This guest post was written by Melissa Lyne, a freelance science communicator, based in Sydney.
The world’s top scientists, engineers and educators last month gathered in Australia for the largest meeting of the geoscience and remote sensing community at the 33rd International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium (IGARSS).
Hosted annually by the IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society, this year’s event drew more than 1,300 delegates from across 66 countries to Melbourne for a week of identifying research trends, sharing updates on applied programs and discussing the latest in techniques and instruments.
The knowledge exchanged at IGARSS is crucial to informing international and national policies for ‘Building a Sustainable Earth Through Remote Sensing’ – the theme of this year’s event, which was selected to highlight the issues that most affect the Earth’s environment and the human impact on the planet.
Collaboration was a key focus of the Symposium, with many discussions revolving around how to deal with the Earth observations field moving towards gathering even more detail from the surface of the planet, and at a much faster rate than currently exists.
The Australian Commonwealth and Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Geoscience Australia were but two of the organisations involved in these discussions. Dr Adam Lewis, National Earth Observation Group Leader at Geoscience Australia said a major challenge ahead for remote sensing was how to handle the much larger volumes of data that come with technology upgrades.
Professor Arnold Dekker, Director of CSIRO’s new Earth Observation Informatics Transformational Capability Platform (TCP) said, “worldwide, more than 400 earth observation sensors are planned for the next 15 years.”
Dr Lewis said with the development of supercomputers like the National Computational Infrastructure facility at the Australian National University, scientists are now becoming better equipped to handle these advances.
Mike Goodchild, Professor of Geography at the University of California, in his plenary address also spoke about actively involving and trusting citizen-science. “Crowdsourcing can add significant value to remote-sensing products,” he said.
An example of this is GeoWiki, a crowdsourced mapping tool for validating remote sensing data. The researchers behind the tool found non-experts were as good as experts when identifying human impact; though experts performed seven per cent better when identifying land cover type than non-experts.
However, along with the development of more tools and techniques to help improve the quality of data, we can also expect new partnerships forming between NGOs, industry, government and academia, which actively involve the citizen scientist.
The Australian Earth Observation Coordination Group (AEOCG) called a meeting of interested parties during IGARSS. As a coordinating and sharing group for those using images collected from satellite, airborne or any other platform for any purpose in Australia, the group included professionals across private industry, government, education and non-government entities, for both natural and built environments. The group was formed to enable all who collect and use earth observation data to have a forum to present and discuss their activities and define their needs for further support from industry, academia and government.
Professor Yann Kerr from the Center for the Study of the Biosphere from Space presented at the ‘Future Missions and Systems’ session. As the Principal Investigator for the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) mission, which was launched in 2009 as the first dedicated satellite mission for long-term monitoring of soil moisture, Professor Kerr says Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and Monash University both rely on the data gained from the satellite for fire, flood and drought risk reduction. Kerr says he is now working on a new satellite concept, SMOS-Next, which will have applications to water resource management in Australia, specifically the Murray-Darling Basin.
“SMOS-Next will allow a significant step forward from SMOS by improving the spatial resolution by a factor of ten,” he said.
NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) Mission, expected to launch in October 2014, was also discussed at the ‘Future Missions and Systems’ session. SMAP is expected to provide global measurements of soil moisture and its state, distinguishing frozen from thawed land surfaces. These measurements will then be used to further understand the processes that link the water, energy and carbon cycles, extending the capabilities of weather and climate prediction models and in doing so, enabling climate models to be brought into agreement on future trends in water resource availability.
And there are many more missions planned – Professor Guo Huadong, Director-General of the Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth (RADI) said in his plenary address that while China now owns more than 60 satellites, the country is expecting to launch new missions with new Earth observation capabilities, including monitoring carbon dioxide exchange, earthquakes, crop measurement and much more. Professor Huadong also called for an Earth observations platform on the moon.
Summer school symposium
Training for the next generation of Earth scientists took place in the days before the Symposium at the annual ‘summer’ school, drawing upon expert teachings from internationally renowned practitioners of geoscience and remote sensing, including Professor Lorenzo Bruzzone, Principal Investigator of the radar for icy moon exploration instrument for the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission of the European Space Agency.
IGARSS also hosted a packed social program, a highlight of which was a technical tour of Victoria’s ‘Black Saturday’ bushfire region, led by now retired Chief Fire Officer, Ewan Waller – who led the Department of Sustainability and Environment’s response to the devastating Black Saturday fires in 2009. The tour followed the path of fires through the affected region and now rebuilt towns, focusing on the role of remote sensing during the fires, in the analysis of the damage afterwards, and the ongoing recovery.
“It was a vital opportunity to show the impact of a large disaster and how we responded to it,” Mr Waller said.
“This is particularly important in preparing for other potentially devastating events.”
Women in geosciences and remote sensing
Another highlight of the IGARSS social program was the ‘Women in Geosciences and Remote Sensing’ reception. Now in its second year, this event focused on talks about efforts to increase the number of women in leadership and technical roles, worldwide. Keynote speaker and geospatial scientist, Gypsy Bhalla, from Geoscience Australia, told the reception, “your legacy is the leadership you have now. Now is your point of power”. She went on to further to highlight what she learned personally from her mistakes. Quoting JK Rowling, Ms Bhalla said, “knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won”.
Quebec for 2014
The passing over of duties to Quebec City – the 2014 destination – marked the end of IGARSS. An Australian flag, Akubra hat, and the good ol’ Aussie staples of Tim Tams and Vegemite were offered as gifts to the new local organising committee.