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Notes from the Field

Belize is a small Central American country whose people pride themselves on trying to maintain a balance between development and conservation. I grew up in Belize City, near where the Belize River empties into the Caribbean Sea. The country’s landscape—covered by tropical forests and a network of rivers extending into the ocean—is fascinating, especially when viewed from the vantage point of space. I was able to return to Belize to join scientists from four organizations (Wildlife Conservation Society, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the University of Georgia and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) to kickoff research the likes of which Belize has never seen before. Our NASA-supported project, “Climate-influenced Nutrient Flows and Threats to the Biodiversity of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System,” (BZ-SDG for short), examines how satellite data can help with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 goals agreed to at the United Nations’ General Assembly in 2015. BZ-SDG looks at how NASA Earth observation data can help with monitoring progress on two goals (SDGs 14 and 15), “life below water” and “life on land.” While BZ-SDG is the first NASA project focused specifically on Belize, it builds on NASA’s earlier work in Central America under the SERVIR program, implemented by USAID and NASA. The project is also a demonstration for the Earth Observations for the Sustainable Development Goals (EO4SDG) initiative.

View of the Belize River from the airplane as we were landing.

There is increased interest in using satellite imagery for monitoring coastal areas in Belize, following on a coastal zone management program that began in the early 1990s. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second longest coral reef system in the world, and local scientists want to know what impact activities on land are having on these reef ecosystems. Coral reefs are like forests of the sea, and are important for maintaining fisheries. A 2008 study found that coral reefs, in association with mangroves, contribute to between 12% and 15% of Belize’s tourism earnings. Sometimes plumes of sediments wash down the country’s river systems and can be seen by satellite images extending all the way out to the coral reefs. Activities inland were also suspected of contributing to  a large bloom of green algae off Belize’s coast in 2011.

As “eyes in the sky,” satellites can survey vast extents of land, as well as the seas (i.e. the ‘seascape’), showing us information about water quality using different parts of the spectrum of light. In addition to specific satellites that focus on color of river water and sea water, there are also ways to use satellite imagery to track changes within that water, like sediments flushed into the rivers by erosion occurring further inland, or chlorophyll caused by photosynthesizing organisms.

Left: A Landsat-8 image from October 2018 shows a sediment plume originating from the mouth of the Belize River, extending 8km out to sea. Right: Relatively clear waters shown in another image from the same satellite from May 2019.

Left: A March 2013 Landsat-7 image of what the water off Belize’s coast normally looks like, with the coral reefs in light blue. Right: An algal bloom in a June 2011 Landsat-7 image can be seen as an almost phosphorescent green.

Upon arrival to Belize, we were joined by Sol Kim and Rafael Grillo, two Ph.D. students from the University of California, Berkeley, to carry out these on-site validation measurements. Over a period of two days, our team collected water quality samples on a path extending from just off the coast of Belize City all the way out to barrier reef—a distance of 15km (approximately 9 miles) out to sea. By comparing what the satellites “see” with what is measured in the field, researchers can help improve how the satellites estimate water quality in Belize’s coastal waters.

Project co-Investigator Christine Lee (left) of JPL writing the label for a sea water sample being collected by co-Investigator Deepak Mishra (right) of the University of Georgia.

We also traveled a few kilometers up two sections of the Belize River: first, up the main channel (for a distance of 8 kilometers or 5 miles), and 10 kilometers (approximately 6 miles) up Haulover Creek, which divides Belize City north-south and is the final section of the river. Aside from the water samples collected, the Belize River “mangrove cathedrals”—stands of red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) rising to about 20 meters (approx. 65 feet) in height—were also seen on the journey through Haulover Creek.

The interlocking canopies of red mangrove—reminiscent of church steeples—gave rise to the name “mangrove cathedrals.”

Locations of the 50 water quality samples collected on May 14 and 15, overlaid on top of a Landsat-8 image from May 20, 2019.

