Planet Action Collaboration to Provide Climate Change Tools

Hervé Buchwalter, CEO of the French satellite company Spot Image shares plans for Planet Action with Imaging Notes publisher Myrna James Yoo.

Hervé Buchwalter

Myrna James Yoo

Myrna Yoo - We understand that you originated Planet Action, an initiative about global warming. What was your inspiration for this idea?

Hervé Buchwalter - If you remember, when space exploration started with the Mercury and Vostok programs in 1961, our perception of our planet Earth was radically changed, because we were at last able to contemplate it from a distance. Well, we at Spot Image have been in the remote sensing business for more than 20 years, and as such have developed an acute sense of responsibility about what happens on Earth.

Figure 2 Satellite images provide accurate monitoring of ice coverage in Canada,
© CNES 2006 - Distribution Spot Image

When the case of global warming was so widely made in 2006, we immediately felt the need to engage in action. Can you cite any other industry which would be better placed than the field of Earth Observation to support projects and action on global warming? I'd like to point out that a very timely article in the Summer 2006 issue of Imaging Notes, titled “Udo's World” by Dr. Tim Foresman, helped us to make the “go” decision about the project.

Yoo - What is Planet Action and what is its purpose?

Buchwalter - Planet Action comes at the crossroads of three ideas: First and foremost, we want to support with imagery the initiatives that deal with global warming, whether big or small, whether they come from the scientific community, which they usually do, or from civil society, which they increasingly do. Our intention here is to bring these communities together, to use the remote sensing imagery as the link between global programs and local projects, between measures and actions.

Earth imagery has a very powerful effect in visualizing what really happens, even more so when you bring in time series on any location. Just consider, as an example, the real success of the “Atlas of a Changing Environment” published by UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) a couple of years ago. Spot Image is among the few to be able to help do this, thanks to its huge archives, and this is a very good opportunity for us to put this legacy to use as a contribution. We'd like the Planet Action platform to be a kind of hub where big science meets village projects, where you can envision climate change at both a global and a local scale.

Figure 3 Aerial view of the French Dumont d'Urville base, Terre Adélie, Antarctica,
© CNRS Photothéque/IPEV/P. Katell/UPS 2928 - Institut polaire - Plouzane

The second idea is to provide a kind of common depository of all the knowledge created by these projects. In his article mentioned earlier, Dr. Foresman envisioned an Earth Scope that would provide a transformational vision of what happens on Earth. We hope that the Planet Action Internet platform will become one of the starting blocks that activates this vision. We see it as an open platform for projects as well as for various participating actors, with a combination of content management and visualization tools. We would like it to be a place where anybody from anywhere in the world, whatever his or her background, can retrieve information, share and spread awareness and feel impelled to action. Google Earth is already doing a tremendous job in this respect.

The third idea is to provide materials that raise awareness and support educational programs about climate change. It is our hope that Planet Action will stimulate schools and youth because their generation will ultimately be the most directly concerned. We are designing Planet Action as a means to bring together scientists and NGOs, international institutions and local organizations, industries and citizens. There is something new to invent here and there are boundaries to cross.

Yoo - What will Spot Image's specific role and contribution be?

Buchwalter - There is no ownership of such an initiative, as we hope it will reach far beyond our means. We
Figure 4 Mount Erebus in Antartica, by Spot 5, ©CNES 1994 - Distribution Spot Image
see our role as catalysts of a dynamic that we will help to grow and thrive. We can do this only with partners, existing ones and new ones. We've already identified and contacted like-minded companies and organizations, both within and outside our industry who are slated to play a significant role. Spot Image will contribute free satellite images, whether from our archives or from acquisition. To this, we will add our connections and relationships with both the industrial and scientific communities, plus a contribution in images sold at cost, something comparable to the French Isis or European Oasis programs to which we contribute via CNES (Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales), the French Space Agency.

Yoo - What is the scale of Spot Image's contribution?

Buchwalter - This year is serving as a “proof of concept” phase where we experiment with the idea and check how it fits with our internal processes. We plan to donate some 700,000 km2 of imagery for some 15 to 20 projects that we'll support in 2007. Most have been identified, a few have already started, and others will be brought by our partners.

Yoo - Under what kind of license will these images be available?

Buchwalter - You touch on a rather important and sensitive issue. The Planet Action purpose is to disseminate Earth imagery to people and communities who are not necessarily familiar with it. We are in the process of researching various license options to fulfil this objective without jeopardizing the profitability of our company. Licensing will enable a large exchange and access to data while keeping our business safe. Here again, we may experiment with new ideas. Another dimension attached to this is to train and educate new users on how properly to select the kind of data they need, how to understand what can be available and what cannot, how best to use this imagery and so on.

Yoo - Could you provide any detail about some projects?

Buchwalter - Well, let's talk for instance about the International Polar Year, in which CNES, the French Space Agency, is very involved. This is a huge project, not only because of its size, but because of its potential implications. After the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change) meeting in Paris, the 4th IPY (International Polar Year) was launched in March 2007, with 210 projects that will deal with melting ice, thawing permafrost, threatened populations and wildlife. Among these projects, 58 will have a French component, with several to be supported by satellite imagery. Planet Action will bring an additional dimension to existing community projects. For instance, we are currently considering a project in the Svalbard area of Norway, where a satellite reception station stands. (Editor's note: The cover story of our Spring 2007 issue was a report from Svalbard.)

