Connecting the global to the local – agricultural landscapes from field to orbit
Jul29

Connecting the global to the local – agricultural landscapes from field to orbit

More Agro-ecology at ESA’s 2013 Annual Meeting in Minneapolis by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer   Big changes in agriculture are visible on the global scale – changes in crop yields, dietary choices, water use, fertilizer application, soil retention, and nutrient pollution. In some parts of the world, yield lags, revealing opportunities to get more out of land already in production. In others, crop production has sagged or plateaued. Will yields keep increasing as they have in the past? It’s hard to see trajectories without local context, said session organizer Kate Brauman of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Site-specific field work fills in details. “Agronomy has been working very successfully for a long time, and it’s been focused on practitioners,” said Brauman. “And global analysis can be hard for someone in the field to interpret. How can we take insights from the local to the global scale and make them useful?” Ecology has great scientists studying the very local, applied art and science of getting more yield out of our crops and the local ecological effects of agriculture, and great scientists studying global trends, said Bauman. It does not have much of a history of cross-pollination between the groups. This session aims to bridge gulfs of scientific culture and of scale, connecting the satellite’s eye view of global change to the view from the field; computational modeling to on-the-ground experimentation; and snapshot observations to daily, seasonal, annual, and decadal change. Symposium 20: Integrating Agro-Ecological Research Across Spatial and Temporal Scales Thursday, August 8, 2013: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM Organizer: Kate Brauman More>>> PS-29: Agriculture            Tuesday, August 6, 2013: 4:30 PM-6:30 PM, Exhibit Hall B (Poster session) COS 1: Agriculture I         Monday, August 5, 2013: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM, room L100I (Contributed Oral Session) Grasslands, coffee, excess nitrogen fertilizer COS 18: Agriculture II      Tuesday, August 6, 2013: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, room 101C Biodiversity, weeds, spatial organization COS 80: Soil Ecology        Wednesday, August 7, 2013: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM, room M100GD Includes soybean symbiosis, prairie grazing gradients, and bioenergy constraints. COS 77: Land-Use And Land-Use History               Wednesday, August 7, 2013: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM, room L100H Consequences of armed conflict, restoration ecology, and shifting away from beef(?). OOS 24: Managing Belowground Processes In Agroecosystems  Thursday, August 8, 2013: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, room 101B (Organized Oral Session) The invisible world of roots, fungi, insects, arthropods, microbes, and decomposing plants matter matter very much to crop success and environmental health. This session will evaluate the state of the science and “alternative” agro-ecological systems, and discuss management opportunities. COS 126: Pollination        Friday, August 9, 2013: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM, room L100G Cranberries, blueberries, and parasitoid...

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Landsat Data Continuity Mission launches
Feb19

Landsat Data Continuity Mission launches

Great day for a launch: all indications positive for Landsat 8. By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer.   AT 10:02am local time on Monday, February 11, 2013, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, into a clear blue sky atop an  Atlas V rocket. The latest USGS earth observatory satellite is a $855 million investment in the future of a 40-year continuous land imaging program, begun with the launch of Landsat 1 in 1972. The LDCM deployed its solar array, powered up, and promptly began sending telemetry back to control, NASA Project Manager Ken Schwere reported jubilantly at the post-launch press conference two hours later. He seemed relieved and giddy, no doubt remembering Landsat 6, which tumbled away after launch in 1993 when a fuel line blew, leaving no power for the final orbital adjustments. But the LDCM’s upper stage rocket nudged the satellite into its final attitude and altitude without a hitch, leaving it in the scheduled sun-synchronous, polar orbit at 705 kilometers, crossing the Earth’s equator at the same local time (10 am +/- 15 minutes) every 99 minutes. It images the entire Earth’s surface every 16 days. The LDCM is in a three month commissioning period while NASA test-drives the instrumentation and calibrates the sensor arrays to its immediate predecessor, Landsat 7. Schwere expects to get an early peek at imagery from the two onboard instruments around day thirty. At one hundred days, NASA will turn the satellite over to USGS for operation and the LDCM will become Landsat 8. USGS Director Marcia McNutt (now former director; McNutt resigned February 15) said the new satellite is an essential tool in this time of global change. “We are all citizens of this earth, and as such we are all reliant on it for services,” she said during the press conference. “We have few ways of observing the changes in the ability of the planet to supply the services that we rely on for survival.” Recently published ecological studies have used Landsat data to examine river dynamics and hydrological infrastructure, wildfire management, degradation of arid shrublands, and global habitat change*. Landsat 8 arrives just as USGS is decommissioning the elderly Landsat 5, launched in 1984. The longest operating Earth observation satellite, Landsat 5 has long outlived its planned 3-year lifespan. Operators lost contact with Landsat 5’s Thematic Mapper in late 2011. A gyroscope failure in 2012 sealed its fate. In January 2013, USGS began strategic burns to remove it from orbit. (You may eulogize Landsat 5 here.) Landsat 7 continues data collection. McNutt said that Landsat 7 has been the more popular...

