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Data for a changing world: Satellites for sustainability

Ellen Stofan

Rainfall patterns are changing. The occurrence of record high temperatures is increasing. Severe weather events — huge rainfall, severe droughts, stronger and wetter hurricanes, and typhoons — are becoming more common and potentially more deadly. As local conditions change, historical knowledge of how to grow food and how to manage water resources becomes less valuable, making feeding a growing population that much more difficult. Who would guess that some of the solutions to these challenges would be coming from 500-700 kilometers above the surface of Earth?

To manage resources sustainably in a changing world, you need information. Where is the water and how much is there to sustain crops across the growing season? What are the temperatures in my region going to be in 10 or 15 years, and how might that affect what I grow and when? If you are a water manager in a developing country, how do you fairly and adequately allocate water to agriculture and to your citizens? What are the changing rainfall amounts and seasons that could bring in parasites carrying deadly diseases?

Space as a vantage point

All of these challenges are being confronted on a daily basis around the world. Good decisions require comprehensive, accessible, easy-to-use data. Space provides a unique vantage point from which we can make local, regional, and global observations. The reams of data being beamed back to Earth minute by minute from both private and public Earth observation satellites are increasingly being turned into information that can be used by local decision-makers to make their communities more sustainable.

Twenty years ago, Earth observation data was primarily collected by government satellites operated by longtime spacefaring nations such as Japan, Canada, the countries of Europe, the United States, and Russia. The data would go straight to scientists, who would work to interpret what the data collected from various instruments was telling us about Earth’s atmosphere, surface, and interior.

Today we are in a new era, where countries such as Mexico, India, the United Arab Emirates, and South Africa have active space programs, and private companies and commercial operators such as Planet, DigitalGlobe, Inmarsat, and Orbital Insight, among others, have changed the access, availability, and usability of Earth observation data.

Data as a driver for change

Our scientific understanding of the data, and increasingly using this data in conjunction with models of our changing climate, are allowing an unprecedented understanding of how our planet works. A prime example is water: satellites now measure precipitation around the world every three hours, other satellites track where groundwater is increasing or being depleted, and the next generation of satellites will not only monitor sea level rise, they will provide us better data on the amount of surface water in lakes and rivers. And we can track the health of crops to see if they need more or less water — all from space.

In Pakistan, water managers are using data from NASA gravity satellites called GRACE to track groundwater resources critical to feeding a growing population. In Kenya, space observations and climate models are being used to update hazard maps to help counties better prepare for extreme weather events. Countries in the Mekong region are using new tools that take advantage of a range of space-based measurements to optimize crop yield and manage water resources.

All of these projects have come out of a joint NASA-U.S. Agency for International Development program called SERVIR, which helps countries and regions around the world manage their resources, confront natural disasters, and become more resilient to the effects of climate change. SERVIR hosts workshops in places such as Pakistan and Nairobi so that local scientists and engineers can learn how to apply satellite data to issues confronting their countries. Programs such as SERVIR are critical to ensuring that the benefits of this big space data revolution we are in the midst of benefit those who are the most vulnerable to climate change.

Making satellite technologies work for sustainable development

Space technologies play a key role in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, even though major barriers to data usability and accessibility remain. Here’s what the global development community can do to make satellite communications work for everyone.

The final challenge in the link between space and decision-makers is how to ensure that the end user — in most cases the local farmer — is getting the best data available. This relies on widespread cell phone penetration, with enough bandwidth to both download and upload information. In Kenya, a SERVIR project developed an app to give farmers daily early warnings of frost potential, to help avoid costly loss of tea and coffee crops. Updates to the app are going to allow farmers to also crowdsource frost information, improving outcomes even more.

Sustainable agriculture and management of water resources will increasingly rely on the ability to manipulate and utilize big data, most of it coming from public and private Earth-orbiting satellites. It will rely on partnerships between governments and the private sector, and it will depend upon our ability to translate data from space satellites into information on cell phones in villages around the world, so that those on the ground who most need the information will benefit from the knowledge gained from above.

What’s the link between satellites and development? Devex takes a look in Satellites for Sustainability. We explore the role of space programs and satellite technology in facilitating mission-critical connectivity and ask if it can provide sustainable economic or societal benefits in developing countries. Join us by tagging #Sats4SDGs and @Devex as we make it our mission to discover the link between connectivity and solving global challenges.

About the author

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Ellen Stofan

Dr. Ellen Stofan is the former chief scientist of NASA, serving as principal advisor to the NASA administrator on the agency’s science-related strategic planning and programs. She is an honorary professor in the department of earth sciences at University College London, a senior scientist at the applied physics laboratory, Johns Hopkins University, and co-chair of the World Economic Forum Space Council.