activities at Spot Image, however. De Chassy described a "revolution of the mind" that has occurred in the geospatial industry as a result of Google Earth technology. He promised that Spot Image will soon be changing the way its customers browse, purchase and experience satellite imagery.

As a way of summation, CNES' Ultre-Guerard looked just a few years farther into the future, describing the new satellites that France now has under development as follow-ons to the SPOT series. The two new optical satellites, known as Pleiades, will complement existing SPOT capabilities in many ways, although the spatial resolution will be improved to 0.7 meters. Launching in 2009 and 2010, Pleiades will also complement high-resolution public-private partnership (PPP) radar imaging satellites that will soon be launched by Germany and Italy.

The Earth Observation Responsibility
Spot Image, CNES and Google reached one final consensus before adjourning their discussion: While the Earth observation industry has a valuable role to play in climate change research, it also has a tremendous responsibility to the citizens of Earth to remain unbiased in the scientific and political debates. The discussion participants agreed that it's critical for satellite image providers to be honest brokers of geospatial information.

"Our responsibility as an industry is to do our jobs … to supply accurate imagery to the largest possible community, whether the imagery shows change that is good or bad," said de Chassy. Jones agreed, "Reporting the information so people can draw their own conclusions is very important … I think it's our job to be someone that can be trusted."

Published Friday, June 22nd, 2007

Written by Kevin Corbley

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