In total, 50 water quality samples were taken in the river and in the sea to determine sediment concentrations at each site. Additionally, using a hand-held sensor and a simple instrument called a Secchi disk, parameters like water depth, salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH, and temperature, were also measured. Locations of the 50 sample sites were geolocated using a handheld GPS receiver.

Rafael Grillo Avila of UC-Berkeley logging GPS coordinates, while Victor Alamina of WCS kept the boat steady.

On May 15, measurements were even taken at the same time as the Sentinel-2A satellite (from Europe’s Copernicus system) passed overhead! Unfortunately, the conditions were cloudy, so it wasn’t possible to estimate sediment concentrations from that imagery.

Copernicus Sentinel-2A image of Belize captured on Wed. May 15, when we were in the field; the red dots are the locations of the 21 water quality samples we collected that same day

Another fascinating part of the monitoring process is sampling in visibly tannin-rich river water near the mangrove cathedrals. Water could not be seen in different types of satellite images reviewed, including 30m Landsat imagery (NASA / USGS), 10m Sentinel-2 imagery (European Space Agency / Copernicus) or 3m Planet Labs Planetscope imagery. This is partly due to how narrow the river is, and mangrove trees overhanging the river, but it also means that it isn’t possible to use those types of images to examine water quality in portions of the Haulover Creek.

April 2019 Planetscope imagery of some of the study locations (Source: Planet Labs)

Calibrating the satellite-based estimates of water quality (from Landsat and Sentinel-2) will rely on measurements from the water quality samples collected. Since seasonal influences affect water quality,  this year’s sampling was timed to coincide with the end of the dry season. Additional water quality samples are planned to be collected during the wet season later this year, as well as next year’s dry season. Using this data, our team expects to work with local partner organizations like Belize’s Coastal Zone Management Authority & Institute to provide an interactive virtual dashboard that shows how water quality is changing across the coast over time. The country will be able to quickly detect when water quality events affecting Belize’s coral reefs occur with the dashboard.

This research is supported by NASA under cooperative agreement number #80NSSC19K0200. The project team includes Nicole Auil-Gomez, project co-Investigator Dr. Alex Tewfik, Myles Phillips, Victor Alamina, Ralna Lewis, and Deseree Arzu of the WCS, project Principal Investigator Dr. Robert Griffin and co-Investigator Dr. Emil Cherrington of UAH, project co-Investigator Dr. Deepak Mishra of UGA, project co-Investigator Dr. Christine Lee of NASA JPL, and Ph.D. students Sol Kim, Xiaowei Wang, and Rafael Grillo Avila of UC-Berkeley. Dr. Cindy Schmidt, Associate Program Manager for the Ecological Forecasting program of the NASA Applied Science Program, also participated in the field visits.


Meet the 88S Expedition Crew

May 30th, 2019 by Kelly Brunt

This winter, our field team of four completed the two-week 88S Traverse in Antarctica in an effort to provide the best means of assessing NASA’s ICESat-2. When you show folks pictures from the trip, they are usually taken by the beauty of the stark landscape. They become interested in hearing more. Then, after you explain daily temperatures, what you ate along the traverse, and your access to WiFi, the trip suddenly seems extreme. And they think you are crazy for participating in such an endeavor.

So, let’s meet the crazy 88S participants.

Four field team members taking four separate selfies in the globe that sits on top of the ceremonial South Pole marker. Photo: Brunt

I’m Kelly and I am the leader of this project. This was my second year on the 88S Traverse and I was the only crazy person who had done this twice; everyone else was new to the project this season. That speaks volumes about my deep-field cooking skills! I am a researcher at the University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, specializing in the remote sensing of ice sheets, and I have been on the ICESat-2 project since 2010. This was my 11th trip to Antarctica, which included a few years with the science support staff at McMurdo Station, a few years of doing field work toward my PhD, a season with the Australians during my postdoc, and then of course a couple of seasons with this project. I grew up skiing in New England and I absolutely love cold environments and the challenges of doing this type of field work.

