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How next-generation satellites are changing our understanding of climate change

How next-generation satellites are changing our understanding of climate change

Washaway Beach is a small stretch of coastline in Washington state. It has a terrible nickname. It is named for what it doesn’t have, not what it is. Over the past century, the insatiable Pacific Ocean currents have taken a lot of land from the country.

The disappearing shoreline at Washaway Beach isn’t measured by inches or centimeters. A measuring stick from a hardware shop won’t allow you to track the changes. The area is about two and half hours southwest from Seattle. Residents there are watching their homes, businesses, and property sink at an average rate 100 feet per year. That’s equivalent to a 10-story building. It’s the most rapidly-eroding region in the west United States.

Washaway Beach is a extreme example of erosion. Many factorsThis contributes to its rapid decline. The rapid progress of climate change, which includes rising sea levels and more severe storms, is a growing threat for coastal communities all over the world. 

Washaway Beach is a place I have never visited. Peter Doucette is the acting director for Earth Resources Observation and Science Center, at the US Geological Survey. Doucette is showing Zoom a colorful Doucette An animated mapThe changes in the community between 1985 and 2017 are shown below. The map’s multicolored patches are being eaten away by the water. In the 32-year Pacific’s race to wipe out the city, the brown beaches, the red developed areas and the light blue freshwaterbogs all evaporate. It’s quite shocking to see the land disappear into the deep blue ocean as the ocean takes it over. 

Watch Washaway Beach disappear.


Even though scientists had the data, five to ten years ago they didn’t have the technology to visualize such changes. Doucette explains, “This is the power to use the data from time; taking advantage of the timeline dimension, which requires lots of computing power… but that’s what we have now.” 

Mapmakers can redraw Washaway Beach immediately after coastal changes occur with the help of faster satellites, sharper images and advanced computing techniques. Scientists can use emerging technologies to predict what will happen to it in future, just as a weather report. 

This type of mapping can save lives for coastal residents worldwide, as well as anyone living in an area that is susceptible to extreme weather events. Updated maps can be a vital resource for first responders who need to navigate areas affected by natural disasters. Residents and visitors require regular updates to keep up with the changing landscape. 

Maps showing the change over time offer a key bridge for anyone who lives in areas less directly affected. It is reallyIt happens in other places and it happens quickly. 

Tanya Harrison, director for science strategy at Planet, a private satellite imaging company, says that helping people see how the world is changing will help them understand climate change. “How is your neighbourhood being affected?” How is the house of your grandmother being affected? Perhaps she lives on the opposite side of the country. This can make it a little more personal.

From clay tablets and satellites

It’s not easy to define maps. They’re soft, malleable things that have been shaped by the minds and hands of the people who created them. These are imperfect representations of the world around us. One part science, one part art.

Yet, they provide a foundation for decision-making.

“[Maps are]It’s a great way to get information. People are really good at understanding spatial information presented this way,” says Mike Tischler from the US Geological Survey. “You want to see what’s above the ridge, what’s around the bend and where everything is.” This is probably why maps have been around for thousands upon thousands of years. 

A clay tablet called the Babylonian Map of the WorldThe oldest known map of the globe is Imago Mundi. It was discovered in Iraq around 600 B.C.


The oldest map of the globe is the Babylonian Map of the World.

The British Museum Trustees

Modern mapmaking began in 1852 when a French officer of the army created maps. Aimé LaussedatThe first maps using photographs was created by Laussedat. Laussedat also tried aerial photography, attaching cameras to balloons and kites. As air travel became more sophisticated aerial photography moved from balloons to planes during World War I and World War II to eventually become satellites in 1970s. 

Aerial photography is now more automated than when ground crews launched unsteady balloons into high altitude air to capture the perfect shots. Many thousands of images can be taken automatically by satellites and planes to create maps. Now satellites and planes regularly visit the same location, showing how the land changes over time.

“Land Change is really complex. Jesslyn brown, research geographer at the Earth Resources Observation and Science Center of the US Geological Survey, says that “Land change is really complex.” Without regular monitoring of the same locations, you can’t identify patterns that could be indicative of climate change.

Brown states that monitoring is not something that governments find very attractive. “But it’s an absolute necessity because one can’t manage what isn’t measured, so we must take these measurements to have the information necessary to monitor the Earth’s health and monitor the effects of climate changes.”

Chasing Change 

Landsat, the most well-known satellite for Earth observation in the USA, is used for mapping and monitoring purposes. Landsat 7 (and Landsat 8) circle the globe approximately once every 99 minutes and travel at 17,000 mph. Each satellite covers the entire earth in 16 days. Because they are in reverse orbit, they can cover the Earth in eight days. 

Doucette, the USGS director, said that the satellites are roughly the size of small school buses. He also showed me the map of Washaway beach. They have a resolution of 30 meters, which is “about the size a baseball diamond per pixels.”

This has been done by many Landsat satellites since 1972. This 50-year-old record is extremely valuable for tracking changes over the years.

