Washington — Forest fires in Guatemala, snow pack in the Himalayas, changes in ground cover in Africa — their potential impact on populations, water supplies and farmlands is better understood when seen from a satellite. U.S. agencies are collecting this data and giving it to decisionmakers in other countries so they’ll be better informed about how to protect their lands and their people.
Officials with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and NASA explained how the SERVIR Regional Visualization and Monitoring System is working to support better decisions for sustainable economic development and adaptation to climate change. They led a discussion June 20 on the sidelines of the Rio+20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development being held in Brazil through June 23.
“SERVIR has many applications,” said USAID’s Kit Batten, director of the climate change program. “It is increasingly focusing on providing historic, real-time and future weather, climate and land-cover information that can support decisionmaking related to adaptation, forest management and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
SERVIR has become operative in three world regions since 2005: Central America, the Hindu Kush–Himalayas, and East Africa. Batten said the two U.S. agencies aim to achieve global environmental monitoring through SERVIR in the future.
“The studying, the monitoring of our home planet is a key goal of NASA,” said Daniel Irwin, the SERVIR expert from NASA. A network of satellites orbits Earth to “take the pulse of the planet,” with support from governments and scientific and academic institutions around the world.
Governments can use the data effectively as they see how climate and environment are changing their lands, and that is “where good science can really be used for decisionmaking,” Irwin said.
First recognition of the power of satellite images and their capability to influence decisionmaking developed about 1986, Irwin said, with a sky-high view of the Mexican and Guatemalan border. The image, which was published internationally, depicted the sharp contrast between land-use decisions made in the two countries, with lush forests on the Guatemalan side of the border and scrubland on the Mexican side where forests had been cut down.
Irwin said the image motivated Guatemalan lawmakers to declare a forest preserve in that area, and leaders throughout the region gained an early awareness of what they could learn from satellite images.
That episode led in 2005 to creation of the SERVIR program for Central America, where satellite data are analyzed by geographic and other specialists from across the region. Their analysis provides decisionmakers with background data applicable to a variety of environmental and land-use considerations, but the most common use is in assessing the impacts of extreme events — floods or hurricanes, for example — preparing for those events and attempting to mitigate damage with foreknowledge.
Several African governments learned of the Mesoamerican success with SERVIR and sought out a similar partnership with NASA and USAID. That partnership now involves 18 member countries in southern and eastern Africa. A third partnership followed soon thereafter with governments and institutions in the Hindu Kush–Himalayan region.
The SERVIR partnerships help broaden skills and expertise among technical and scientific personnel in each region and introduce students to the use of satellite data. NASA and USAID hold workshops for local leaders so they can learn to interpret the data and use it to better inform environmental policy decisions.
In Guatemala, for example, the satellite data provided vivid pictures of forest fires as they developed during the annual dry season. That data helped leaders on the ground make better decisions about where to allocate firefighting resources.
Then Guatemalan officials saw potential to get more high-value information from the satellite data, and asked NASA to create a model that could make some predictions about where fires might be likely to break out in the weeks ahead.
NASA rose to the occasion, Irwin said, producing “a fire-forecast map that is produced weekly during fire season so they can actually allocate the resources accordingly, based on the fire-forecast system.”
Irwin said the SERVIR program has also tracked the progress of floods in low-lying South Asia, and is on the way to developing other data tools that will help nations keep inventory on their greenhouse gases.
RIO+20 AGREEMENT DRAFT REACHED
The Rio+20 summit goal is to produce a document that will serve as an epilogue to the international commitments to environmental protection first made at the Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago. Negotiators have been working on a draft document to present to leaders at the summit finale. They issued a draft June 19 that is expected to be adopted by national leaders who attend.
The U.S. delegation is also supporting the principles of an agreement to expand the availability of sustainable energy to populations still lacking electricity. A U.S. fact sheet notes that the nation is supporting about $2 billion in loans and grants for clean-energy development. The United States is working with about 20 countries to promote low-emissions, high efficiency and renewable energy sources.