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Sandy reminds us science plays a role in safety too

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst As noted in a previous EcoTone post, science plays an important role in hurricane monitoring efforts. The collaborative work of the US Geological Survey (USGS), the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) help to monitor water levels in our nation’s waterways, landscape changes and warn local communities of impending natural disasters. As Hurricane Sandy, the most recent violent weather event to hit the nation highlighted, the livelihoods of millions of Americans are dependent upon these agencies to function quickly and effectively. This rapid response capability would severely be jeopardized by impending discretionary spending cuts set to take effect in January. The White House recently released a report outlining the likely impact these cuts would have on these programs. Overall, critical non-defense discretionary programs would receive an across-the-board 8.2 percent cut. USGS funding would be cut by an estimated $88 million. These cuts would severely hamper the agency’s ability to monitor land and water changes before and after an extreme weather event. Prior to Sandy’s landfall, USGS deployed over 150 storm-surge sensors along the mid-Atlantic coast that measure water elevation at 30 second intervals. The information gathered from these sensors will help the agency assess storm damage and forecast future coastal change. Just this week, the agency issued a landslide alert for parts of DC, Maryland, Southern Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia. For NOAA the cuts could mean a $182 million reduction for its weather satellite programs, which could exacerbate the potential for serious gaps in weather collection data. According to a recent report spearheaded by the Wilderness Society, the cuts would also lead to reductions in NOAA’s coastal management program, resulting in layoffs for coastal management practitioners and scientists, which would impede habitat restoration efforts for our nation’s coasts and wetlands.  Data collected by NOAA’s National Weather Service help inform disaster response efforts, coordinated at the national level by FEMA. We sometimes overlook the fact that many non-defense environmental science agencies like NOAA and USGS also play critical roles in protecting Americans. Photo credit: David...

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Landsat 5 update: Thematic Mapper incommunicado
Jun05

Landsat 5 update: Thematic Mapper incommunicado

End of routine acquisitions for the Thematic Mapper, secondary sensor is still sending data. [update, March 2014: the Landsat 8 mission launched successfully last year and the new satellite is sending great data back home. USGS decommissioned Landsat 5 in 2013.] By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer. The US Geological Survey’s Landsat 5 Thematic Mapper has been a faithful friend to ecologists. Recoding image data in seven bands covering visible, thermal, and infrared spectra, the satellite has shown us retreating glaciers, advancing wildfires, waxing and waning kelp forests, forest succession, and the ravages of bark beetle infestations. In November 2011, USGS shut down data transmissions for the duration of the northern hemisphere’s winter after the Thematic Mapper’s transmitter began showing signs of trouble. USGS has not been able to resuscitate the ailing transmitter, and has ended routine data acquisitions from the Thematic Mapper. But is the program is collecting data from a more limited, lower resolution instrument, the Multi-Spectral Scanner. The Thematic Mapper has been the workhorse instrument for routine image acquisitions on Landsat 5. The satellite’s managers turned off the Multi-Spectral Scanner, an older design, in 1995. With the Thematic Mapper’s data now out of reach, USGS switched the Multi-Spectral Scanner back on this spring and were gratified to see the instrument wake right up after slumbering more than fifteen years. The Multi-Spectral Scanner gathers data in green, red, and near infrared wavelengths, allowing us to distinguish vegetation and water boundaries, land formations, shallow water, and sediment-laden water. Check out the Landsat History Factsheet for a comparison of sensor capabilities. This isn’t the first transmitter failure. Landsat 5 is an old satellite, in orbit since 1984 and outliving several siblings, and its minders have worked around a number of equipment troubles. Its primary X-band transmitter began having problems in 1987, just a few years after launch. Operations continued on the backup transmitter until 2008. After the backup failed, engineers flipped the switch on the primary transmitter, and it miraculously came back online. When USGS saw a familiar failure pattern developing last fall, they shut the instrument down hoping they could tweak things and get it going again, but the transmitter did not recover when they woke it in April. The Multi-Spectral Scanner (MSS) transmits on the S-band radio frequency spectrum used for control of the satellite, and so is not affected by the Thematic Mapper’s communication difficulties. USGS scientist Rachel Headley, a geographer for the Landsat program, says it’s fun to have the Multi-Spectral Scanner online again, although it’s been so long since the sensor sent down data that the Landsat program has lost the capability to process...

