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Earth Matters

NASA has funded five new projects to develop tools and technology to make the agency’s massive Earth science datasets more accessible and user-friendly.

Wake up. Turn on laptop. Start processing airborne data of the Adirondack forests in New York. Make Coffee. Eat Breakfast. Fasten the open laptop’s seatbelt in the passenger seat as it continues to crunch numbers. Drive to work.

NASA Earth science datasets provide different perspectives and information on our planet, as seen here in this data visualization of observations of Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Credits: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

That used to be Sara Lubkin’s morning routine as an early career scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Once at work, she would use her desktop computer, while her laptop diligently spent the next 12 hours processing airborne instrument data for the relevant information she needed to study invasive pests of hemlock trees.

“I’m not a computer scientist, I’m an Earth scientist,” said Lubkin, who now works as a program officer for NASA Earth Science Data Systems’ Advancing Collaborative Connections for Earth Systems Science, or ACCESS program. But her experience as a researcher is not unique.

Spending large chunks of time simply getting Earth science data into a usable form for analysis is a common situation for researchers working with the big datasets that come from NASA field, airborne and satellite missions. Downloading huge files, converting data formats, locating the same study areas in multiple datasets, writing code to distinguish different land types in a satellite image – these types of tasks eat into time scientists would rather be using to analyze the actual information in the data.

That’s where the ACCESS program comes in. Part of the Earth Science Data Systems division since 2005, ACCESS finds innovative ways to streamline that cumbersome processing time. The program funds two-year research projects to improve behind-the-scenes data management and provide ready-to-use datasets and services to scientists, Lubkin said.

Sara Lubkin worked with NASA’s big data sets studying invasive pests in Adirondack hemlock trees as part of NASA’s Applied Sciences DEVELOP program, which addresses environmental and public policy issues through interdisciplinary research projects that apply the lens of NASA Earth observations to community concerns around the globe. Credit: Sara Lubkin

In June, NASA selected five teams of NASA, university and commercial computer science researchers from the 2017 round of submissions in a range of projects that will use machine learning, cloud computing and advanced search capabilities to develop tools to improve the behind-the-scenes management for selected NASA datasets.

“We continually invest in development and evaluation of the newest technologies to improve science data systems,” said Kevin Murphy, program executive for NASA’s Earth Science Data Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington. But more than that, they want to make sure that the tools and technology help real scientists address real problems.

Each ACCESS project has Earth scientists and computer scientists involved from beginning to end, Murphy said. “With the ACCESS program, we’re really trying to understand, for example, how ocean currents work, but we’re trying to do that now with data that’s so large that we need a team of experts who can work together to solve the big science and big data questions.”

The projects will complement data management, distribution and other services provided by the Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS), which manages and stores NASA data collected from Earth-observing satellites, aircraft and field campaigns. EOSDIS has 12 interconnected data and archive centers located across the United States, which are organized by discipline. Currently, these centers host 26 petabytes of Earth datasets – that’s 26 million gigabytes, or enough data to need 52,000 computers each with 500 gigabytes of storage space. That number is expected to grow to 150 petabytes within five years with the launch of new satellites.

“Satellite data is big data,” said Jeff Walter, one of the ACCESS 2017 principal investigators and lead engineer for Science Data Services at the Atmospheric Science Data Center at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “It’s very complex and sometimes difficult to use, even for expert users. In addition to the volume, which makes it difficult for users to acquire, store and manage, there’s also the complexity of both the format and content. Users often have to spend a lot of time understanding how the data is organized and what the various parameters represent.”

Walter’s project is one of three that will use cloud computing to alleviate download and storage issues for users. Starting with two atmospheric datasets, his team will also be developing a way to convert satellite data formats into those that can be read by commercial geospatial information system (GIS) software.

“Our project aims to lower the barrier to entry for a potential new user community who might find novel ways to use this data, and who are more familiar with GIS types of tools,” Walter said.

The two other cloud computing projects will be developing open source processing and analysis tools, including one designed for ocean datasets. A fourth project will use machine learning to detect changes over time in land observations, starting with the detection of landslides, floods and uplift caused by volcanic activity. The fifth project will develop an automated method for lining up datasets that observe the same location so researchers can combine more than one type of information about a place.

NASA has 26 Earth-observing satellites monitoring the vital signs of our home planet. Along with airborne and ground Earth science missions, their data is stored and managed by the Earth Observing System Data and Information System. Credit: NASA

Upon completion, the ACCESS researchers will work closely with EOSDIS teams to incorporate their advancements into the data centers’ day-to-day operations. Once those new tools are in place, that’s when the real power of open and freely available Earth science datasets can flourish, according to Murphy. Easy-to-use data means it gets into the hands of decision-makers, non-governmental organizations, scientists studying related applications and researchers in different fields that may have new uses for it.