Kelly eating maple syrup on snow, which is a New England favorite. Photo: Greeley

Adam was the other NASA researcher on this trip. This was his first year on the 88S Traverse and his first trip to Antarctica. Overall, I think he had a really good time! He is also a researcher at the University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and has been on the ICESat-2 project since about 2013, where he has been looking at how green laser light from ICESat-2 interacts with the surface of the ice sheet. Adam hails from New Hampshire and loves skiing, so he was enthusiastic and well suited for much of the Antarctic climate.

Adam nearly bubbling over with excitement on his first trip to Antarctica. Photo: Brunt

Matt was the Traverse mechanic. Similar to Adam, this was his first year on the 88S Traverse and his first trip to Antarctica. And I know that he enjoyed the experience because he decided to stay in Antarctica for the winter! He took a lead mechanic position at McMurdo Station soon after returning from the Traverse. The winter will be pretty cool for him, as it will allow him to experience being in 24 hours of darkness during the period around the southern hemisphere’s winter solstice (June 21st). Matt is a PistenBully expert and gained his experience at a ski resort in Washington called White Pass, which is where Olympians Phil and Steve Mahre grew up. So, similar to Adam, he also loves skiing and was well suited for much of the Antarctic climate.

Matt, mid-traverse, exhausted by my 70s-music playlists. Photo: Brunt

In year two of the 88-South Antarctic Traverse, mechanic and PistenBully expert Matt Means joins the team as the NASA team treks the ice sheet. Recorded from McMurdo Station in Antarctica, Matt describes his first experiences on the traverse as well as life in the deep field.

Chris was the Traverse mountaineer and medic. This was his first year on the 88S Traverse but Chris has oodles of experience in Antarctica, dating back to the 1990s. He’s a licensed IFMGA American Mountain Guide that has led trips all over the globe, mostly in steep or icy regions. This type of experience is so important for the safety of field projects that are based on the ice sheet. Added to these highly technical skills is his medical training: Chris was a US Navy Hospital Corpsman and provided us with a top-notch level of experience that we all hoped we would never need while on Traverse. Like Matt, Chris is from the Pacific Northwest and grew up skiing in that region. Most recently claimed Seattle as his home base. After the traverse, Chris briefly joined another Antarctic traverse, which was based out of McMurdo.

Chris at the finish area for the Race Around the World. The event is a South Pole Christmas day tradition; it’s about a 2-mile run that crosses every line of longitude. Photo: Brunt

So the common thread between the folks on this traverse was of course the ‘crazy’ component, but also that each of us has an overall love of spending time in cold environments. And coffee. Everyone on this trip loved their coffee.

Yes, It’s Really Cold

May 28th, 2019 by Adam Greeley and Kelly Brunt

As you start exploring the ICESat-2 data – released to the public today! – spare a thought to the team that went to the end of the Earth to check it! This winter, we successfully completed the second Antarctic 88S Traverse, collecting highly accurate GPS elevation data for direct comparison with ICESat-2. The comparison provides us with the best means of assessing one of NASA’s newest satellites!

This is my favorite photo from the traverse, demonstrating how the stark nature of the high Antarctic Plateau makes the sky more dramatic (Photo: Brunt).

Over 12 days, we drove ~750 km (~450 mi) in slow-moving tracked vehicles called PistenBullys. When I got back from Antarctica, people often asked about the weather: In that region, the weather is generally pretty constant. We had temperatures that were approximately -15C (5F) with light winds. Once, when it got really windy — about 20 knots — the traverse person in charge of safety, Chris, pulled out a Kestrel, or a tool to measure windspeed. He translated that to a windchill temperature, and informed us that it was about -50C (-58F). As luck would have it, that was one of the days that the NASA folks (myself and Adam) had to work outside for a few hours. At least we had warm vehicles to jump into when the outside work was done.

