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Space tech is effective decision making tool for sustaining earth

Dr K Kasturirangan
Director, NIAS and Member of

What are the major threats to the sustainability of planet earth?

I will put this with a perspective on issues that could be connected to space-related systems. Earth is dynamic, not only because of its intrinsic character of atmosphere, plate tectonic movements, etc. but also due to anthropogenic activities causing several perturbations to the normal behaviour of the planet. Central to this is the question related to the growing world population, which is expected to touch 9 billion by 2050. These two significant developments will affect the way we live and the quality of life for each of us. There are many things related to these two. First is the environmental change, which has profound impacts on food security and water security and increase the occurrence of natural disasters. These threats will ultimately tell upon the sustainability of the planet. In a nutshell, it is increasing population, increasing demand on resources, increasing use of energy, impact of anthropogenic activities which include chemical, physical and biological aspects, that are affecting the terrestrial systems.

Can space technology provide a means to quantify these threats and provide solutions and neutralise them?

I don’t think space technology can directly neutralise these threats. But what we have seen in the last 50 years of space programme in India is the fact that it can certainly provide information on the planet earth, whether it is land, ocean or atmosphere and this information base can be used in decision support, which is critical while dealing with natural calamities or other anthropogenically induced problems. Space systems’ role will continue in the coming years. They will continue looking at the planet critically with respect to its multi-dimensional characteristics, dynamic changes impacting the life and society. Talking about environmental issues, they are related to forest depletion and bioresources, increasing melting of glaciers and the corresponding reduction in snow line. These result in rise of sea-levels and enduring pressures on the physical resources of land and water systems. Space systems can quantify these changes.

With regard to biodiversity, today, we see loss in biodiversity, which is typically between 40-200 species per day. In the past century, we have lost about 5-20% and by 2050 we will be losing around 15-35% of the remaining species of the earth. Similarly, if you look at carbondioxide loading, it is expected to be more of 480 parts per million by 2050 in the atmosphere. The corresponding temperatures in the global level can increase from 0.63 degrees in 1950-2007 to 0.79 degrees by 2050. These measurements on biodiversity can be done at landscape level. It has to be coupled with the observations on the ground. In the case of CO2, there are satellite sensors that can measure CO2 concentrations and other greenhouse gases at the global level. Talking about snowline and glaciology, we have measured, for example, with our satellites the glacial retreat in the Himalayas, which has been significant in terms of understanding the way some of the glacier boundaries have retreated. There are distinct and realistic threats that glaciers may disappear in 50-60 years. There will be serious implications on water systems which feed into the Ganges, Brahmaputra and other rivers. The world has been counting on satellite capabilities to monitor such changes. Satellites have mapped the degradation of coral systems, which are rich in biodiversity. This is also true with respect to land use and land cover. India has a unique way of looking at land cover systems, degradation of land cover and classification using the wasteland criteria. These are ultimately very useful as information systems and in providing a decision support to ensure that we have a means of retrieving as much as possible from these degraded lands. These are some of the ways in which space systems can contribute to monitor and make quantified numbers with regard to certain aspects of global change and environmental parameters.

What are the challenges you see in putting space technologies to use in this direction?

In the years to come, technologies will be increasingly sophisticated. Sophistication will not be a major issue but making it applicable to the global system will be one. Most of the problems are not only local but of regional and global nature so you need to have global systems. For this, you need to have multiple sensors and satellites owned by different nations. You need to have certain level of standardisation and formatting. And you need to evolve policies by which data can be used, exchanged and the information derived from them is easily available. Ultimately, we need an institutional framework and that is where the biggest challenge lies. You need to bring in institutions from across the globe and use them to take preemptive steps.

Does any of the present organisations can serve as above?

In India, one organisation that is using remote sensing data to this effect is National Natural Resources Management System (NNRMS). This is a unique institution as it brings several users in the departments of environment, ocean development, meteorology, surveying and agriculture to a common platform. They discuss issues pertaining to the use of satellite data. It also takes up issues of planning and integration of satellite systems in the conventional systems and thereby increasing the efficacy of the systems dealing with such thematic issues.

There are many applications in which we need to put in the “geospatial concept”. We have the concept of NSDI. By this, you draw up multiple data sources located at multiple government agencies and synergise them, model them and ultimately provide a solution to a particular problem. There has to be understanding among different government departments to make this possible. Secondly, we need to have standards in place to achieve integration. Also, it is important to know what data is lying at which place and thus the essentiality of having a metadata. So, the challenges lie at both – institutional as well as policy level and agreements on the ownership of data.

At a global level, there are various forums working on this. There are inter-governmental agencies working on atmospheric related data systems and information systems. There is intergovernmental panel for ocean related systems and similarly for land apart from the UN agencies. Their approach is to convert the locally and nationally available data into a regional and a global system by bringing in appropriate conventions, treaties and agreements. IPCC on climate change, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, desertification agreements, are a few examples in this direction. I am sure that in the coming years, with the increase in the number of space systems and the availability of data from several nations, we will be able to deal with the issues of the planet more effectively.

Can space technology itself be part of the solution?

It is, in fact. Information received from advanced space technologies is being fed into decision support systems. For example, inputs for disaster management are in the form of information on various aspects of droughts, floods, tsunami and cyclone, earth quake. Satellite sensors could give information even before the disaster strikes. Catching the movement and progress of things during the disaster by satellites should also be seen as a role. Drought and flood monitoring is another example. Then you have plans on preparedness, mitigation, damage assessment and relief. In all these phases, you can use space systems of remote sensing along with those of communication systems to deal with the disaster in an effective way.

Ultimately, the information is also used in certain cases to preempt occurrence. In case of flood, you try to analyse the reasons for the flood studying the topography or whether you can re-configure the topography to reduce the impact. There are many such cases in which space systems are being used for sustaining the planet, yet there are many more aspects where this can be used.

What do you think are the three major space technology applications that can significantly contribute to the sustainability of the planet in the next few years?

Disaster management will get enormous support from space technologies. What is important is to have agreements by different nations to ensure that timely information is available from different satellites to a gloabal community or to a particular community wherever it is needed with a short turnaround time. You need agreements and you need good number of sensors for this.

Second thing is environment. In the context of global warming and its multifarious manifestations – the sea level rise, increase in temperature, skewed distribution of rainfall and its impact on agriculture – many of the parameters related to these aspects can be monitored using space systems. So environmental monitoring through a suite of sensors is another important area which certainly needs strengthening.

Third area is water. Today, around 1.2 billion people across the world do not have access to drinking water and most of the glaciers and Arctic ice are shrinking. About 26% of the global wetland has already been lost. Water will be a major issue in the years to come, especially in the event of population pressure. What is needed is the monitoring of water – surface as well as sub-surface, optimise the use of water and a good management system based on space technology.

About 170 satellites with earth observing capabilities are envisaged over the next 15 years and they will carry about 340 instruments on board. This is not a small number and could have a major impact on the way we look at the planet and create a blueprint that will lead us to take scientifically correct and logical decisions to minimise the threat to life.