A view from above: Stanford researchers are using satellite data to study Earth

California is embarking on an effort to launch its own satellites to study pollutants – an approach many Stanford researchers have taken advantage of to better understand our changing planet.

California Gov. Jerry Brown closed out his landmark Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco on Sept. 14 with a declaration that in order to monitor pollutants that cause climate change, California will go into orbit.

“With science still under attack and the climate threat growing, we’re launching our own damn satellite,” Brown said in prepared remarks. “This groundbreaking initiative will help governments, businesses and landowners pinpoint – and stop – destructive emissions with unprecedented precision, on a scale that’s never been done before.”

Brown’s statement echoes an understanding among scientists – including many at Stanford – that remote sensing data can and has revolutionized knowledge of Earth.

Image credit: NASA

Climate and water

Alexandra Konings, professor of Earth system science, recently looked at 33 years of remote sensing data and found that productivity of U.S. grasslands is more sensitive to dryness of the atmosphere than precipitation. The finding offers important insights as to how ecosystems will respond to climate change.

“Satellite data provides measurements at temporal and spatial scales that are simply impossible to reach with on-the-ground teams. The more satellites we have in space, the more we are able to fill in gaps in our current data – whether through new measurements or simply more detailed and better records. This is critical to understanding how climate change will affect ecosystems and the water cycle.”

Her work is one of many studies harnessing satellite data to better understand how climate change will effect our natural resources.

U.S. grasslands affected more by atmospheric aridity than by rain

According to 33 years of remote sensing data, productivity of U.S. grasslands is more sensitive to dryness of the atmosphere than precipitation, important information for understanding how ecosystems will respond to climate change.

Syrian crisis altered region’s land and water resources, Stanford study finds

Using remote sensing tools to uncover the environmental impacts of war, researchers introduce novel approaches for hard-to-reach areas.

Overpumping groundwater increases contamination risk

Pumping an aquifer to the last drop squeezes out more than water. A Stanford study finds it can also unlock dangerous arsenic from buried clays – and reveals how sinking land can provide an early warning and measure of contamination.

Stanford researchers calculate groundwater levels from satellite data

A new computer algorithm that can “fill in” underground water levels in areas where quality data is not available could lead to improved models of groundwater flow in regions where pumping and aquifer depletion are a concern.

Melting ice poses fleeting ecological advantage but sustained global threat

As glaciers melt, nutrients they contain run into the ocean and fertilize local algal blooms. Although these food oases feed local animals, they don’t make up for global challenges produced by melting ice sheets.

Satellite imaging breakthrough improves ability to measure plant growth

The new technology gets around earlier obstacles to accurate observations and could help unlock new perspectives on global change.

Image credit: NASA

Space and oceans

Embracing the spirit of innovation, researchers at Stanford are also building their “own damn satellites.” Simone D’Amico, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, studies satellite formation-flying and has contributed to TanDEM-X, PRISMA and the field-shaping Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission that has been watching Earth for over 15 years now.

“I want to help answer fundamental questions, and if you look in all current directions of space science and exploration – whether we’re trying to observe exoplanets, learn about the evolution of the universe, assemble structures in space or understand our planet – satellite formation-flying is the key enabler,” said D’Amico, who runs Stanford’s Space Rendezvous Laboratory and also focuses on CubeSats, a type of miniaturized satellite weighing less than 3 pounds.

An artificial eclipse for imaging extrasolar planets

As anyone anticipating an eclipse knows, one way to dim a star is to block it with something else – a moon, perhaps. Or in the case of distant stars whose light masks orbiting exoplanets, a shade-throwing satellite might do.

New tool improves fishing efficiency and sustainability

New software targets the most abundant fishing grounds and reduces catch of unwanted or protected species using satellite data, maps and observations.

Tracking fishing from space

Satellite data from thousands of high seas fishing vessels over four years illuminate global fishing’s scope and pattern and hold promise for improving ocean management across the planet.

Stanford engineers design a robotic gripper for cleaning up space debris

Researchers combined gecko-inspired adhesives and a custom robotic gripper to create a device for grabbing space debris. They tested their gripper in multiple zero gravity settings, including the International Space Station.

Stanford researchers help to explain how stars are born, cosmic structures evolve

An international team of scientists including Stanford researchers unveiled new findings on understanding the dynamic behavior of galaxy clusters and ties to cosmic evolution.

Wheat field

Public health and agriculture

Marshall Burke, professor of Earth system science, has been using satellite data to predict the effects of climate on food crops in the developing world.

“Our aspiration is to make accurate seasonal predictions of agricultural productivity for every corner of sub-Saharan Africa,” Burke said. “Our hope is that this approach we’ve developed using satellites could allow a huge leap in our ability to understand and improve agricultural productivity in poor parts of the world.”

Stanford researchers measure African farm yields using high-resolution satellites

By using high-res images taken by the latest generation of compact satellites, Stanford scientists have developed a new capability for estimating crop yields from space.

Air pollution a major cause of infant deaths in sub-Saharan Africa

Satellite measurements of air quality across sub-Saharan Africa revealed small improvements in air quality could be one of the most effective interventions to curb infant mortality rates.

Stanford researchers team up to reduce pollution and improve health

Brick kilns are ubiquitous in South Asia, as is the pollution they produce. An interdisciplinary team is now combining satellite data and political persuasion to track kilns, raise public awareness and incentivize kiln owners to use cleaner technologies.

Stanford researchers develop new way to measure crop yields from space

A Stanford-led team has used satellites to measure a special light emitted by plants to estimate crop yields with more accuracy than ever before.

Stanford scientists combine satellite data, machine learning to map poverty

Accurate and reliable information on the location of impoverished zones is surprisingly lacking for much of the world. Applying machine learning to satellite images could identify impoverished regions in Africa.

Stanford land-use expert brings satellite data down to Earth

Eric Lambin combines remote satellite data with on-the-ground conversations with local residents.