What’s the Big Idea? — Charting Change from the Skies


I’m Tom Loveland. I am a research scientist
with the USGS EROS Center, Earth Observation…Earth Resources Observation and Science Center in
Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We have a forty-three…a forty-three and a half year long record of
observations to provide the definitive condition of the state of the planet. Our initiative
now is to take that entire archive, apply advanced statistical approaches, and to try
to convert it into meaningful information of what the earth is made of, how the condition
is changed, how the uses have changed, and what the consequences of what those changes
are to natural systems and people. There are two fundamental audiences that we
are trying to contribute to. One is the scientific side that is trying to understand the linkage
between human activity and changes in the global climate systems. The second are the
natural resource managers that have to make the day-to-day decisions on the threats to
their lands and how to better manage them. How what’s going on in their backyard relates
to the region they are working in and so we can provide the local context for those kinds
of assessments. The instruments we use are orbiting satellites.
In particular, we rely on the satellite series called the Landsat. They’ve been around since
1972. To analyze that very large record of many petabytes of data, we rely upon computer
based algorithms that help us characterize and classify those types of information that
we use. You know…Landsat, there have been seven successful missions and I would have
to say that the changes from 1972 to the present have revolved around evolutionary changes
and electronic imaging capabilities. Landsat hasn’t revolutionized, its evolved. Mainly
because of the primary goal of maintaining continuity of measurement. Our latest satellite
for example, that was launched two years ago, has an improved instrumentation that allows
us to detect very subtle features and subtle changes on the earth that were unmeasurable
on previous satellites, mainly due to the improvements and imaging capabilities
You know, the big things we’re trying that challenge us is the growing worldwide users
of LandSat is huge. We send out so many more images per day than we ever did in our history,
and so modernizing our distribution systems and ensuring that the quality of data that
we are sending out is high, that’s a top priority. The other thing, though, is growing the infrastructure
for computing the IT capabilities we need systematically analyze the massive treasure
of observations. I have spent my career studying changes in
land use and land cover using satellites. I was introduced to it in 1972, right before
the first Landsat was launched and I took a university course in remote sensing and
that really provided me with the insight that we have a tool that can help us understand
how the planet is changing and so I worked on that throughout the year and many years
working from global to local scales and everything in between and it’s just an important part
of understanding what’s changing on this planet. The fact is, we can now harness the entire
archive and extract information that we couldn’t before when we were limited to the small volumes
of observation we use. We now are simultaneously analyzing a full record, not portions of records.

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