Satellite Imagery for Sustainable Solutions
How is satellite imagery a crucial tool in the analysis and protection of the environment?
To prevent natural disasters, preserve the oceans or to promote sustainable agriculture, "the possibilities of using satellite data for the protection and analysis of the environment are endless".
This article published by Environnement Magazine on 2nd February 2023 and written by Wendy Carrara, Senior Manager for Digital & European Institutions at Airbus Defense and Space Intelligence highlights the importance of satellite imagery in the analysis and protection of the environment.
As expected, COP 27 held in Sharm-El-Sheikh in November 2022 provided a number possible solutions to encourage sustainable agriculture, prevent deforestation, protect our oceans and eradicate illegal mining... But understanding exactly what is happening in remote or hard-to-reach ecosystems around the world (which covers more than 196.9 million square kilometers) is a challenge.
Fortunately, recent advances in satellite technology now allow these challenges to be overcome. Nowadays, commercial satellites can capture very detailed images with a resolution of up to 30 cm and covering tens of square kilometers. They also feature extremely precise geotagging capabilities - up to 3.5 meters - ensuring that anything spotted in an image can easily be matched to a corresponding set of coordinates.
At a time of climate emergency, how is satellite imagery a crucial tool in the analysis and protection of the environment?
Monitoring the waters to better protect them
Our seas and oceans are being put under strain by climate change. Rising sea levels and rising water temperatures have adverse side effects, such as toxic algal blooms and coral bleaching. Overfishing and pollution are also driving entire species towards extinction.
The sheer size of our seas and oceans, which cover nearly three-quarters of the Earth's surface, makes it almost impossible to gain a comprehensive understanding of marine ecosystems on the ground – or in the waters in this case. Using satellite imagery is the only way to do this.
Maritime surveillance is one of the ways satellites help protect the health of our oceans. Legislation obliges commercial trawlers to equip themselves with automatic identification system transponders. However, vessels that commit violations often disable these systems to avoid detection, leaving authorities in the dark as to their true activities. Satellite Earth observation can fill this gap, allowing governments and NGOs to monitor illegal fishing hotspots and identify offending vessels.
In addition to monitoring illegal activities at sea, satellite imagery allows us to better understand the state of the coasts, estimating the depth, quality and clarity of the water. Images can be colorised retrospectively by combining multispectral data, revealing hidden information not visible to the naked eye.
Promoting more sustainable agriculture
On land, the use of new multi-spectral channels also promotes sustainable agriculture and enables precise crop analysis. For example, in the image below, processing spectral information reveals the level of chlorophyll in the vegetation. Monitoring the chlorophyll content of leaves is essential to assess the nitrogen status of plants over time and allow farmers to take corrective action to improve crop health.
It is interesting to note that by combining the spectral richness of the image with modeling of the properties of the crops, it is possible to generate maps of biophysical parameters characterising the state and health of vegetation. For example, in image 3, the same image as in image 2 is used to measure the leaf area index, i.e. the amount of foliage on a unit of land. This information will help farmers make more informed decisions about specific crop needs within a plot, allowing for lower inputs and more sustainable water use.
Help prevent natural disasters
Natural disasters are becoming more frequent due to climate change, even in regions that were previously unaffected by extreme weather events.
It can be considered that there is no alternative to earth observation for effectively collecting data during natural disasters - especially when the assessment of the situation on the ground is deemed too dangerous. It should be noted that recent advances in satellite technology have dramatically increased the flexibility of using satellites. Emergency acquisition requests can now be processed within 30 minutes, greatly increasing the usefulness of satellites in crisis situations and natural disaster scenarios.
Take the example of the hurricane that hit Mananjary, Madagascar, earlier this year. Thanks to satellite imagery, local authorities and NGOs were able to quickly determine which areas had been flooded, in order to send aid and identify safe access routes.
In the aftermath of the hurricane and flooding, authorities again used satellite imagery to assess the extent of the damage. For example, by comparing images 7 and 8, they were able to identify damaged buildings and plan reconstruction work accordingly.
Image 1: The "Deep Blue" spectral band is used to estimate water depth and improve navigation safety - Persian Gulf, February 2021, Pléiades Neo.
Image 2: Leaf chlorophyll content - Mérida, Mexico, Pléiades Neo.
Image 3: Leaf area index - Mérida, Mexico, Pléiades Neo.
Image 4: Flood monitoring - Mananjary, Madagascar, February 2022, Pleiades Neo
Image 5: Mananjary, Madagascar, June 2021, Pléiades / Mananjary, Madagascar, February 2022, Pléiades Neo.
What future uses for satellite imagery?
We are at a major turning point in the use of satellite imagery. Thanks to recent technological developments, the quality of the images is now high enough to reveal the finest details. At the same time, advances in big data and AI make it possible to process and analyze huge amounts of data to spot trends and anomalies.
It is now up to governments, law enforcement, NGOs and businesses to leverage this technology to create “joint” use cases that are not just reactive, but can be used proactively over time. We can cite here the example of Starling, a fully digitized service that monitors deforestation, used by major global players in the agro-food industry. The Starling online portal combines satellite imagery of forest cover with supply chain data provided by users, such as contact details for palm oil, cocoa, paper and coffee suppliers. By using both satellite and supply chain data, companies can incentivize their suppliers to fight deforestation and opt for a more sustainable alternative.
This approach has great potential and could be replicated in other areas. In particular to help anticipate the impact of natural disasters such as landslides, avalanches and volcanic eruptions, by diligently monitoring the evolution of geographical areas at risk. Satellite data could also be used by governments to support the development of sustainable cities, for example by identifying and preventing urban heat islands, or ensuring their development excludes flood-prone areas by measuring elevation levels.
Overall, the possibilities for using satellite data for environmental protection and analysis are endless. Their success will depend on public-private collaboration, ensuring that stakeholders feel empowered to work with satellite imagery.
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