By Monica Islam
North South University, Bangladesh
Sustainability is defined as the ability to endure and to remain productive. It includes the optimal management of resources. Many factors contribute to sustainability. Earth observation is one of them. Unfortunately, it has not received as much attention as it deserves.
Earth observation is the process of collecting information about the Earth’s physical, chemical, and biological systems. While ÛÏEarth observationÛ may seem like a new term to many, it is actually an everyday affair for many of us ÛÒ especially philanthropic and curious individuals eager to learn more about the environment, make it sustainable for themselves, and to allow future inheritors to bask in Earth’s beauty. For instance, when a nature lover jots down notes on his or her observations of flora and fauna, it is indeed a simple form of Earth observation. Of course, due to the advancement of technology, Earth observation can take complex forms, such as measurements using seismometer and radar images from Earth observation satellites, which are for non-military purposes, allowing the observation from orbit. Examples of such satellites are NASA‘s TIMED and European Space Agency‘s ENVISAT. The aforementioned forms of Earth observation provide raw data. On the other hand, other sophisticated forms of Earth observation, such as predictive maps and models, are based on processed information and are highly required for making decisions regarding issues such as emergency evacuation, urgent response to natural disasters, and budget allocation for disaster management.
Earth observations are applied in various fields critical to the sustainability of the Earth, such as forecasting weather, keeping track of trends in the ecosystem, monitoring and responding to natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis, measuring different types of pollution and its effects, such as deforestation, management of natural resources, such as renewable energy sources, forming models for the prediction, adaptation to, and mitigation of climate change, and addressing diseases and health risks.
Relationship between Earth Observations and Sustainability of the Earth
Bird watching, a simple form of Earth observation, can provide insight into patterns of migration of birds, fragility of the ecosystem, population density of birds, protection of birds that are at the verge of extinction, and climate changes. Recreational Earth observations, such as bird watching, can lead to appreciation of nature by common citizens, even those who lack a formal education or even initial interest in environmental science. Travel writer Jeanine Barone predicted, ÛÏAs the Maltese children develop an appreciation for nature, perhaps this tradition of shooting and trapping birds illegally will become a thing of the past.Û 1 The British Trust for Ornithology and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology conduct many projects of bird watching. The importance of bird watching in preserving the ecosystem has led to numerous associations and societies, such as the American Birding Association, the National Audubon Society, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Apart from the sustainability of the Earth, bird watching provides opportunities for entrepreneurship and consequent economic growth in the tourism sector. Guided tours can become major businesses, which in turn can lay emphasis on the need for conservation and can even form a strong lobby favoring conservation. Bird watching also provides a means of networking, which can transform into long-lasting relationships, partnerships, and cooperation in other ventures ÛÒ all of which are necessary for building the nation collectively. For instance, the Disabled Birders Association ensures that individuals with disability can share in the joys of a common hobby. This can eventually lead to a powerful union ÛÒ similar to a labor union ÛÒ, which can collectively bargain for fair wages and equal opportunities for the disabled. On a lighter note, Mel White, an author and a long-time contributor to National Geographic, wrote: ÛÏI met my wife on a bird-watching trip.Û2
If you think birds are taking away the prize for contributing to sustainability of the Earth, think again and consider instances of butterfly-watching, another form of Earth observation. Although not as popular as bird watching, it is still helpful in determining the factors that threaten or favour the ecosystem. Earth observations involving animals and birds are critical to the sustainability of the Earth. ÛÏAnimals may sense chemical changes in groundwater that occur when an earthquake is about to strike. Animal behaviour could be incorporated into earthquake forecasting. There have been reports throughout history of reptiles, amphibians and fish behaving in unusual ways just before an earthquake struck.Û3
An adventurous and comprehensive form of Earth observation is exploration. I termed it comprehensive because there are many types of exploration, such as artic, space, and ocean explorations, which cover a wide range of specific and specialized fields. Field Expedition: Mongolia, Valley of the Khans Project4 is an appropriate example. This archaeological project aims to preserve the culture and archaeological heritage of Mongolia, while preventing illegal mining in the region. Illegal mining causes extinction of animals, desertification or lands devoid of any greenery and agricultural activity, and changes in rainfall. Another example would be that of Benjamin Franklin who authored Sundry Maritime Observations5, noting how improvements can be made to ships. Deep-sea explorations are required to investigate the physical, biological, and chemical characteristics of the sea floor. Data from deep-sea explorations can provide vital clues about the formation and management of deposits of natural resources. Such explorations also exhibit the ÛÏimportance of river ecosystems for the long-term survival of wild salmon.Û6 Apart from sustainability of the Earth, exploration leads to the discovery of resources and information, and to the expansion of contact with the rest of the world. For instance, Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish biologist considered to be one of the fathers of modern ecology, described 100 plants ÛÒ which were previously unknown ÛÒ during his expedition to Lapland.
