Webcast Recap

Using a collection of spectacular "before and after" satellite images for 80 sites around the world, the United Nations Environment Programme's One Planet, Many People: Atlas of Our Changing Environment documents the dramatic and, in some cases, damaging changes sweeping the earth. The Environmental Change and Security Project hosted the Washington, D.C., launch of the large-format book with a live webcast. State Department scientist Fernando Echavarria said that One Planet, Many People, which includes more than 30 environmental case studies and a compilation of environmental maps, holds "the key to improving quality of life for peoples all over the world."

"We Are Telling the Story of Environmental Changes"

Ashbindu Singh, regional coordinator for UNEP DEWA-North America, pointed out that the book focuses on trends over time and environmental issues that can be easily visualized. For example, the atlas uses remote imaging technology to track transboundary pollutants, deforestation, the explosive growth of the urbanized world, energy consumption, shifting land use, dramatic changes in the Arctic, the impact of civil wars, and the regeneration of ecosystems, to name a few. However, the atlas does not seek to interpret any of the images; according to Singh, UNEP only "wanted to capture what is happening where."

To make this powerful data more readily available to the public, Singh proposed developing an interactive web version—transforming the atlas into a "live" document—and establishing kiosks in museums like the Smithsonian. John R. Townshend, chairman of the University of Maryland's geography department, described "real-time systems" that could ensure adequate rapid response to crises. For example, firefighters can use real-time systems to text-message or email the location of fires to firefighters already in the field.

Life After Landsat: "We Have Truly Gone Blind"

James A. Sturdevant and Jay W. Feuquay of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) discussed the images provided by the Landsat satellite series, which recorded the Earth's surface since 1973. Sturdevant noted that "Landsat is the longest-running enterprise for the acquisition of moderate resolution imagery of the earth from space." (The Landsat images USGS contributed to the atlas, Echavarria pointed out, were worth $20- $25 million.) However, due to recent failures of Landsat7, Townshend declared, "We have truly gone blind." In order to survive life after Landsat, there "must be improved sharing of data and reliable, consistent monitoring of land cover."

Interpreting the Images: "One Person's Destruction is Another Person's Gain"

Interpreting these images is a hot topic. An audience member asked about linking field data and country assessments with the atlas' global images to prevent subjective interpretations. Woody Turner of NASA acknowledged that "remote sensing without ground truth is dangerous," and stressed that collaboration was a critical next step.

Another audience member commented that "the key is to translate information like this to the ground." Turner mentioned that Google and Microsoft are already working on ways to quickly and easily disseminate the atlas' images. Townshend pointed out that "people are doing just that" at the University of Maryland website, which offers free downloads of USGS satellite pictures. Ultimately, any interpretation of the data must be considered from a variety of perspectives, for as Townshend pointed out, "we must recognize that one person's destruction is another person's gain."

Drafted by Alicia Hope Herron.

Speakers

  • John Matuszak

    International Affairs Officer, U.S. Department of State
  • Fernando Echavarria

    Foreign Affairs Officer, Space and Advanced Technology, U.S. Department of State
  • Steve Lonergan

    Professor, Department of Geography, University of Victoria, Canada
  • Ashbindu Singh

    Regional Coordinator, Early Warning and Assessment, UNEP Regional Office for North America
  • John R. Townshend

    Professor and Chairman, Department of Geography, University of Maryland
  • James A. Sturdevant

    Deputy Director, USGS National Center for Earth Resources Observation and Science
  • Jay W. Feuquay

    Coordinator, Land Remote Sensing Program, USGS
  • Woody Turner

    Program Scientist, NASA Headquarters, Office of Earth Science