Skip to content

Satellite Images Bridge Understanding Gap: Climate Change and Individuals

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 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
“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.
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.”
(Source Directionsmag)