A complex form of Earth observation is space exploration. With the help of Earth observation satellites, the Disaster Monitoring Constellation provides information on disaster relief. QuickBird is a high-resolution Earth observation satellite that can easily map buildings and other infrastructure. Therefore, it can reveal much-needed information for city planning. Aqua is a satellite that studies precipitation, evaporation, and the hydrological cycle. Aura is a satellite that studies the Earth’s ozone layer, air quality, and climate. By observing the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory can provide great insight into global warming and the sustainability of Earth. The data from this satellite enables people to understand the factors, such as human activities, which contribute to the abundance and distribution of greenhouse gases. It also allows scientists to make better predictions about climate change. The Landsat program consists of satellites that glean information on agricultural and forestry resources, environmental pollution, and mineral resources. European Space Agency’s ENVISAT (environmental satellite)’s objective is to improve environmental studies by providing information on ozone depletion, pollution, humidity, agriculture, and natural hazards. India’s Oceansat-2 is dedicated to researching aerosol content in the atmosphere and suspended sediments in the water along the coastal regions. As a result, it has the potential to identify air and water pollution. Besides contributing to the sustainability of the Earth, space exploration paves the way for a flourishing space tourism industry for recreational or entrepreneurial purposes. Other similar types of Earth observations are amateur radio and amateur astronomy. These assist in data acquisition relevant to the sustainability of the Earth, exchange of information, and, particularly in case of radio, emergency communication for public safety during a fire for instance.
Owing to the importance of exploration as a major form of Earth observation and a significant aid in ensuring sustainability of the Earth, many nations have invested heavily in this sector and yet more are scaling up their investment. Apart from organizing Earth observation summits for greater international collaboration, the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) has been formed to co-ordinate the establishment of Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) which focuses primarily on nine societal benefit areas including disasters, health, energy, climate, water, weather, ecosystems, agriculture, and biodiversity. GEO is also responsible for research in climate change, natural hazards, environment and health, natural resources management, biodiversity, marine environment, land and urban management, environmental technologies, tools for sustainable development, and cultural heritage.7 For instance, GEO’s Global Carbon Observation unit aims to ÛÏobserve carbon cycle in all its domains (atmosphere, land, water, and human dimension) by ground and space based approaches; share carbon related data, database, products, etc.; and inform decision makers to timely address adaptation and mitigation options.Û8 In addition, GEO’s Forest Carbon Tracking unit operates to ÛÏdemonstrate that coordinated Earth Observations can provide reliable, accurate, consistent, and continuous information and to provide options, advice, and guidelines to countries willing to implement national systems.Û9 GEO unites 75 nations and 51 organizations, including the United Nations Environment Program, to accelerate the prevalence and use of Earth observations in protecting the Earth. Many nations, such as India, China and Japan, have raced to launch space expeditions in recent years.
Moreover, there is a plethora of projects that encourage the participation of the general public in Earth observations. World Water Monitoring Day is dedicated to such an initiative. It provokes the public to actually think about the water quality, and act responsibly thereafter, by allowing individuals to perform basic monitoring of local bodies of water. NASA’s ClickWorkers is a small experimental project that allows public volunteers to perform scientific tasks. Similar Internet-based projects involving the public are SETI@home, MilkyWay@home, Einstein@home, Stardust@home, Galaxy Zoo, and Zooniverse. The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) is a network of volunteers who record the daily readings of precipitation and report them online or via phone.
On the Nov. 19, 2011, Dr. Peter Kim Streatfield, Head of Health and Demographic Surveillance Unit of Public Health Sciences Division, ICDDR,B mentioned in his speech at the South Asian Youth Environmental Meet 2011, the climate models in Bangladesh are not very good at predicting cloud formation and rainfall. He emphasized on more research and data acquisition for a sustainable Bangladesh. ÛÏDue to the lack of proper ocean observing system, 2012 might be the centenary of the sinking Titanic of the low lands of Bangladesh. The use of observations and numerical models can be crucial to understanding the subtle sea-level changes occurring in that region.Û10 Furthermore, as Dr. Binoy Barman wrote: ÛÏThe era of space-faring knocks at the door when Bangladesh is slumbering. People of Bangladesh are not that much science-oriented, I should say. The scientific community of Bangladesh has also failed to come forward with any plan for space exploration. We regrettably lack people like A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, a scientist-turned-president, who was instrumental in the moon exploration project of India, and Madhavan Nair, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, who played a key role in rocket design. When will we get that scientific vision and political wisdom that will lift us to the height of Heavens?Û11 For bird watching, although Botanical Garden in Bangladesh is famous, ÛÏthe garden authority has done little to preserve or improve its bird habitats.Û12 Earth observation is yet to be popular in Bangladesh, especially among the youth. Some of the reasons for this are a lack of awareness that Earth observation includes simple, regular activities, such as bird watching, and that it is so critical to the sustainability of the Earth. Also at work are a lack of funds, technology, and expertise to carry out Earth observations, and certain religious interpretations that shun space exploration.
