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Earth Matters

6 Ways Earth Observations Tackle Real-World Problems

August 29th, 2016 by Kathryn Hansen, Mike Carlowicz, and Pola Lem

This summer, recent college graduates and early career professionals launched 30 small research projects as part of NASA’s DEVELOP program. The aim is to use NASA satellite observations of Earth to address an environmental or public policy issue. The young researchers have just 10 weeks to do it!

On Aug. 10, 2016, the “DEVELOPers” gathered at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., to showcase their results. So, how can Earth observations solve real-world problems? Let’s take a look:

1. They help land managers identify the locations of invasive species.

Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Austin Haney, DEVELOP project co-lead at University of Georgia, has seen first-hand how an invasive species can affect the ecosystem of Lake Thurmond, a large reservoir that straddles Georgia and South Carolina. Birds in the area “behave visibly different,” he said, after they consume a toxic cyanobacteria that lives on Hydrilla verticillata, an invasive aquatic plant. Ingesting the toxin causes a neurodegenerative disease and ultimately death. Scores of birds have been found dead in areas where large amounts of the toxin-supporting Hydrilla grow. To help lake managers better address the situation, Haney and project members developed a tool that uses data from the Landsat 8 satellite to map the distribution of Hydrilla across the lake.

 

2. They help identify wildlife habitat threatened by wildfires.

Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Maps that depict habitat and fire risk in eastern Idaho previously stopped short of Craters of the Moon National Monument, where shrubs and grasses transition to a sea of ankle-twisting basalt. But the environment is not as inhospitable as it first appears. Throughout the monument there are more than 500 kipukas — pockets of older lava capable of supporting some vegetation. That means they are also prone to burning. Project lead Courtney Ohr explained how her team used data from the Landsat 8 and Sentinel-2 satellites to simulate the area’s susceptibility to wildfires. Decisionmakers can use this model to monitor the remote wildlife habitat from afar.

 

3. In conjunction with Instagram, they help find seaweed blooms

Image credit: Caribbean Oceans Team

Image credit: Caribbean Oceans Team

Who knew that Instagram could be a tool for science? One DEVELOP team searched for photographs of massive seaweed (sargassum) blooms in the Caribbean, mapped the locations, and then checked what satellites could see. In the process, they tested two techniques for finding algae and floating vegetation in the ocean.

 

4. They help conserve water by reducing urban stormwater runoff.

Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Atlanta’s sewer system is among the nation’s most expensive, yet the city still struggles with stormwater. It’s an uphill climb as new construction paves over more of the city, removing landscapes that could absorb rain. The University of Georgia DEVELOP team partnered with The Nature Conservancy to address the problem.

Using satellite imagery, the team pinpointed 17 communities ripe for more green infrastructure and reforestation that could capture more of the city’s runoff. The team used two models — Land-Use Conflict Identification Strategy and the Soil and Water Assessment Tool — as well as the Landsat and Terra satellite data. Their analysis provides local groups with a working picture of the city’s water resources.

 

5. They show the spread of the mite eating away Puerto Rico’s palm trees.

Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The red palm mite has devastated Puerto Rico’s trees in recent years, chewing through coconut palms, bananas, and plantains on the island. The pests have spread and hurt crops across the Caribbean.

A DEVELOP team led by Sara Lubkin analyzed satellite imagery to track the mites’ rapid spread from 2002. The team mapped changes to vegetation (such as yellowing) and differences in canopy structure. They made use of imagery from Landsat, Hyperion, and IKONOS, as well as aerial views. Their work can be used to mitigate current mite infestations and monitor and prevent future ones.

 

6. They evaluate landslide-prone areas in the developing world

Image credit: East Africa Disasters II Team

Image credit: East Africa Disasters II Team

One team of DEVELOPers took on a project to aid people in developing nations. They examined satellite imagery to find past landslides in the African nation of Malawi. Factors such as flooding after long periods of drought have made the country increasingly prone to landslides. Blending maps of the landscape, rainfall data, and population centers, the young researchers assessed the areas most at risk—and most in need of education and support—from landslides.

Want to read more about DEVELOP projects? Want to get involved? Summaries, images, and maps of current and past projects can be viewed HERE. You can also learn how to apply for the DEVELOP program HERE.

2 Responses to “6 Ways Earth Observations Tackle Real-World Problems”

  1. associação professores de geografia portugal says:

    Very interesting.
    It is very important to illustrate our classrooms in wall kind of schools (children and yougers understand better the importance of NASA and to take care of our Earth.

    It is possible to translate to portuguese? And the rules of the projet and the posters?

    Best wishes.

    Emília Lemos
    (Chairman)

  2. M.Danish says:

    sir,
    I am A student and i want to work in NASA and do best for the humanity so please give an information about study in order to get job in NASA and work for world in technology.