San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Satellites to Aid Conservation

As natural and human-induced catastrophes dictate a more uncertain future on Earth, scientists believe that satellites may hold the key to keeping the planet’s life forms intact.

The 32nd International Symposium on Remote Sensing of the Environment, held this week at the Hotel Ramada Herradura northwest of San José, attracted about 300 scientists and technology experts from around the world, including representatives of heavy-hitters such as the European Space Agency (ESA), the U.S. National Aeronautics  and Space Administration (NASA), several other space and mapping agencies, more than 20 universities and various nongovernmental organizations.

Scientists and space technicians are now using remote sensing satellites to help track sharks and sea turtles, predict the possibility of extreme weather events, and even uncover the long-frozen tombs of indigenous people in Siberia, according to presenters at the conference this week.

They hope such technology can help stave off impending doom from future events resembling such recent catastrophes as Hurricane Rita,which struck New Orleans in the United States, and the tsunami which devastated areas of southeast Asia.

Two major announcements also came from the weeklong conference – which could eventually have major impacts on the way Costa Rica manages its resources.

On Tuesday morning, Environment and Energy Minister Roberto Dobles announced Costa Rica would join the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS).

The name is clunky, but the idea is basic, explains Helen Wood, GEOSS manager for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Simply put, Costa Rica will become one of 71 member countries leading a dialogue on how to assemble information about the world – and make it accessible for everyone.

“Countries around the world are collecting data about the planet every day. Billions of dollars are invested in weather satellites, hurricane monitoring, predicting earthquakes.

But the data is isolated. GEOSS is a system of sharing it, for everyone’s benefit,” said Wood, who was here for the symposium.

For Costa Rica, it means improved access to information gathered by high-tech agencies in other countries – information a smaller nation like Costa Rica would likely not be able to gather on its own.

That includes information about volcanoes and the particle clouds they produce, earthquakes, flooding and climate change.

“We need a measure of what is happening. As members of GEOSS, we will now be a part of the world discussion, and have access to the information we need,” Dobles said.

He also mentioned plans for combating global warming. Taking measurements to track climate changes – the fundamental principle behind GEOSS – is step one (TT, June 1).

“We must learn how it will affect different regions. How will draught or heavy rainfall effect our agricultural production or our ecosystems?” he said.

National Meteorological Institute (IMN) director Pablo Manso pointed out that “climate change is a threat that previous generations didn’t face. It could be the biggest problem of our century.”

According to Teresa Fryberger, director of applied science for NASA and co-chair of GEOSS with Wood, Costa Rica has long been on the leading edge of such information gathering and sharing, and is an important link for the sharing system in Central America.

She cites recent reports of a toxic dust cloud that approached Costa Rica last month as an example. Initial reports indicted it might have crossed the Atlantic from Africa, possibly carrying disease with it. In fact, satellite images helped determine it wasn’t a dust cloud, just smoke from local burning.

“This is an example where information sharing helped Costa Rica and other Central American countries save millions of dollars, by not over-responding to a threat that didn’t exist,” she said.

Later the same day, the Marviva Foundation, a well-known Costa Rican environmental group, announced the launching of a project called “Diversity”, which will use space satellites to monitor changes in Central America’s coral reefs, mangroves, wetlands and forests.

It’s part of a partnership program with the U.N. Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) and the European Space Agency (ESA) – and could someday be included in the GEOSS system.

The object of the program, according to Stephen Briggs, of the ESA, is to monitor changes in the region’s biodiversity with satellite images, and to learn how to use them for humanity’s benefit.

“The ecosystem services provided by the Earth are worth an estimated $30 trillion. We need to learn how to use them more intelligently,” he said, citing the importance of natural ecosystems for absorbing carbon and providing food and water to burgeoning populations worldwide.

The satellite images and resulting maps will offer an incredible view of the Earth that until recently was not available, he said.

They will include everything from temperature and chlorophyll diagrams of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, to maps showing the onslaught of development and deforestation in many areas of Central America.

Briggs showed one map that highlighted the greenhouse gas areas of the world. Across the expansive oceans, faint lines were seen.

“Those are shipping routes,” he explained, citing the incredible sensitivity of the technology.

“Emissions are higher where ships are constantly passing and back and forth.”

Michael Rothschild, director of Marviva, is excited at the possibilities of using such highly sensitive maps to monitor Costa Rica’s quickly changing landscapes.

“These maps will help us manage longterm land and ocean use,” he said. Satellite data has been used to help determine migration routes of various ocean species, including hammerhead sharks and sea turtles, he said.

Combining this data – one of the goals of the aforementioned GEOSS program –offers even more incredible insights.

The routes of individual hammerhead sharks, tracked by satellites, were placed over a temperature map of the Pacific Ocean.

Scientists discovered that sharks follow the very edges of the warm water, where life is most concentrated.

“This is information we will eventually use to manage species, and entire ecosystems,” Rothschild said.


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