However, the efforts of Bangladesh in developing this area are praiseworthy. Bangladesh Astronomical Society is very active and regularly organizes seminars and workshops. It has a robust partnership with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The Department of Environment of Bangladesh has initiated about 12 projects13, all of which include elements of Earth observation for a sustainable Earth. Bangladesh became a member of GEOSS in December 2007. In 2008, Bangladesh decided to ÛÏimprove the water resources management through sharing data and information systemÛ with assistance from GEOSS.14 Bird fairs ÛÒ ÛÏwith a view to create awareness among people about birds and nature conservationÛ15 ÛÒ are common in Bangladesh.
In conclusion, there might not be many Earth observations taking place in Bangladesh, but the citizens of Bangladesh are definitely in awe of nature and are keen to work for the sustainability of the Earth. The key is to raise awareness about the relationship between Earth observations and the sustainability of the Earth, and to harness the love for nature to conduct more Earth observations. I am hopeful my participation in a competition ÛÒ the theme of which is Earth observation and sustainability ÛÒ will raise much awareness in Bangladesh.
Some forms of Earth observation face severe criticism. Bird watchers must avoid stressing birds through their photography, destroying nests and trespassing into private property. Cave explorers must avoid polluting caves where water flows. They must also avoid disturbing hibernating bats. Since caves are fragile, a single touch can erode the forming deposits of minerals. Desert exploration poses a threat to the life of the explorers due to the harsh conditions of deserts. Political instability and government policies can hamper mineral exploration. In some cases, mineral exploration can become aggressive, to smuggle minerals or to discover resources in remote but protected sites, without any respect to the environmental and social effects. Mineral exploration also requires miners to work in poorly ventilated, hazardous conditions. There is a major risk of accidents and astronaut fatalities during space exploration. Apart from that, space exploration is often criticized for its enormous cost. ÛÏBehind space exploration lies the philosophy of world domination. All the wealthy countries, even the emerging ones, are sending a space vehicle to the moon. The dictum that one who controls space controls the world still persists.Û16
Despite these criticisms, Earth observations are significantly linked to the sustainability of the Earth, which in turn affects the social and economic well being of a nation by creating opportunities for education, employment, entrepreneurship, recreation, networking, cultural exchange and discovery of resources. Academic institutions, governments, private businesses, non-profit organizations, scientists and many others use data from Earth observations. Therefore, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Jeanine Barone. (2010, October). For the Birds: Malta. National Geographic. [Online]. Available: http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/2010/10/26/edit_for_the_birds_malta/  Mel White. (2011, October). The Big Year: A Birder’s View. National Geographic. [Online]. Available: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/10/20/the-big-year-a-birders-view/  BBC Online. (2011, December). Animals predict quakes. The Daily Star. [Online]. Available: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=212594  Retrieved: http://exploration.nationalgeographic.com/expedition  Benjamin Franklin. (1785). Sundry Maritime Observations. NOAA Ocean Explorer. [Online]. Available: http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/library/readings/gulf/gulf.html  Bryan Smith. (2010, July). Kamchatka Whitewater Expedition: Source-to-Sea Kayaking in Wildest Russia. National Geographic. [Online]. Available: http://ngadventure.typepad.com/blog/kamchatka-expedition/  Retrieved: http://ec.europa.eu/research/environment/index_en.cfm?section=geo&pg=eo-summits  Dr. A. Bombelli. (2011, December). The GEO Global Carbon Observation and Analysis System. Group on Earth Observations. [Online]. Available: http://www.earthobservations.org/index.shtml  Giovanni Rum. (2011, December). GEO Initiatives in Forest Monitoring: from the Forest Carbon Tracking ÛÒ FCT Task to the Global Forest Observations Initiative ÛÒ GFOI. Group on Earth Observations. [Online]. Available: http://www.earthobservations.org/index.shtml  Engr. Nomana Intekhab Hadi. (2011, July). Threats from the Bay. The Daily Star. [Online]. Available: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=193827  Dr. Binoy Barman. (2008). When will Bangladesh reach the moon? The Daily Star. [Online]. Available: http://www.thedailystar.net/campus/2008/11/01/reflections.htm  Enam Ul Haque. (2010, April). Laughing in botanical hub after 12 years. The Daily Star. [Online]. Available: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=134038  Retrieved: http://www.doe-bd.org/projects.html  Bss, Dhaka. (2008, August). Meghna to be model basin for flood forecasting, rainfall. The Daily Star. [Online]. Available: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=49909  Staff Correspondent. (2011, February). Protect birds from extinction. The Daily Star. [Online]. Available: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=172916  Dr. A. M. Choudhury. (2011, March). Self-sufficiency in rice: A continuing challenge. The Daily Star. [Online]. Available: http://www.thedailystar.net/suppliments/2011/anniversary/part4/pg12.htm