Earth Observations Help Protect Our Planet

Posted by Susan W. Harris
April 22, 2012
Landsat 5 Images of the Mississippi River

When a massive earthquake hit Japan in March 2011, an informal global network of government officials and NGOs delivered real-time satellite images showing the exact extent of the earthquake and tsunami damage. Japan's emergency responders used this information to find disaster victims, determine evacuation routes, and prepare for further aftershocks. This is a significant yet small example of the ways we are using earth observing and other satellite information from space to respond to disasters, understand the environment and climate change, and improve the use of our natural resources.

For several decades, the United States and many other countries have worked together to develop advanced earth observing satellites that are literally changing the way we look at the world. Earth Day 2012 falls close to the 40th anniversary of the launch of the U.S. Landsat 1, the world's first dedicated earth observing satellite. Landsat 1, together with the six subsequent Landsat missions launched between 1975 and 1999, gives us a unique, continuous 40-year record of global changes in forest cover, agricultural patterns, urban development, rivers and watersheds, and many other critical natural and man-made systems.

Data from other U.S. environment and weather satellites since the late 1970's provide us with the first reliable records of global temperature change from space and the remarkable and ongoing loss of ice cover in the Arctic. Aided by precise data from the U.S. Global Positioning System, future satellite data will help us measure global emissions and observe changes in our atmosphere.

At the State Department, satellite data assists us in fulfilling our mission to build sustainable communities worldwide. Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones recently visited a NASA and USAID satellite center in Kenya that is providing data to help African countries monitor drought risks, determine where forests are being illegally cleared, and even identify outbreaks of epidemics. In her 2012 World Water Day speech, Secretary Clinton highlighted how we are also using this information to analyze and develop solutions to water security problems in areas such as the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.

The global investment in earth observing satellites will keep paying dividends as creative individuals find new uses for this remarkable technology. Most of this data is freely available to users worldwide, and we are working with other countries to maximize its dissemination. The United States helped set up the Group on Earth Observations, which is developing a Global Earth Observation System of Systems -- a fancy way of saying a one-stop shop for the world's accumulated knowledge of the earth and the use of this information to help countries, localities, and individuals solve practical and urgent problems.

In honor of Earth Day, let's take a moment to recognize how earth observations help us protect our planet.

Join the conversation on the OES Facebook page.



Olga R.
April 23, 2012

Ogla R. in Russia writes:

I'd love to start a healthy earth or earth awareness movement in Sochi, Russia, but I am afraid they care for nothing but personal gain here. I'll try anyway.

United Kingdom
April 23, 2012

Clair in the United Kingdom writes:

We always know this day will come, of course modern technology will help us observe the earth and protect or at least try to prevent some natural disasters.


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