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The fate of Earth observations, science and services

20 Jun

Today GeoLog features a guest post by Mona Behl, a Visiting Fellow at the American Meteorological Society. Mona explains why Earth observation satellites are so important and why the future of Earth observations, sciences and services might be at risk.

The year 1957 marked the birth of Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite to be launched in space. This launch ushered in an exciting era of growth and change in science. Over the past 50 years, the advent of Earth observation systems (including ground, oceanic, atmospheric, and satellite-based resources) has truly revolutionized the way we see our planet. Satellites are not only our “windows to the universe”; they also provide a unique and revolutionary vantage point from space with global images and data about the Earth and its environment. The exploration, exploitation and application of satellite data drive Earth observations, science and services (OSS) and society as a whole.

However, the fate of Earth OSS appears to be in peril.

A recent report by the American Meteorological Society points out that federal budget deficits and economic downturn are putting a strong hold on building and maintaining Earth OSS. The findings of this report stem from a workshop held by the AMS Policy Program. Describing the technological advances is relatively easy compared to measuring the economic and social benefits of Earth OSS. This study reveals the importance of Earth OSS and how it is integrated into the very fabric of our society.

Whereas space-based observations provide a major contribution to the Earth observation system, observations that are based on land, air and sea are important and provide us with an accurate, global, yet independent view of the Earth. Our society faces a number of challenges today. We rely on Earth OSS not only for increasing the accuracy and breadth of weather information, forecasting and warnings, but also for improving the management and protection of terrestrial, coastal, and marine ecosystems. To understand, assess, predict, mitigate, and adapt to the changing climate, Earth OSS is important. Observation-based data not only serves the government but also has immense private, academic, nonprofit, and public use. From national security to providing information and understanding about environmental factors affecting human health to water resource management, to combating desertification and promoting sustainable agriculture, Earth OSS are imperative to our well-being.

Despite the importance and interconnectedness of Earth OSS to society, why does its future still look grim?

Another study conducted by the U.S. National Research Council concludes that, in the near term, budgets for NASA’s science program will remain inadequate to meet the country’s pressing needs. As a result, the U.S. may have to rely on data from European or other satellites.

However, Europe seems to be headed for a crash as well. In April this year, the European Space Agency declared the demise of Envisat, the world’s largest Earth observation spacecraft. Envisat contributed valuable information to Europe’s Global Monitoring for Environmental Security program by providing measurements of atmospheric chemistry, rising sea levels, plate tectonics, greenhouse gas emissions, and land subsidence. The end of this mission is likely to lead to significant gaps in satellite data.

Envisat (Credit: ESA)

The decline of Earth OSS may be a beacon of a future calamity.

The quality of life, as well as the ability to protect our nations, manage our environment, and adapt to a changing climate are all dependent on the use of the Earth observation systems. Given the enormous potential benefits that Earth OSS affords humankind, society faces a need to rethink priorities and put a concerted effort into ensuring the adequacy and continuity of Earth OSS over the short, intermediate, and longer term.

One of the key recommendations the AMS report makes is to foster private-public collaborations in order to improve and expand Earth OSS. Interagency participation in addition to private-public collaborations is required not only at a national level but at the international level as well. For years, the science and technology communities have discussed and understood the need to link our Earth to its observation systems. However, to ensure the success and growth of our Earth OSS, investment in sound government policies is critical.

The need to monitor and observe the Earth’s environment is now more urgent than ever.

By  Mona Behl, American Meteorological Society

Ice on top of the world! Breakthroughs in mountain glacier research

3 May

Fresh from leading a team of UK geophysicists on a two-week campaign of seismic investigations in northern Sweden, Dr Adam Booth of Swansea University provides for us his second report from the 2012 General Assembly floor. His first post explored subglacial environments of ice sheets and glaciers. 

Hi again from Vienna, and Day 3 of the EGU’s General Assembly.  Hope you’re enjoying reading the blogs!

My previous post focussed on the deep, damp world of the subglacial environment; today, I’m gaining considerable altitude and talking to Dr Lindsey Nicholson (University of Innsbruck) about her growing interest in debris-covered mountain glaciers, and learning from some of the researchers in her debris-dedicated session.