“When you make these products open and accessible, you have a lot of unintended, good scientific consequences,” Murphy said, citing examples that include detecting groundwater movement from space, rapid wildfire detection and using night lights to study human energy use. “NASA has a lot of very valuable information, and the ACCESS program really tries to help scientists to not only address primary science questions but also help us understand our environment and plan for our future.”

To learn more about ACCESS, visit https://earthdata.nasa.gov/community/community-data-system-programs/access-projects

To learn more about NASA’s Earth Science Data Systems, visit https://earthdata.nasa.gov/

Finding New Ways to Feed the World

April 11th, 2018 by Adam Voiland

If you take the long view, our world is much better fed than it used to be. In the 1970s, about one-third of people in developing countries were undernourished; today the number is 13 percent. Even as global population has increased, it has been a long time since the horrific famines that claimed 5 million lives or more in the Soviet Union, China, Europe, and India during the 20th Century.

Chart courtesy of IFPRI.

However, serious food shortages remain a fact of life. Roughly 815 million people were undernourished in 2016, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. That is an increase of 38 million people from 2015, making 2016 the first year in more than a decade that the world grew hungrier. The grim trend was driven largely by armed conflicts in South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, and Syria.

Meanwhile, other problems loom. Climate change is already starting to exacerbate famines, as temperature and precipitation patterns shift. Many experts worry that food production systems may struggle to adapt in coming decades. Even if problems caused by climate change turn out to be modest, global populations are expected to increase to 10 billion people by 2050, and the demand for food will likely go up by 50 percent or more as people in the developing world increase their income and consume foods that require more resources to produce.

Solving global problems sometimes requires a global view, so NASA’s Applied Sciences Program is working to make sure the world’s food systems are ready for the future. Researchers and program managers have created an agency-wide initiative to put remote sensing data and knowledge into the hands of people who can advance agriculture and reduce world hunger.

Earth Matters sat down with Sean McCartney, coordinator of NASA’s new Food Security Office, to learn more.

Earth Matters: How did NASA get involved with food security?

McCartney: People sometimes forget that NASA’s charter states that one of the agency’s key objectives is “the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” There are currently around 20 Earth-observing satellites that collect data on the hydrosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere. NASA has been able to leverage this data through scientific analysis and modeling to better understand food systems on a global scale.

Chart courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observing System Project Science Office.

The food security initiative is part of our Applied Sciences Program, which does outreach with end users and showcases Earth observations. Through this program, NASA began to work with the United Nations on Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), a global effort to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. Some of the goals relate to water and food security, and NASA leadership believed that that was an area where Earth observations could really contribute. Getting involved with the SGDs dovetailed with the establishment of the Food Security Office.

How do satellites and Earth-observing data relate to the food situation on the ground?

We already do a lot with satellites to monitor major commodity crops like rice, maize, wheat, and soy. We can use satellites to help track key crop characteristics, such as the “greenness” of vegetation (NDVI), crop type, the acreage and distribution of crops, precipitation, soil moisture, evapotranspiration, and more. This sort of environmental data is incorporated into important crop assessment reports, such as the GEOGLAM Crop Monitor, a monthly bulletin on conditions for major crops around the world.

Likewise, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) uses satellite data as part of its Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), which produces frequent reports on food conditions in 34 of the most famine-prone countries in the world.

What we’re trying to do is optimize programs and tools like these — and develop others — and get them into the right hands at the right time. NASA assets help inform governments, NGOs, the private sector, and other stakeholders to anticipate and react to food shortages.

Map courtesy of FEWS NET.

What are the main priorities of the new office?

A lot of the efforts so far have been through a partnership with the Earth Observations for Food Security and Agriculture Consortium (EOFSAC), a program led by the University of Maryland. The consortium is a really multidisciplinary group, which is what makes it so exciting. It has roughly 40 partner organizations from government, NGOs, international organizations, universities, and the private sector all working together. You can see a full list of the partners here.

What is on the consortium’s agenda?

Partnering with both the private and public sector—for instance, USDA and USAID—is one focus. They are going to be looking at innovative ways where Earth observations can provide value to end users. That might involve working with the reinsurance industry to provide them with a broad view of crops or working with USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service to develop ways of incorporating more satellite data into their workflow.

In February 2018, the consortium sponsored a workshop at the National Agricultural Library focusing on emerging technologies in Earth observations. Presenters highlighted several new sensors and data sets that are now being applied to agriculture — such as soil moisture, solar induced fluorescence, and satellite-derived precipitation. For a full account of the meeting, you can read the minutes here.

Photo courtesy of EOFSAC.

How would you say the world is doing in regards to food security?