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Goodbye, Landsat 5
Dec15

Goodbye, Landsat 5

This post contributed by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer Four hundred miles above the Earth’s surface, a satellite slides into lonely oblivion. After collecting and broadcasting earthly imagery for a remarkable quarter century past its expected 3-year lifespan, Landsat 5 is failing. Over the years, US Geological Survey engineers have contrived quite a few patches and work-arounds for malfunctions on board their distant charge, but the latest blow to the satellite’s communications capability may be fatal. On November 18th, its handlers announced a 90-day suspension of operations while they consider heroic measures to resuscitate the aging equipment. The Landsat “thematic mapper” has been a popular tool for ecological research. This year, ecologists in California tracked the waxing and waning of kelp forests through the eyes of the satellite (covered last week in Ecotone). Landsat aided design of a study of fire frequency following depredations of mountain pine beetles in the Lodgepole pine forests of Yellowstone. It mapped the greenery of Hawaii’s Big Island for an assessment of the total carbon held in the mass of the island’s plants. A quick and dirty search of Ecological Society journals returns more than ten reports, since October alone, incorporating Landsat data. The program gained utility after the USGS made the 30-year image archive freely available online, in 2008.  Congress privatized the Landsat program, originally run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in 1984, the year of number 5’s launch. The USGS took over operations a decade ago. Kelp biologist Dan Reed said that the image analysis of coastal kelp forests carried out by his collaborators Kyle Cavanaugh and David Siegel for their November paper in Ecology would have been prohibitively expensive a decade ago, at $600 per scene (considered the new, cheap price at the time, after re-governmentization of the program dropped prices from a high of $4400). Landsat 5 is survived by younger sibling Landsat 7, in orbit since 1999. An equipment failure on the 7th Landsat incarnation has, however, limited its imaging capacity since 2003. Scientists eagerly await the launch of Landsat 8, a.k.a the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, in early 2013. Tune in again in February to hear if reports of Landsat 5’s mortality have been exaggerated. Picture credit: anonymous NASA conceptual artist’s rendering of Landsat 5, launched to orbit on March 1, 1984. Beetle Infestation in Rocky Mountain National Park Sensor: L5 TM Path/Row: 34/32 Lat/Long: 40.300/-105.800 [click for big...

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Waves mightier than sun, otter or urchin: storm disturbance shapes California kelp forests

This post contributed by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer. As winter storms pick up along the California coast, a harvest of giant kelp comes ashore with the tides, torn from seafloor anchorages by the rough action of waves. Waves are the most powerful force shaping the kelp forest, superseding the influence of temperature, nutrients, and hungry animals, say University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) researchers in the November issue of Ecology. From Alaska to Baja California, kelp undulates in the currents of rocky coastal shallows, feeding and sheltering a host of sea creatures and birds. Americans harvest kelp for food and fish feed, and the kelp forest harbors commercially valuable fish and shellfish. In central and southern California, the giant kelp predominates. Macrocysits pyrifera anchors at depths of 6 to 150 feet, and is the largest alga in the world, reaching underwater heights of nearly 150 feet in a single season. Conversion of sunlight into kelp fuels an ecosystem. “Primary production is the amount of plant material produced per unit area of the Earth’s surface per unit time. It’s really the basis of all life on Earth for the most part,” said Dan Reed, research biologist at the Marine Science Institute at UCSB, and principle investigator of the Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research project. In the kelp forest, the primary producer is the kelp itself. Reed and his colleagues wanted to know how periodic disturbances from large waves stacked up against other influences on kelp forest growth. Lack of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, slows the kelp’s exuberant expansion, as do the teeth of small, but numerous, sea animals. Kelp is the favorite food of the sea urchin, as commercial harvesters of the fist-sized, spiky animal well know. Urchins do not climb the kelp stalks. They forage across the seafloor, devouring fallen kelp blades (analogous to leaves) and chunks. But their powerful, self-sharpening teeth can also chew through the holdfasts of the kelp, releasing the giants to the mercies of the ocean currents, as graphically exhibited by time-lapse footage in the BBC’s documentary Planet Earth. In concentrated herds, unchecked urchins have been known to raze entire forests. The check on the urchin is the sea otter, a top predator of the kelp forest. The demands of the otters’ high metabolisms drive them to eat up to a fourth of their body weight in invertebrates daily, and they like sea urchins. The otters are a classic example of a keystone species, an animal whose eating habits tip a crucial balance in a cascade of consumer-and-consumed reactions. The arrival of otters in new territory has changed relatively barren, stony seafloor into...

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