“[50 years of data]Doucette says that this gives researchers the ability to look back in time and see what changes are occurring on the land surface. “This wasn’t possible until the last five to ten years, when big data compute capabilities were made available.”


This image of the Himalayan Mountains was one of the first Landsat 9 images. 


NASA It launched its latest satelliteLandsat 9 on Sept. 27. It will soon hand over control of Landsat 9 the USGS. Landsat 7, which orbited the planet for 22-years, will then be retired. Most Landsat satellites that are older than 22 years old go into “disposal orbits” which are designed to circle the planet until their exit from the atmosphere and eventually burn up. Landsat 7 will not be subject to the same fate. It will be moved into another orbit to test its capabilities. NASA’s robotic fueling project, Doucette explains. 

Terry Sohl, acting chief branch chief for Integrated Science and Applications Branch and research science scientist at USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science Center, stated that Landsat is still the best standard for satellite imagery. Sohl says, “To be honest I’m not sure that’s going be the case in five year.”

Private satellite companies make it easier than ever for you to see changes around the world almost as quickly as they occur, and for a fraction of the cost of Landsat. 

Sharper, smaller, faster, cheaper and more efficient

“If you have a satellite that covers the Earth every 2 weeks, you can have houses and cities destroyed,” says Tischler, USGS director of National Geospatial Program. Private companies are sending a greater number of tiny satellites. Satellites are placed in orbitThese cameras are less expensive to build, launch, and operate and cover more ground faster. 

Planet, a private company has two types satellites: Sky and Dove. The 180 Dove satellites measure about the same size and weight as a loaf bread. They orbit the earth every 90 minutes and have a resolution of three to five meters, or 10 to 16 feet. 

The poles are home to 15 Sky satellites, which are also Dove satellites. Six Sky satellites remain orbiting at latitudes nearer to people’s homes to capture images of cities. The Sky satellites orbit Earth 12 times a day. Sky satellites measure about the same size as a dishwasher. Their resolution is just 50cm, or a little more than a foot and a quarter. They capture details that Landsat’s baseball-diamond-size resolutions can’t. 

Satellites from Planet Earth show that the Milne Ice Shelf will be dissolved in July 2020, according to satellites.

Planet Labs PBC

Smaller satellites are also more affordable. It costs approximately a billion dollars per satellite to design, build and test. One Planet satellite costs around “low hundreds and thousands of dollars”, although the company wouldn’t say how much. 

It is easier for the San Francisco-based team of engineers to build satellites and test new technologies locally by having many smaller ones. 

“If there is a new product on the market that could improve image quality, we have the option of switching it out in-house. We are actually building the satellites in San Francisco’s basement and saying, “Hey, let’s put in a sensor.” Let’s launch this, Harrison, Planet’s director of science strategy. 

They can test it on one satellite to see how it works.

Its satellites have spotted many events related the climate crisis around the globe. They have seen the most dramatic changes in the coldest regions.

In July 2020, Planet Satellites CapturedThe collapse of the last Arctic ice shelf. “That was clearly a tragedy. Harrison says that although it isn’t the type of thing you want to see, it’s something we were able to capture.

Seeing is believing

Newer satellites provide more data and more quickly. Computer advances are changing the way mapmakers use this data to show how our planet is changing and what it might change in the future.

Doucette is now showing me another map, this time a projection for what the land around Lubbock, Texas will look like in decades. The Ogallala Aquifer which supports cotton and other important crops in the region, will eventually be reached. is going to dry out. Scientists from the USGS collaborated with other government agencies to forecast Lubbock between 2014-the end of the century. They used Landsat data, socioeconomic data, and climate data to calculate these forecasts.

The map shows that the Ogallala’s water will cause the cotton crop to disappear in tandem with its water. Scientists create the best, middle and worst scenarios based on water usage. 

“Climate is actually more predictable than people.” Sohl, a USGS scientist, said that while I don’t worry much about climate variability, it is what I worry about. “There are many things that can occur that are completely unpredictable, such a new policy by the government that can have a major impact on landscapes.

What happens when the Ogallala Aquifer runs low on water?


In either case, the Ogallala’s water is going to dry up and it won’t be coming back.

Knowing this information ahead of time gives Lubbock the opportunity to shift to other types or crops that don’t rely on water. Doucette suggests dryland grain or returning the area back to grassland.

Doucette explains, “This is how Landsat and related Earth observation data will be used so that we can understand the causes for change in the past that kinda help us develop these models to project potential change going forward.” 

Landsat historical data, combined with sharper-resolution imagery sourced from private satellite companies, allows mapmakers to show the impacts of climate change now and model what might happen in the same areas in decades or centuries.[Landsat and private satellite companies]It is really [are]Sohl says that it is a good mix of where we are going in the near future.”

The erosion of Washaway Beach is threatening the freshwater cranberry fields in inland Washington state. Scientists can now use these technologies to look at the models and make informed decisions before Washaway Beach and other similar areas are lost. 

Doucette says, “Imagine being capable of doing this kind of projection… on a national or even global scale.” “That’s our hope. This is still cutting-edge research.” 

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