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Seeing More Than Just The Surface


When remote sensing first got going, it was really expensive. If you were going to go to all the trouble and expense of building a costly, finicky, short-lived instrument and put it in orbit, you really needed to be finding gold, silver, oil, or protecting national security.

By the mid to late 90s, remote sensing wasn’t nearly so exotic. Some data were free, or at least acceptably low cost for graduate students. But the most common attitude was still that anything getting in the way of mapping terrain and bedrock was an irritation at best. This included but was not limited to vegetation, clouds, the atmosphere, and night. Just getting the “bare bones” right was challenge enough. A common data preparation step was, and often still is, called “atmospheric correction”. Like it was doing something wrong. Go ahead, try doing without the atmosphere and all its incorrect behaviors.

Well, here we are in 2013, and the former obstacles are now desirable earth science remote sensing fields in their own right. There are dozens and dozens of great sensors in orbit now. Here are some of my favorites for making sense of the less rocky parts of earth.

  • If you want to know about the atmosphere, get aboard the NASA A-Train, a constellation of satellites (5+) teeming with sensors (15+). It’s like an earth sciences championship team. Each instrument is a real expert at what it does and together they’re amazing. The data from these instruments, and more are being launched, give a full picture of earth’s atmosphere and water. That’s no small feat, and it would be hard to find topics more important to us than air and water. Best part? The data are available to all via the cleverly named A-Train Data Depot.
  • Climate can be difficult to study, but Eumetsat has done a great job of making it easy to get current data. Their family of sensors and satellites serve up geospatial data on sea ice, ozone, and more, all available through the Earth Observation Portal.
  • The Japanese space agency, JAXA, often partners with NASA and others on earth observation missions. They have had spectacular success on missions like ALOS-PALSAR. Their new data gateway, G-Portal, is very useful. Want to know about aerosol thickness in the atmosphere in the mid latitudes last summer? Just follow the steps! It’s as easy as clicking “next”.
  • Need to know about the really big picture on weather? Check out the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) data products for mapping the incredible impact of solar storms and their effects.
  • How about weather in motion, over a whole hemisphere? Get the geostationary picture from the NOAA Geostationary Satellite Server.
  • Get a look at Earth at night, including thermal wonders and our own activities using the NOAA CLASS gateway for NPP VIIRS data and more!
  • Groundwater, ocean height and movement, and landforms are all gravity-mapped in exquisite detail by GRACE, and the data are waiting for you at the Physical Oceanography Distributed Active Archive Center, along with ocean salinity from AQUARIUS and winds from QuikSCAT.

The possibilities for discovery in earth science are pretty much unlimited, and the need has never been greater. We’re very fortunate to live in a time where getting the data to start the research is only an online search away. So get exploring!