People also asked what we ate: We took turns cooking in the evenings, and we often named our entrees, such as Penguin Noodle (it was chicken) or “Just Like the Olive Garden.” Some folks get imaginative in their cooking, and Chris often prepared multi-course feasts that were always a hit and often copied on subsequent evenings. For the second straight year, I was the worst cook. On the nights that I cooked, the traverse mechanic, Matt, would prepare himself an afternoon burrito, cooked on the PistenBully exhaust pipe (1 hour cook time).

The entire team crammed into the kitchen tent, eating an Adam creation (Photo: Greeley).

People that are familiar with this type of field work often asked if we encountered any problems along the way. Overall, we had only minimal problems – small things that could be handled rather quickly. And that’s pretty good for a deep-field Antarctic research project. However, the main issue that we did encounter was one of the vehicles really, really struggling with respect to power. That meant that at times, our already slow traverse (~10 km/hour, or ~6 mi/hour) was made even slower (~5 km/hour, or ~3 mi/hour). Our mechanic Matt worked hard to understand the root cause. And all I could do for him was make an 80s playlist while he drove and thought about the problem. Only after the traverse, in a warm garage with the PistenBully hooked up to a diagnostic tool, was he able to determine that it was a bad ECM. I have no idea what that means. But I like that Matt does. Figuring out the problem suggests that these vehicles will be good to go for next season!

Here’s a photo of Matt the Mechanic working on the PistenBully. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but here’s what’s still missing: 1) we are actually moving in this photo, even with the steering wheel pulled apart; and 2) we are listening to an 80s playlist designed to make the mechanic happy (Photo: Brunt).

But the most frequent question that people asked this season pertained to the government shutdown this winter: Folks wanted to know whether we were affected, and how were we able to move forward with the field plan. It was quite straightforward. First, neither the traverse researchers (me and Adam) nor the science support staff (Matt and Chris) were civil servants. That helped a lot. But more importantly, following the government shutdown of 2013, which had a major impact on Antarctic research, the National Science Foundation put measures in place to ensure that their busy summer field season (usually from about early October to late January) was uninterrupted in the event of a shutdown during future research seasons. The only real impact of the shutdown on our project was that our blogs were interrupted! We finished our Antarctic adventure back in late January but decided to post a couple blogs summarizing the field season in sync with the public release of the ICESat-2 data – so stay tuned for the next one coming later this week!

And if you’d like to check out ICESat-2 data, visit the NSIDC site at: https://nsidc.org/data/icesat-2

I couldn’t help but notice Dubai as the land of the largest. Aside from being the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is home to Burj Khalifa (the tallest tower in the world), the second-biggest mall (depending on how you measure), and a series of massive artificial islands in the shape of palm fronds and continents along the country’s coastline. Following this trend, it was fitting for the city to host a major consultative workshop on probably the largest cross-disciplinary subject area: land cover and land use change. Mapping and monitoring landcover (forests, rangelands, cropland, & settlements) helps us understand change over time and is critical to maintaining healthy ecosystems that can provide carbon sinks for limiting greenhouse emissions, arable land for food security, and habitat for wildlife. Additionally, land cover dictates how water flows across the land surface and has a direct impact on water quality and water resources.

A night view of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world at 2,717 feet (approx. 828 meters)

The two-day workshop focused on the Afghanistan National Land Cover Monitoring System (A-NLCMS), a customized service for annual land cover mapping and change analysis. Using remote sensing inputs from Landsat and Sentinel-2 satellites, a standard methodology, and consistent datasets, A-NLCMS is able to address gaps in regional land cover data. The service is a collaborative effort, co-developed by two regional instances of SERVIR: the Hindu Kush-Himalaya and Mekong, with additional support from the United States Forest Services (USFS) and SilvaCarbon.

The workshop brought together a high-level delegation from Kabul, including Director Generals from the Ministry of Agriculture Irrigation and Livestock, Afghanistan Meteorological Department, National Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Deputy Director Generals from the Ministry of Energy and Water and the National Statistics and Information Authority, to name a few.

