NASA funds projects to monitor and understand our planet

05 June 2020 | Muriel Cozier

Today is World Environment Day, an observance that has been marked since 1974 after a United Nations (UN) Resolution was adopted urging governments and the organisations in the UN to commit to improving environmental awareness. Since 1974 World Environment Day has helped raise awareness and generate political momentum on issues such as global warming and desertification. The theme for 2020 is biodiversity.

While NASA is best known for space missions, the agency has also harnessed its technology to improve understanding of global biodiversity.

NASA’s Advanced Information Systems Technology (AIST) program has funded a number of projects that the agency says, ‘meets NASA’s goals to effectively monitor and understand our planet.’ The programme aims to increase access to science data and enable new observation measurements.

Under the programme, NASA has funded four projects to create new virtual portals bringing into focus the wealth of biodiversity information that can help to inform scientists, land managers and decision makers around the world on the status and health of terrestrial ecosystems.

Each of the projects highlights a different aspect of biodiversity and lets users create easy-to-use maps and other information products to track healthy and vulnerable species as the compete for resources, migrate to safer habitats and adapt to climate change.

One of the four projects is the Map of Life Tool, which integrates satellite images with images from museum records, modelling outputs, and groundwater-based information. The tool aims to help government and non-government agencies to balance conservation opportunities across land and ocean habitats in a cost-efficient way.

The Map of Life also has a mobile app that allows users to explore their surroundings and record their own sightings. It contains information on over 30,000 species around the world. NASA says that both the app and the online portal reveal how land use changes are the primary drivers to shaping biodiversity.  NASA says this tool, along with the others in the AIST programme, will continue to ‘lower the barrier for entry for users to interact with biodiversity data’.

‘AIST projects are defined and driven by science,’ said Jacqueline LeMoigne, the AIST Programme Manager. ‘They help predict and track these adaptations and migrations. In the long run, the programme aims to enable future NASA Earth Science missions by discovering and maturing breakthrough computer science, software and information system technologies.’  

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