Udo’s World

Remote Sensing Community’s Transgenerational Responsibility

This January, a one-year-old boy from S. Korea named Udo was adopted by a wonderful family in the U.S.A. He is a lucky young lad who beat the odds and will be loved and nurtured and protected to every extent possible by his new family. But in the increasingly dynamic world we live in, what kind of future will he face?

It is becoming patently clear that the adults on our planet do not fully grasp the changes that are rapidly manifesting all around the globe, much less the impacts of these changes and the challenges these impacts will create for Udo’s generation. This thought led to the fundamental question of what we know about Udo’s world and the conditions of the landscape that will greet him as an adult. So it is that we should begin to consider further the issues of who should be held responsible for providing the information and trends about changes on the Earth’s surface and what might be done about raising the awareness of these extraordinary facts to our fellow citizens.

So, what do we know about Udo’s world? We have a good handle on the number of people living on the planet and the growth rate of the population. Allowing for some lack of precision in the census numbers, we currently have approximately 6.5 billion people living around the globe, and the number is increasing at a rate of 2.3 people per second, or around 72 million per year (www.census.gov/ipc/www/popclockworld.html). In 1950, there were 2.5 billion people. This exponential increase in population has had a profound impact on our environment. Both the rich and the poor have been transforming the Earth’s surface through urban expansion, agricultural growth, forest reduction, soil exhaustion, and mineral and oil extraction.

Tracking these transformations would provide for true-cost accounting of resource utilization, accurate valuation of national resource assets, and full accountability of development loans and human impacts on the Earth’s resources. Incredibly, we do not know with any precision just how much we have been changing the land surface. Let me repeat this basic fact: The scientists and the governments of the world, and international development banks, do not know how much we have been transforming the land cover and surface of planet Earth. As the former head scientist for the United Nations Environment Programme, I am sharing with you this unassailable fact.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA; www.millenniumassessment.org) has performed an admirable job of comprehending and communicating the extent to which ecological goods and services provide the life support systems for all humans. Living in our urbanized environments or working in our sterile corporate offices, we tend to forget the direct dependency all humans have on these ecological goods and services. These are not luxuries; these goods and services are the foundations of life, albeit not evenly distributed for the human population. Importantly, the MA could not quantify the current amount of ecological goods and services nor the loss rates of these critical life-sustaining resources, as a result of the basic fact previously mentioned: It all comes back to measuring and monitoring the Earth’s surface—something that we could do, but have not done.

Why don’t we accurately measure and monitor the Earth’s surface? Land cover is not a principal indicator used for the policies and decisions that drive the politics and commerce of our global economy. Instead of using land cover as the principal indicator, a host of proxies have been created for reports and discussions by major sectors. These include the World Banking community (World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, etc.); the United Nations community (FAO, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, etc.); the NGO community (Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, The World Conservation Union, World Resources Institute, WWF, etc.); and United States agencies (CIA, State Department, US AID, etc.).

Indicators are the rage among intellectuals and institutions always on the prowl for refinement of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At the extreme we have Bhutan’s King Wangchuk introducing the Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH) index to measure development, although it would be imposed in a non-democratic fashion for his little Himalayan country. Amazingly, precise counting of what is available on the Earth’s surface to support life and accurate defining of our dependence on land cover are not foremost in any of the major indices and reports of commerce and policy wonks.

Land cover should be foremost in our local, national, and international dialogs as the critical factor regarding conditions and trends on our world. Trained scientists can diagnose a wealth of information about a geographic area through the assessment of remotely sensed data. And, much as a physician shares information from an x-ray, a remote sensing professional can convey her diagnosis to a layperson by discussing the Earth imagery and the changes displayed in the imagery over time.

If this is true, then what is the problem? It is threefold:

  1. No synoptic and comprehensive measurements are being recorded at the proper scales.
  2. No universal diagnostic kit, with standard protocols, is available for all nations to utilize.
  3. No unified report is produced and shared on the conditions and status of the Earth’s surface covering.

So what is the role of the remote sensing community? I would suggest that the remote sensing community should have the key role and responsibility for providing the information and trends about changes on the Earth’s surface. Collectively, we should be the “primary physician” for all citizens and agencies concerned with the planet’s health. We should accept the challenge and raise the awareness of these extraordinary facts to all of our fellow citizens. Sadly, we have failed in our role. We have not harnessed our potential to collaborate. We have debated endlessly over the past 30 years with alphabet-soup committees (GEOSS, GTOS, GOFC-GOLD, GLCN, etc.) and still have not produced one operational report that could be used to calibrate the condition of the Earth’s surface and its trends. This would seem to indicate that what we are doing now is not working, and what we should be doing needs to be identified and acted upon.

Notable and noble examples of working models abound. Professor John Townshend, through the Global Land Cover Facility (GLCF), in conjunction with the EROS Data Center, is attempting to distribute freely a global collection of Landsat, AVHRR, and MODIS data. The University of Maryland’s fire monitoring and land cover change research has developed excellent templates for global collaboration. What is needed is the will to collaborate with other remote sensing centers. Townshend’s team is monitoring phenomenal rates of land cover changes (deforestation) in Argentina, Boliva, Columbia and other South American countries, as well as large areas of West Africa and Asian countries such as Myanmar. Other excellent research centers are tracking hotspots or topical areas of interest to their investigators or investors.

But this represents a disparate set of resource centers with hit-or-miss focus, and certainly is not a serious collaborative effort to provide a regular global census of the Earth’s surface conditions — a clinical diagnosis of the planet.

What can we do about this deplorable condition in which we find ourselves? How can we apply our passions and professional vocations to a collective effort that will enable the world to begin calibrating and monitoring the elements of our life support system? I would posit that this collective whole will not come about from any of the existing groups of committees, and certainly not from any known government.

Innovation, like the Internet, Google and Microsoft must take the stand and begin to harness the array of talents and to network the centers that exist around the globe in order to accomplish a true physical view and accounting of the planet—an “Earth Scope”—in order to provide a true and level playing field for Udo’s generation before they inherit the future. Anything less would be a disservice to the beautiful and wondrous children that are growing among us today and an abrogation of our unique role as the only qualified clinical monitors for the Earth’s health.


Dr. Timothy W. Foresman is President of the International Centre for Remote Sensing Education. He has been director of United Nations Environment Programme’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment (Nairobi, Kenya) and national program manager for NASA’s Digital Earth (Washington, D.C.). He is editor of The History of Geographic Information Systems, 1998, Prentice Hall.

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