In my own experiences of Arctic geophysics, glaciers are usually pristine: covered by fresh snow, and easily traversed by snowshoe, ski or snowmobile.  As ever, though, variety is the spice of life and there are some glaciers that are altogether…rockier.  In fact, many mountain glaciers lurk beneath a mantle of fallen rocks and this provides them with a uniquely complex set of characteristics.  A geophysical survey on a glacier that’s strewn with rocks strikes me as a particularly taxing problem – it’s difficult to tow a radar system across a boulder field, or to install a seismic line in solid rock – so I was interested to learn more about alternate methods of studying debris-covered glaciers.

Dr Lindsey Nicholson (right) shares a joke with a colleague at Wednesday evening’s “Debris-covered glaciers session”.

“There’s a growing interest in debris-covered glaciers,” Lindsey tells me.  “In the last few years, they have really come to the fore since we’ve realised how little we know about them.”  The more I talk to Lindsey, the more I realise that debris-covered glaciers really are a law unto themselves.  In general, physical descriptions of ‘clean-ice’ glaciers, of their motion and the energy that is supplied to them, often work pretty well.  Unfortunately, give a glacier a debris-cover and it’s a whole different beast.  For example, an initial dusting of debris exacerbates glacier melt – the debris absorbs more solar radiation, warms up, and ends up delivering more heat to the glacier.  However, when that debris exceeds a certain critical thickness (e.g., after piling-up successive rockfalls), it acts as a sunscreen and glacier melting is reduced (the talk of Martin Juen of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, Germany, was dedicated to understanding the controls on this).  Lindsey’s experience suggests that there might be a veritable mountain to climb:  “Our current understanding doesn’t capture the full complexity of the system.  The old processes need to be modified, adapted, or reinvented.”

A major boost in our understanding is provided by Pierre-Marie Lefeuvre, formerly an MSc student at the University of Sheffield (UK), now a PhD student at the University of Oslo (Norway).  In collaboration with Dr Felix Ng, Pierre-Marie has developed a computational method that offers new understandings of the coupling between debris-cover and glacier-flow model.  The model predicts that, as a debris-covered glacier starts to melt, the relative area of its debris cover becomes larger; as the glacier wastes away, previously-buried rockfalls become exposed and linger on the surface.  Differences in debris cover can even cause a glacier to split, with a lower section stranded from its higher-altitude counterpart.  Future predictive models will undoubtedly be indebted to the pioneering steps of Pierre-Marie’s work, and he advises that we keep an eye out for an imminent publication.

Adina Racoviteanu discusses her poster with Pierre-Marie Lefeuvre. (I promise it’s an unposed photo!)

But even seeing a debris-covered glacier can be problematic.  Normally, glaciologists would delineate clean-glacier ice using remotely-sensed satellite images: however, distinguishing a debris-covered glacier from – say – a debris-covered mountainside is understandably tricky.  Fortunately, Dr Adina Racoviteanu (post-doc, LGGE Grenoble, funded by CNES France) is something of a remote-sensing revolutionary.  In recent research she has developed algorithms that are able to predict whether surface debris cover is underlain by ice…or just more debris.  The image below shows the results of this method (recently published in the journal Sensors), in which the red areas clearly demarcate the extent of the debris-covered glacier.

Defining debris-cover… Adina Racoviteanu’s work allows debris-covered glaciers to be identified from satellite data. Ice is most-likely located beneath the bright-red areas.

Even more inspiring is that the next step in this research – classification of features based on their surface texture – is inspired by processes developed in medical science!  Textural data, derived from ASTER and Quickbird satellite images, are combined with surface topography and temperature records to define the edges of the debris-covered glacier.  This work, Adina tells me, will be a big step towards quantifying how much melt is occurring beneath a glacier’s debris cover.