It really depends on the country. If you look at overall food production, even in countries that are in need, they might be producing adequate food, but they don’t have access to markets, so they can’t get that food to people before it spoils.

Is it possible to follow some of these organizations and projects on social media?
Yes, check out @EOFSAC, @GEOCropMonitor, @FEWSNET, @G20_GEOGLAM, and @AgMIPnews.

Using Satellites to Confront Water Woes

March 22nd, 2018 by Adam Voiland

Fire on Bellandur Lake on January 19, 2018. Photo by pee vee.

In Bengaluru, India, one of the city’s lakes is so polluted with sewage, trash, and industrial chemicals that it has an alarming habit of catching on fire. As recently as January 19, 2018, fire broke out on Bellandur Lake and burned for seven hours.

The same lake is notorious for churning up large amounts of white foam that has, at times, spilled from the lake and enveloped nearby streets, cars, and bridges. The water is so polluted that it can’t be used for drinking or bathing or even irrigation.

Bellandur Lake is not the only lake in Bengaluru with water quality problems. During a recent check, not one of the hundreds of lakes that the city tested was clean enough to be used for drinking or bathing.

Foamy water flowing into Bellandur Lake. Photo by Kannon B.

I point this out on World Water Day to underscore that Bengaluru’s water woes, though extreme, are not particularly uncommon. According to the United Nations, a quarter of all people on the planet lack access to safely managed drinking water, and 40 percent of people live in areas where water scarcity is a problem. Roughly 80 percent of wastewater flows back into ecosystems untreated. Even in the United States, tens of millions of people may be exposed to unsafe drinking water, according to one recently published study.

Even in the course of reporting for this website from a satellite perspective, we see signs of trouble. Capetown was on the verge of running out of water in February 2018. Drought pushed São Paulo’s reservoirs to near empty in recent years. The GRACE satellites have observed rapid depletion of groundwater in several critical aquifers. On more than one occasion, we have reported on rainbow-colored escaped mine tailings contaminating waterways.

NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Learn more about the image here.

To push back against such problems, NASA’s Earth Science Division, and particularly its applied sciences program, is doing what it can to marshal the agency’s resources to make countries aware of what NASA resources are available to monitor and reduce the impact of water-related problems.

Learn more about the Sustainable Development Goals. Image by the United Nations.

As one piece of its water program, NASA scientists and staff are working with the United Nations to highlight key NASA datasets, tools, and satellite-based monitoring capabilities that may help countries meet the 17 sustainable development goals established by the international body. Goal number 6—that countries ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all—has been a particular focus of the NASA teams.

NASA and NOAA satellites collect several types of data that may be useful for water management. Sensors such as the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) collect daily data and images of water bodies around the planet that can be used to track the number and extent of lakes and reservoirs.

Image courtesy of this NASA ARSET presentation. Learn more about the image here.

The same sensors collect information about water color, which scientists use to detect sediment, chlorophyll-a (a product of phytoplankton and algae blooms), colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM), and other indicators of water quality.

The strength of MODIS and VIIRS is that these sensors collect daily imagery; the downside is that the data is relatively coarse. However, another family of satellites, Landsat, carries sensors that provide more than 10 times as much detail.

The combination of information from multiple satellites collected over time can be powerful. For instance, as we reported previously, a team of scientists based in China used decades of Landsat data to track a 30 percent decrease in the total surface area of lakes in Inner Mongolia between the 1980s and 2010. The scientists attributed the losses to warming temperatures, decreased precipitation, and increased mining and agricultural activity.

This map above depicts 375 lakes within Inner Mongolia that experienced a loss in water surface area between 1987-2010. The large, purple circles indicate a complete loss of water. Learn more about the map here.

Meanwhile, one of NASA’s scientists, Nima Pahlevan, is in the process of building an early warning system based on Landsat and Sentinel-2 data that will be used to alert water managers in near-real time when satellites detect high levels of chlorophyll-a, an indicator that harmful algal blooms could be present. While some blooms are harmless, outbreaks of certain types of organisms lead to fish kills and dangerous contamination of seafood. His team is working on a prototype system for Lake Mead in Nevada (see below), Indian River Lagoon in Florida, and certain reservoirs in Oregon. Eventually, he hopes to have a tool available that can be used globally.

“The idea is that we can get the information to water managers quickly about where satellites are seeing suspicious blooms, and then folks on the ground will know where to test water to determine if there’s a harmful algae bloom,” said Pahvalen. “We’re not suggesting that satellites can replace on-the-ground sampling, but they can be a great complement and make that work much work more efficient and less costly.”

To learn more about how satellites can be used to aid in the monitoring of water quality, see this workshop report and harmful algal bloom training module from NASA’s ARSET program.