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Hazy Days Of Summer

Using Remote Sensing For Air Quality, Wildfires, and Resource Management


If I have to pick a favorite season, no small task in a place as pleasantly balanced as Colorado, I’d have to vote for summer. But by the end of August I’m ready for fall, even if only to get to The Next Thing. While summer here is warm, it’s the dryness that makes itself felt most strongly. Anything with leaves looks pretty tired by this point. And while the astronomical end of summer in the North is still a few weeks off, it’s already autumn in the Rockies. We can easily get snow after Labor Day.


It’s often said that if you want to live in the American West, you need to get over the color green. Every place comes with its hazards. The Pacific Rim has various blends of typhoons, volcanoes, quakes, and tsunamis. A lot of the Atlantic basin deals with one hurricane after another. Floods have favorite destinations in Africa, Asia, and Europe. In the Rockies and Sierras, our hot, dry summers go hand in hand with wildfires and the smoke and air quality problems that come with them.


The list of natural disaster types around the world is long and varied, but the one thing they all have in common is that remote sensing, the gathering of data and information by airborne and spaceborne sensors, is the best and often only way to study, understand, and manage them as best we can.


The Rim Fire in California has been burning for two weeks now, with about 4400 firefighters creating an impressive record for the number of lives, structures, and sites saved. In Colorado, the smoke is creating beautiful sunsets, but they’re reminders of our own summers of watching fires from our front porches, and we know it will eventually be our turn again. ESRI has some excellent maps and services about wildfires. Other states have had their share of fires this year as well. You can see all the large U.S. and Canadian fires on the USDA National Forest Service’s Remote Sensing Applications Center (RSAC) site. NOAA has an excellent North America fire and smoke map, and NASA Earth Observatory has a global fire map, among many other useful global geophysical maps.


There is a near constant watch on the fires and surrounding areas, provided by airborne thermal imagers with live maps of fire activity, spaceborne sensors such as NPP VIIRS, MODIS and Landsat 8 mapping water resources, soil moisture, and fire fuel stocks in at-risk areas. The A-Train sensors are mapping the smoke plumes and attendant weather and air quality issues across North America and around the world. If you want to see global volcanic activity, see the Smithsonian / USGS report. Or maybe earthquake activity is what you’re looking for. All those maps are the end product of hundreds of sensors and thousands of people working to get and analyze good data to make sense of our world.


We can’t do without geophysical events. They’re planetary engines, how the Earth works. No quakes or volcanoes means no mountains or continents, for starters. Without floods, soil cycles, and eventually agriculture, dead-end. Whole ecosystems don’t work without fire. The forests and meadows I can see from my front porch can’t exist without occasional fire. But, a geophysical event becomes a disaster when it intersects with people and property. While we’ll never be able to perfectly predict natural disasters, remote sensing offers us the best chance to get the right information to plan for them and make informed decisions in mitigating and living with risk.


How are you using the global network of geophysical sensors and data? Is your community leveraging the abundance of information to make better plans and decisions? Is your business finding new opportunities in the wealth of information? If wisdom comes through understanding, we are in an unprecedented position for all to benefit from the clearer picture of Earth provided through the geosciences and remote sensing.