Sustainable environmental development in Africa gets international backing

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South African researchers are benefitting from a unique partnership between NASA and agencies in Africa and Europe that is sending more than 30 terabytes of satellite data to support sustainable development and environmental applications in Africa, the U.S. space agency announced October 6.

One of the instruments on board NASA’s Terra satellite provides observations of Africa’s surface and atmosphere, including vegetation structure, airborne pollution particles, cloud heights and winds. This data will be accessible through a distribution center in Africa to users who cannot remotely download the large data files because of limitations in the continent’s Internet infrastructure.

Terra’s multi-angle imaging spectroradiometer (MISR), which provides the data, was built and is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, processes and distributes the data.

The MISR has measured the Earth’s surface and atmosphere continuously for more than a decade, observing the sunlit portion of Earth and viewing the entire globe between 82 degrees north latitude and 82 degrees south every nine days. The instrument collects images from nine widely spaced view angles rather than a single perspective.

The partnership began in spring 2008, when MISR science team member Michel Verstraete of the Institute for Environment and Sustainability at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre participated in an intensive field campaign by South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to study the environment around Kruger National Park, a major wildlife reserve in South Africa. The researchers studied the area using direct, airborne and space-based measurements. Verstraete learned of widespread interest of the South African research community in remote-sensing applications.

In response, the Institute for Environment and Sustainability and CSIR signed an agreement in July 2008 to facilitate the interaction and exchange of people, knowledge, data and software. NASA joined the partnership in 2009.

“NASA is committed to helping governments, organizations and researchers around the world make effective use of Earth observation data to aid in environmental decisionmaking,” said Hal Maring, a program manager in NASA’s Earth Science Division in Washington. “These efforts support the goals of the Group on Earth Observations, a partnership of international agencies that promotes collaborative use of Earth science data.”

NASA became involved in the collaboration after a training workshop for MISR users in Cape Town, South Africa, organized by JPL and Langley Research Center sparked interest in the potential use of MISR data. It soon became apparent that accessing a large volume of data was a major hurdle in developing countries generally and particularly in Africa. Even though Internet connectivity in Africa has improved greatly in recent years, access and bandwidth remain too limited to support downloading vast data files. This led CSIR to host the data directly.

CSIR, based in Pretoria, South Africa, will distribute the data at no charge to the research community in the region. CSIR also will facilitate access to the large volume of MISR data as part of its strategy of educating, training and transferring knowledge to the southern African research community.

“The data transfer can be seen as a birthday present from NASA to the newly formed South African National Space Agency,” said Bob Scholes, CSIR research group leader for ecosystem processes and dynamics. “It will kick-start a new generation of high-quality land surface products, with applications in climate change and avoiding desertification.”

NASA shipped most of the data on high-density tapes this summer. The agencies will ensure the database stays updated with current MISR observations by upgrading connectivity and facilitating sharing of data among participating academic and research institutions.

“This multiparty collaboration will significantly strengthen academic and research institutions in southern Africa and support sustainable development of the entire subcontinent,” said Verstraete, who will spend six months in southern Africa in 2011 to help the regional remote-sensing community use the data.

Africa News Report  Africa News Report is a specialist information dossier dedicated to providing news information and analysis from a diplomatic and political perspective. Topics covered include some of the most pressing health, economic, political and social issues. Besides bringing its multi-facetted news, views and analysis to the fore, Africa News Report seeks to highlight the United States' policies and positions on diverse issues affecting the African continent.
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