Geotimes

From the Editor

At first blush, this issue might “smell” like big science, beltway acronyms and remote bureaucracies. Closer reading will reveal, I trust, that like politics, all remote sensing (and earth science) is local.

When the satellite-based Earth-observing era came over the horizon three decades ago, it was greeted as a brilliant ray of hope and promise by the earth science community. Surely the Multi-Spectral Scanner (MSS) and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) would give us the new views and insights we needed to illuminate our opaque earth science obsessions. But achieving utility from space has not been easy, as one of this month’s authors observes. Only now are we beginning to move beyond observation into scientific interpretation on our way to useful prediction, from space.

Take, for example, our third feature, “Precision Agriculture: Changing the Face of Farming,” by Doug Rickman and colleagues. Drawing on concepts and instruments originally conceived for geological applications, agronomists have advanced the focus of remote sensing to the point that the techniques recognize local variations in field production potential while retaining the benefits of large-scale mechanization. The goal is to use remote measurements to fine-tune applications of seeds, fertilizers, chemicals and water to lower costs and increase production. That’s precision agriculture. Already, correlations between cooler portions of fields and higher production permit recognition of high-yield areas long before harvest. Now the goal is to use remote sensing to interpret what changes in farming practices need to be tailored to particular parts of fields in order to raise production. This is a preview of coming applications elsewhere in the earth sciences.

Interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) is a particularly exciting advance with enormous potential for useful earth science applications. In “SAR: A Versatile New Tool for Earth Science,” Rosalind Helz, John LaBrecque and William Pichel describe how the method images the strain associated with faults and earthquakes and the topographic inflation associated with a pending volcanic eruption. These are perfect examples of how remote sensing has moved beyond observation, through interpretation, to useful prediction. Similar remote measurements of earth processes are now finding applications in forecasting landslides, glacier movement and retreat, and aquifer and fuel reservoir behavior. Examples of other SAR applications, based on observations from the Canadian RADARSAT-1 satellite, are presented by Ahmed Mahmood and others in “Snapshots from Space of the World’s Continents.” Finally, our Staff Writer Naomi Lubick shares the sobering fact that the United States does not currently have its own SAR satellite and will not until at least 2009. That brings to mind that wonderful song from the rowdy musical Paint Your Wagon, “What’s going on here?”

In “LIDAR: Mapping a Shoreline by Laser Light,” the focus shifts to a different technique and different applications. James Gibeaut describes the application of LIDAR (light detection and ranging) to mapping Texas beaches for the purpose of documenting short- and long-range changes and threats to habitats and property. This is a gorgeous example of just the right technology at just the right time to assess a growing environmental hazard. In quite a different application of LIDAR, in this month’s Geophenomena section, Staff Writer Megan Sever describes the discovery of a previously unknown fault across the harbor from Seattle. Subsequent excavations and field work on the structure have shown that the current kinematic interpretation of the Seattle fault system will have to be revised. This presumably will improve mitigation planning and response for the time when earthquakes again make people sleepless in Seattle.

It seems musical and poetic that stainless and surgical technology from bright minds drives ceaseless cycles of questions and answers about Earth, to be posed and solved by similarly bright minds.

Samuel S. Adams
Geotimes Editor-in-Chief


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