My conversation with Lindsey now moves specifically towards Himalayan glaciers.  In addition to their current contribution to sea-level rise, changes to Himalayan glaciers are associated with other significant humanitarian effects.  On one hand, the glacier is a valuable resource, often representing the only resource of fresh water for an isolated Himalayan community.  On the other, pooled meltwater can catastrophically break out of confining debris layers, flooding villages and destroying valuable agricultural land – and such unstable terrain also deters investment in economic, local-scale hydraulic power plants.  However, a key difficulty in predicting the behaviour of Himalayan glaciers is the natural variability over an enormous geographical scale:  “East-west, north-south,” Lindsey says, “the Himalayas are completely different.  Accurately extrapolating observations across such wide areas is clearly problematic.”

During the session’s poster presentations, I happened across UNIS’s Professor Doug Benn.  “Five years ago,” he told me, “we had no idea of how mountain glaciers were changing.  Since then, we’ve really come on leaps and bounds.”   The vibrancy in the community really echoes his words.  I’m by no means a specialist in high-altitude glaciology, but I left the session enthused with the feeling that many more key breakthroughs are just around the corner.  There might be a mountain to climb, but I really think I’ve just met the people to climb it.

By Adam Booth, post-doc at Swansea University

EGU General Assembly 2012 Call for Papers

9 Nov

Abstract submission for the EGU General Assembly 2012 (EGU2012) is now open. The General Assembly is being held from Sunday 22 Apr 2012 to Friday 27 Apr 2012 at the Austria Center Vienna, Austria.

You can browse through the Sessions online.

Each Session shows the link Abstract Submission. Using this link you are asked to log in to the Copernicus Office Meeting Organizer. You may submit the text of your contribution as plain text, LaTeX, or MS Word content. Please pay attention to the First Author Rule.

The deadline for the receipt of Abstracts is 17 January 2012. In case you would like to apply for support, please submit no later than 15 December 2011. Information about the financial support available can be found on the Support and Distinction part of the EGU GA 2012 website.

Further information about the EGU General Assembly 2012 on it’s webpages. If you have any questions email the meeting organisers Copernicus.

New EGU Open Access Journal: Geoscientific Instrumentation, Methods and Data Systems

29 Jul

A new EGU Journal has been launched: Geoscientific Instrumentation, Methods and Data Systems (GI). It is an open access interdisciplinary electronic journal for swift publication of original articles and short communications in the area of geoscientific instruments. A unique feature of the journal is the emphasis on synergy between science and technology that facilitates advances in GI. The Chief-Executive Editor is Jothiram Vivekanandan with the Executive Editors being Ari-Matti Harri and Håkan Svedhem. More information (including how to submit papers) can be found on the journal’s website.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Wind Vane

25 Jul

Wind vane on the top of an early 20th century lighthouse. Image by Konstantinos Kourtidis, distributed by EGU under a Creative Commons License.

Imaggeo is the online open access geosciences image repository of the European Geosciences Union. Every geoscientist who is an amateur photographer (but also other people) can submit their images to this repository. Being open access, it can be used by scientists for their presentations or publications as well as by the press. If you submit your images to imaggeo, you retain full rights of use, since they are licenced and distributed by EGU under a Creative Commons licence.

Call for Sessions for EGU General Assembly 2012

8 Jul

The public call for sessions for the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2012 has been issued. The EGU GA 2012 will be held at the Austria Center Vienna (ACV) from 22 April to 27 April 2012. The details are below, the web page to visit to submit sessions is Call for Sessions page of the EGU General Assembly 2012 website.

We hereby invite you, from now until 16 Sep 2011, to take an active part in organizing the scientific programme of the conference.

Please suggest (i) new sessions with conveners and description and (ii) modifications to the skeleton programme sessions. Explore the Programme Groups (PGs) on the left hand side, when making suggestions. Study those sessions that already exist and put your proposal into the PG that is most closely aligned with the proposed session’s subject area.

If the subject area of your proposal is strongly aligned with two or more PGs, co-organization is possible and encouraged between PGs. Only put your session proposal into one PG, and you will be able to indicate PGs that you believe should be approached for co-organization.

If you have questions about the appropriateness of a specific session topic, please contact the Officers for the specific EGU2012 Programme Group. To suggest Union Symposia, Great Debates, Townhall Meetings or Short Courses, please contact the Programme Committee Chair (Gert-Jan Reichart).

In case any questions arise, please contact EGU2012 at Copernicus.