Workshop deliberations were fruitful and succinct, achieving the main objectives of finalizing the methodology and approach of the A-NLCMS, while defining the roles and responsibilities of both SERVIR and relevant Afghan ministries going forward.  This consultative process is vital to understand needs and current capacities, and allows for the design of innovative (and regionally appropriate) scientific solutions. All in all, the workshop was exemplary of how SERVIR works: bringing together people from diverse backgrounds to address complex environmental issues around the globe and co-develop solutions with local decision makers and stakeholders.

Though the trip was short, the camaraderie the workshop facilitated resulted in great memories and experiences. We enjoyed a night on the town where we stumbled upon the world’s largest (of course) choreographed fountain system: the 30-acre Dubai Fountain. Pictured above are the Freedom Divers, part of an indoor water feature cascading down all three stories of the Dubai Mall.

It’s a true pleasure to be a part of a project that brings people together across so many cultures, agnostic of borders, to address pressing issues. The experience reminded me a of a lesser-known world record held by the country: in December 2014, to celebrate the 43rd National Day of the UAE, people of 117 different nationalities came together to sing the UAE’s national anthem, creating a world record for the most nationalities to come together and sing a national anthem at one time.

A desert sunset to cap off a fun and successful trip.

We Made it to Antarctica

December 20th, 2018 by Adam Greeley and Kelly Brunt

Traveling to Antarctica is no joke even for veterans like Kelly, but especially for first timers like me. This isn’t your run of the mill intercontinental flight; a lot more gear is needed plus required training. There are also a lot of long flights involved. To get to the United States Antarctic Program facilities in Christchurch, New Zealand from the U.S. East Coast, it takes about three layovers, over 30 hours of flying, and some time travel (cross the international date line: lose a day. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200).

Upon arriving in Christchurch, our first stop is the U.S. Antarctic Program, run by the National Science Foundation. After some briefings on what we will need in Antarctica, what to expect, and what not to do (no touching penguins!), it’s on to the Clothing Distribution Center. It’s probably obvious to most, but Antarctica can get really cold! The U.S. Antarctic Program wants to make sure we stay warm on the ice so they provide us with Extreme Cold Weather gear including boots, snow pants, mittens, hat, neck warmer, goggles, and of course: “big red,” an aptly named parka.

Visiting the U.S. Antarctic Program Clothing Distribution Center to get all the hats, gloves, jackets, snow pants, and boots needed to keep us warm down on the ice. (Photo: Adam Greeley)

Once we have all our gear and baggage together, it’s time to fly! No 737s here. The U.S. Antarctic Program transports cargo and personnel down to the ice on various military aircraft. We transited on a New Zealand C-130. Seats face the sides of the aircraft instead of forward, and consist of canvas benches with cargo strapping for backs. You get to know your neighbors really well on these flights. Straightening your knees beyond 90 degrees involves some coordination with at least one individual sitting across from you. Weather can change at a moment’s notice down in Antarctica and sometimes that means you need to turn around and head back to Christchurch four hours into a flight. These flights are known as “boomerangs” and are not the most fun.

Crowded seating arrangements inside a New Zealand Air Force C-130 (Photo: Adam Greeley)

After a scrubbed flight, and one boomerang, we made it to Antarctica. Stepping off the airplane onto the ice runway for the first time is a breath-taking experience. The McMurdo Ice Shelf stretches toward the Ross Ice Shelf to the south, while the Mt. Discovery and the Transantarctic Mountains line the western horizon. Cold, dry air fills your nose and lungs. Your eyes blink, trying in vain to bat away the overwhelming brilliance of sunlight reflecting off the snow. Snow crunches softly under foot. The wind races by and in the distance Mt. Erebus towers, watching all beneath its feet. We’ve arrived. Terra Australis Incognita: Antarctica.

Kelly and Adam happy to be on the ice runway at McMurdo Station, Antarctic (Photo: Kelly Brunt)