How Satellites Serve Society: My Summer With NASA

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Moneymaker_MalawiFloodBy Brigitte Moneymaker, C+S ’15

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of satellites? If you were alive in the 1960s, you might have vivid memories of Russia’s Sputnik — the world’s very first satellite — and the resulting Space Race to be the first country to reach the moon (score one for team USA). For younger generations, your association with satellites might be from brief references in pop culture, such as a glimpse in the Disney movie WALL-E or maybe something more Star Wars-esque.

Now, picture a rural community in a poverty-stricken part of Africa. For weeks, the seasonal rainfall was so intense that entire villages and plantations were washed away. Humanitarian agencies set up shelters for displaced residents, but their actions were limited by insufficient knowledge of the flood’s extent. They have no way of knowing which remote villages might have been subjected to unpredictable flash floods. This was exactly the scene in January 2015, when a series of large flood events displaced over 200,000 people and left almost 300 reported dead or missing in the tiny West Africa country of Malawi.

In this situation, satellites are extremely useful to collect critical information in remote areas that may not have climate or meteorological data readily available. Using satellite imagery, researchers were able to map and analyze the extent of flooding that occurred throughout southern Malawi in January 2015. This information is highly valuable to local authorities and international relief organizations because it helps them better evaluate response programs in vulnerable areas.

This summer, my job as a research consultant for NASA DEVELOP is to further this research and develop a framework for forecasting and monitoring extreme flood events in Malawi.

The NASA DEVELOP program aims to provide young scientists the opportunity to utilize NASA’s Earth-observing satellites to address critical societal issues. In addition to my specific project, there are 15 other NASA nodes working on projects ranging from sea turtle conservation to wildfire severity. Every team utilizes NASA satellites in their analysis or methodology, and the resulting product is provided to project partners for use in relevant areas.

An artist's rendering of the SMAP satellite. Credit: NASA

An artist’s rendering of the SMAP satellite. Credit: NASA

One of the key aspects of the NASA DEVELOP program is that research projects are always evolving based on new NASA satellite products. The most recent satellite is known as SMAP, which stands for Soil Moisture Active Passive.

The satellite launched at the end of January 2015, but a comprehensive dataset will not be available until the end of the year. The satellite is equipped with multiple sensors that measure water content in the top layer of the Earth’s soil in addition to global freeze and thaw cycles. SMAP will be able to take measurements through clouds and even moderate vegetation to produce the most accurate and highest resolution soil moisture maps to date. These measurements will then be used for a multitude of different analyses, including investigating the role of terrestrial carbon, energy and water cycles on Earth’s climate.

Even though data from SMAP will not be available for my current project’s analysis, I am still able to use any of NASA’s Earth-observing systems to further my project goals with NASA DEVELOP.

So far this summer, working on my project has been a unique experience to be involved with such a large and far-reaching organization such as NASA to provide real world services to local communities. Unfortunately, the series of floods that struck Malawi in January will not be a one-time event, as there are populations all over the world that are still extremely vulnerable to extreme weather events and natural disasters. Through NASA DEVELOP, these events will not go unnoticed, and constantly evolving satellite technology will be used, literally around the globe, to provide scientists with the tools to meet these challenges head on.


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