Climate Change Editors' Vox

The Earth in Living Color: Monitoring Our Planet from Above

A new special collection invites papers on a new era of remote sensing missions and instruments that will provide insights into human and climate driven changes on planet Earth.

By David Schimel and

For more than five decades, satellites orbiting Earth have recorded and measured different characteristics of the land, oceans, cryosphere, and atmosphere, and how they are changing. Observations of planet Earth from space are a critical resource for science and society. With the planet under pressure from ever-expanding and increasingly intensive human activities combined with climate change, observations from space are increasingly relied upon to monitor and to inform adaptation and mitigation activities to maintain food security, biodiversity, water quality, and responsiveness to disasters.

A new cross-journal special collection, The Earth in Living Color, aims to provide a state-of-art and timely assessment of how advances in remote sensing is revealing new insights and understanding for monitoring our home planet.  We encourage papers that cover the use of imaging spectroscopy and thermal infrared remote sensing to observe and understand the Earth’s vegetation, coastal aquatic ecosystems, surface mineralogy, snow dynamics, and volcanic activity. These may range from architecture studies that determine spaceborne measurement objectives, to papers on algorithm development, calibration and validation, and modeling to support traceability. Papers can be submitted either to Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences or Earth and Space Science.

The special collection is associated with the NASA Surface Biology and Geology Designated Observable (SBG), and will document:

  • how SBG will meet science and applications measurement objectives;
  • how international partnerships (with the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Hyperspectral Imaging Mission (CHIME) and Land Surface Temperature Monitoring mission (LSTM) and with the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Thermal infraRed Imaging Satellite for High-resolution Natural resource Assessment mission (TRISHNA) will improve revisit times;
  • describe new developments in atmospheric correction, surface reflectance retrievals, and algorithms; and
  • detail synergies with other NASA Decadal Survey missions.

SBG leverages a rich heritage of airborne imaging spectroscopy that includes the AVIRIS and PRISM instruments, and thermal imagers such as HYTES and MASTER, as well space-based observations from pathfinder missions such as HYPERION, and current missions, including ECOSTRESS, PRISMA, DESIS, and HISUI.

Satellite measurements represent very large investments and the United States and space agencies around the globe organize their efforts to maximize the return on that investment. For instance, the US National Research Council conducts a decadal survey of NASA earth science and applications to prioritize observations of the atmosphere, ocean, land, and cryosphere. The most recent NASA Decadal survey, published in 2017, prioritized observations of surface biology and geology using a visible to shortwave infrared (VSWIR) imaging spectrometer and a multi-spectral thermal infrared (TIR) imager to meet a range of needs. As announced by NASA in May 2021, SBG will become integrated within a larger NASA Earth System Observatory (ESO)  that will include observations of aerosols, clouds, convection, and precipitation, mass change, and surface-deformation and change.

The SBG science, applications and technology build on over a decade of experience and planning for such a mission based on the previous Hyperspectral Infrared Imager (HyspIRI) mission study. During the course of a three-year study (2018-2021), the SBG team analyzed needed instrument characteristics (spatial, temporal and spectral resolution, measurement uncertainty) and assessed the cost, mass, power, volume, and risk of different architectures. The SBG Research and Applications team examined available algorithms, calibration and validation, and societal applications, and used end-to-end modeling to assess uncertainty.  The team also identified valuable opportunities for international collaboration to increase the frequency of revisit through data sharing, adding value for all partners. Analysis of the science, applications, architecture, and partnerships led to a clear measurement strategy and a well-defined observing system architecture.

Infographic explaining SBG science and applications at a glance.
SBG addresses global vegetation, aquatic, and geologic processes that quantify critical aspects of the land surface, responding to NASA’s Decadal Survey priorities, which then interact with the Earth’s climate system. The SBG observing system has a defined set of critical observables that equally inform science and environmental management and policy for a host of societal benefit areas. Click image for larger version. Credit: NASA JPL

First, and perhaps, foremost, SBG will be a premier integrated observatory for observing the emerging impacts of climate change. It will characterize the diversity of plant life by resolving chemical and physiological signatures. It will address wildfire, observing pre-fire risk, fire behavior and post-fire recovery. It will provide information for the coastal zone on phytoplankton abundance, water quality, and aquatic ecosystem classification. It will inform responses to natural and anthropogenic hazards and disasters guiding responds to a wide range of events, including oil spills, toxic minerals, harmful algal blooms, landslides and other geological hazards, including volcanic activity.

The NASA Earth System Observatory initiates a new era of scientific monitoring, with SBG providing an unprecedented perspective of the Earth surface through new spatial, temporal, and spectral information with high signal-to-noise. The Earth in Living Color special collection will showcase the latest advances in remote sensing that are providing vital insights into changes in planet Earth.

—David Schimel ([email protected], ORCID logo 0000-0003-3473-8065), NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA; and Benjamin Poulter (ORCID logo 0000-0002-9493-8600), NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, USA

Citation: Schimel, D., and B. Poulter (2021), The Earth in living color: Monitoring our planet from above, Eos, 102, Published on 09 June 2021.
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