Satellite imaging research widens understanding of climate change

Sometimes it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. From his viewpoint thousands of miles above the Earth, Vipin Kumar, Ph.D., does not have that problem.

Kumar, head of the U’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering in the College of Science and Engineering, has developed advanced methods of data mining that use satellite imagery to track changes on the surface of land across the world. By observing and analyzing changes in forests, Kumar and his team of computer scientists are providing data that helps scientists, policymakers and others around the world better understand climate change and how it could affect both humans and the natural world in the future.

Climate change is a growing challenge across the globe. Higher temperatures, a transforming ecosystem, and more frequent and severe weather events are all straining natural resources, man-made infrastructure and society. Changes in forests alone account for as much as 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, an amount second only to fossil fuel. The project uses data gathered from the satellite images, along with historical climate data, to better predict the future effects of climate change and provide key context for changes to policy.

One significant contributor to global warming is forest fires. Recently, through data gathered from satellite images, Kumar and his team discovered an additional 60,000 square miles of tropical forest in Indonesia and Brazil that had burned and took a long time to recover. This new data doubles previous estimates gathered from NASA and has the potential to impact climate change policy worldwide.

Apart from providing data that can advance the discussion on climate change, the project also forges new partnerships between computer scientists and researchers in the climate and environmental sciences to make future collaborations possible.

Funding for Kumar’s project came from a 2009 Minnesota Futures grant, internal awards of up to $250,000 from the Office of the Vice President for Research that support collaborative research and encourage faculty to advance new ideas and reach across academic disciplines. The seed grant was instrumental in leveraging a a $3.2 million grant from the Planetary Skin Institute and a $10 million National Science Foundation “Expeditions in Computing” award. The project was the subject of a 2010 article in the Economist “Monitoring forests: Seeing the world for the trees.”

Reprinted with permission from Inquiry.