Planet Action is also paying attention to projects that relate global warming to a human health element. For example, we are accompanying a project in Senegal that is monitoring environment and early warning systems about vector-borne diseases such as Dengue Fever or Rift Valley Fever.

As another example, a small NGO came to us to get support to study the changes in vegetation in Madagascar, due to the appearance of invasive plants that may relate to climate change. (See Figure 1.) All these are reference projects, which we are working with now in order to see how best we can support them, what kind of data they need, and how we can provide them with useful scientific support. For this scientific support, we have engaged talks with the USGS and France's IRD (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement). In order for Planet Action to scale up, we plan to launch an international call for projects in 2008, according to criteria and qualification processes that we will have fine-tuned during this early phase.

Figure 6 Monthly satellite images monitor ponds' evolution in Barkedji area of Senegal for viral vectors risk analysis. Upper left: “Classic” false color composite from SPOT 5 images over Barkedji's zone. Upper Right: Detailed detection of ponds in the Barkedji's zone, with rate of draining expressed in %. The red line is for the pond's contour during the peak of rainy season. © Medias product, CNES 2004 - Distribution Spot Image.

To the left is an example of the brand-new ZPOM index with its 3-level RVF risks mapping. Clusters of ponds can be easily identified in blue, on Aug. 26, 2003 during the peak of the rainy season.

Yoo - How will you select these projects?

Buchwalter - I don't think it is appropriate to speak of a selection process. The intention here is to set up a very open support protocol with clear and simple qualification criteria. As you would easily understand, in this matter the more projects the better. This being said, we have limited means and, as a start, we plan to support them on a first-come, first-served basis. This is another reason why partnerships and extra funding are needed to expand progressively the scope of projects as much as possible and gain momentum.

Yoo - What would these qualification criteria be?

Buchwalter - Well, to qualify for support from Planet Action, the projects will have to address one of the following five fields: water resources and hydrology, ice and snow cover, drought and desertification, human issues and coping strategies, or agriculture and forestry. The project teams are expected to be international and to have at least one representative from the country where the project takes place. The projects should have a scientific dimension, of course, but should encompass a proposal or recommendation for action, in order to cope with the human impact of their findings. We would like the projects to have support from a university or a research lab to ensure their scientific validity.

There will not be subsidiary relationships in Planet Action, meaning that if there is already a support program for which the project qualifies that would provide a similar support to the project as the Planet Action one, then our support would not replace the original support program. These criteria will be finalized together with our partners.

Yoo - Why are you doing this?

Buchwalter - As I mentioned before, this is a matter of corporate responsibility for us. So much so that, together with launching the Planet Action initiative, we are in the process of initializing a “Carbon Plan” within Spot Image to evaluate and compensate our carbon imprint. And there are a couple of other reasons. We see here an opportunity to add value to our archives, which are quite under-used, given their huge potential. Furthermore, Planet Action is a way for us to reinforce our existing partnerships. I'm thinking here of our Direct Receiving Stations (DRS) network, which spreads all over the world. Should they wish to, the DRS can be at the forefront of local initiatives to help assess the climate change impact in their region and to stimulate coping and adapting strategies within the population.

Last but not least, we'd be happy to see Planet Action as a way to start and grow new partnerships, within and beyond our industry, because we think that our business, as well as climate change, is at a turning point and that extended partnerships will be part of the solutions. It may very well be that Planet Action teaches us new ways of doing business, brings in a new business culture to Spot Image and reaches out to new constituencies.

Yoo - Where will the funding come from?

Buchwalter - First from the various Planet Action partners that will contribute either in cash or in kind to fund the Internet platform, the communication and education actions, and coordination. Next, the intention is to set up a foundation, possibly in 2008, which will become the proper vehicle to receive more significant funding from corporations, organizations and other foundations, and to extend support to other related projects.

Figure 5 The Antarctica iceshelf under scrutiny during IPY, © CNES 2006 - Distribution Spot Image

Yoo - How many partners have already joined?

Buchwalter - Three Direct Receiving Stations in Asia, North America, and South America plan to join at this early stage. They did so with an enthusiasm that is a real support for us. We expect ten to twelve others to join by the end of the year. Infoterra, our sister company within the EADS Astrium group, recently joined us. We found a great partner in Dr. Tim Foresman. He has significant scientific and environmental expertise, and his commitment to the Digital Earth movement and his International Centre for Remote Sensing Education are key assets for Planet Action. (Editor's note: Tim Foresman's column, Earth Scope, on page 10 discusses this subject.) Dr. Bob Correll, who chaired the Arctic Impact Assessment supports the initiative as well. The USGS has shown interest in Planet Action and, as we talk, things seem well-engaged with them too.

As the Planet Action initiative gains momentum, we believe other companies and organizations will join. I take the occasion of this interview to appeal to any reader of your magazine: Whether big or small companies, whether in the remote sensing business or not, we would welcome any contribution to this project, whatever it may be!

As a final word, I'd like to quote a phrase from the United Nations Foundation and Sigma Xi (the Scientific Research Society) in their report, “Confronting Climate Change” (prepared for the 1st Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development): “There is still time to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable.”

Note For more details about Planet Action, go to


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