Satellites That Protect Our Environment

Spaceport Camden has the potential to launch satellites that will revolutionize how we protect the environment around us. These groundbreaking satellites may be bigger than a school bus or smaller than a mini fridge. 

Currently, there are ~ 4,000 operational satellites orbiting earth. Of these, ~ 800 have the purpose of Earth Observation (EO) or Earth Science (ES). What classifies these as EO/ES is the imaging capabilities to observe local environments and Earth as a whole. These imaging satellites take high resolution photos of Earth’s surface that are used to monitor environmental conditions. Many of these satellites utilize infrared (outside visible spectrum) and hyperspectral imaging (wide spectrum light analysis) that observe aspects of Earth that are otherwise impossible to detect. 

A hyperspectral image that shows a harmful algae bloom on Lake Erie, Ohio, in 2011
Credit: Hyperspectral Imager for Coastal Oceans (HICO)

Once launched from a spaceport like Camden, these satellites transmit images that are used to create comprehensive data models. These models can outline entire ecosystems down to the smallest detail. This allows us to assess the overall health of an ecosystem and create forecasts of problems that may arise in the future. The models are like puzzle pieces, once put together they create an entire image of an ecosystem that is invaluable for conservation efforts.

These models can be utilized in environments like Cumberland Island, which historically suffers from naturally caused wildfires. In the case of Spaceport Camden, there are extraordinary safety measures and partnerships with local authorities that will minimize any risks. Similarly, the physics, altitude, and fire science related to a rocket launch results in zero probability of fires on Cumberland Island or Little Cumberland Island caused by Spaceport Camden. These precautionary measures are further outlined in the county’s Environmental Impact Statement. Uncontrollable wildfires caused by lightning strikes in areas with dry vegetation are however a significant threat. 

While wildfire is necessary to replenish nutrients on Cumberland Island, these fires become truly damaging when not contained. Uncontrolled burns can threaten local species, erode vital soil, increase risk of flash floods, and put residents and their homes in danger. Recent practices such as controlled, low intensity burns have begun to mitigate this issue, and with the aid of satellite imaging the threat of wildfire can be a thing of the past.  

smoke rises through the pine canopy on Cumberland Island after lightning ignites fire in the wilderness
Credit: National Park Service

Researchers at Stanford University have created an artificial intelligence model that accurately measures vegetation moisture using satellite data. Low moisture levels in vegetation are one of the most telling indicators that an area is at a high risk for wildfires. In the past, researchers had to cut and weigh tree branches, dry them out in an oven, and weigh the branches again to measure the moisture level. This outdated process is now being revolutionized by satellites. “One of our big breakthroughs was to look at a newer set of satellites that are using much longer wavelengths, which allow the observations to be sensitive to water much deeper into the forest canopy and be directly representative of the fuel moisture content,” said Alexandra Konings, an assistant professor of Earth system science in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). One of the key satellites in the model is known as Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). This allows researchers to get a full picture of the moisture level in an area because the radar can penetrate through branches down to the ground surface. New emerging technology like SAR and artificial intelligence can be used together with monitoring satellites to predict which areas are most susceptible to a wildfire.

One such monitoring satellite that can be used in conjunction with the Stanford model is the Terrestrial Observation and Prediction System (TOPS) at NASA. As described by NASA, “TOPS is a flexible modeling system that integrates ecosystem models with satellite and surface weather observations to produce ecosystem nowcast and forecast, useful in natural resource management, public health, and disaster management.” TOPS provides vital information in assessing the current state of an ecosystem and creating forecasts of potential threats. This information can be utilized by Camden County in a variety of ways to benefit residents and the local environment. In addition to wildfire management, this system can be used to predict other natural disasters like disease, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. 

Without the use of a system like TOPS, creating natural disaster forecasts can feel like a guessing game. Predictive fire models are nearly impossible to accurately create on the ground, but with the help of TOPS and the Stanford model, creating forecasts can come relatively easily. The Stanford model can monitor susceptible vegetation while TOPS analyzes weather patterns to create accurate forecasts of which areas are primed for a wildfire. In essence, the use of satellites can provide the county with an early warning system that can be used by fire crews to ensure the necessary equipment is on standby. This warning will greatly reduce the current response time of 2-4 hours when seashore firefighters are not immediately available. Not only will this ease the burden on fire crews, but also provides more protection to residents and at-risk ecosystems. 

Camden is not the only county that could utilize satellites to improve local environments and quality of life. There is a growing need for access to this technology, and demand has surpassed the current supply. Every county in America would love to gain access to this technology, and spaceports like Camden can make this a reality. 

The wildfires in Camden are an indicator of a much larger global pattern. 2021 has been the most devastating year on record for wildfires. As of August 9th, 2021, there has been an increase of 1.3 million acres burned in the U.S. compared to the same time last year. According to Verisk’s 2019 wildfire risk analysis, 4.5 million U.S. properties are at high to extreme wildfire risk. In California, the Dixie fire has become the largest fire in state history, destroying more than 1,100 square miles and as of August 22, is only 35% contained. The fire is so large that smoke has traveled thousands of miles to the East Coast, leading many states to issue air quality alerts. According to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the European Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), “We are seeing severely degraded air quality in all the regions downwind of these fires.” This puts Georgia residents at risk, especially those with prior respiratory issues.

Smoke from the Dixie fire is blown east by sweeping winds
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Globally, fires are raging in regions of Siberia and across the Mediterranean. Siberia has already lost more than 19,000 square miles of vegetation to fire. For reference, Georgia has a land area of 57,919 square miles. In the Mediterranean, wildfires in Turkey and Greece have been described as the worst in at least a decade. Parrington stated, “The overall situation is likely going to get worse in the future as the climate in many of these areas becomes hotter and drier.” This is an increasingly dangerous issue that will require innovative solutions to make a change.

Satellites have been constantly monitoring these fires, allowing crews to track the damages and create management strategies. New technology like the Stanford Model and TOPS can be utilized on a global scale to provide governments with crucial data. This will allow crews to prepare mitigation measures that can reduce destruction to homes and protect vital natural assets. 

This emerging technology has even broader implications than just global wildfire management. Satellites and space experiments have the immense potential to solve a variety of the world’s problems such as disaster preparation and food shortage. Per the United Nations Office for Outer Space, (UNOOSA) “The space industry has an essential role to play in agricultural research, as a microgravity environment has a particular impact on plant growth and development and affects plant yield.” It is critical that every country have access to this technology to increase their quality of life and minimize instability. To help realize this dream, UNOOSA advocates for the betterment of society and sustainability through space. UNOOSA and its member states play a critical role in ensuring that nations have access to satellites as demand exponentially increases. 

A map of countries with access to satellites as of 2020      Credit: Union of Concerned Scientist (UCS)

As shown in the UCS map, many countries in Africa have no access to satellites. What is not evident is that many developing countries don’t have access to the number of satellites needed to prepare for natural disaster and protect natural resources. Per the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, “Several member states have been requesting that UNOOSA consider increasingly active involvement in space technology advocacy and applications for biodiversity and ecosystems…” Up and coming spaceports such as Spaceport Camden will be able to answer this call and not only improve life for Camden residents, but also for millions of people around the world. 

Camden has the incredible opportunity to create a spaceport that will be a vehicle for real change. It is critical that we continue to push forward with Spaceport Camden so every nation can gain access to technology that will protect their citizens and support global biodiversity. 

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