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.
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.
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.
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.”