Earth Day: Indian Teachers Use Space Technology to Solve Problems on Earth
Much environmental research starts with a problem, such as species extinction, global warming, or erosion. In honor of Earth Day, IREX is pleased share a story of two physics teachers from India and a graduate student from Alabama focused on a solution. Rahul Chatterjee and Bishakha Banerjee, current International Leaders in Education Program (ILEP) participants, are collaborating with Melanie Phillips, a graduate student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), to research reforestation in Chhattisgarh and Punjab, India using satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques.
Bishaka and Rahul are working in coordination with the Regional Visualization and Monitoring System (SERVIR), a joint venture of NASA and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) that monitors worldwide air quality, extreme weather, biodiversity, and environmental threats using data from orbiting satellites. Based at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the SERVIR coordinating office works closely with regional sites in Kenya, Panama, and Nepal to collect data. Huntsville’s scientific community, already familiar with the value of international collaboration, warmly welcomed Bishakha’s and Rahul’s contributions. Scientists in Huntsville, who watched their community endure severe damage during last year’s tornadoes, are eager to help other communities worldwide improve responses to natural disasters and predict environmental changes.
Rahul and Bishakha became involved in this work through a course on remote sensing that they enrolled in at the suggestion of Dr. John Pottenger, director of the Office of International Programs and Services, who manages the ILEP program at UAH. After hearing a presentation about SERVIR, Rahul and Bishakha connected with Melanie Phillips, whose research focuses on reforestation in India and uses remote sensing techniques to look at variables such as precipitation amounts, temperature, vegetation health, and soil moisture to model the future of agriculture, weather patterns, and biodiversity in areas of northern and central India. Eventually, Melanie hopes to share this data with local government agencies and non-governmental organizations to help them understand the economic and environmental benefits of reforestation. To commemorate Earth Day, IREX is pleased to share this interview with Bishakha, Rahul and Melanie.
How do you think geospatial information (GIS) and remote sensing techniques can be used to improve people’s lives?
Melanie: GIS and remote sensing techniques allow us to answer questions that have been unanswerable for hundreds of years. Thanks to satellite imagery, we can see how quickly the Amazon is being deforested, how rapidly the Louisiana coast is receding, the rate at which cholera spreads after a natural disaster, and so much more. Thanks to these techniques, thousands and even millions of lives could potentially be saved.
Bishakha: Geospatial information has applications in public health, environmental conservation, and disaster relief. It can be used in archeology, for ocean modeling, to chart forest fires, for volcanic research, or city mapping. There are many different uses.
Rahul: Let me give you a concrete example. I come from an area near the Brahmaputra River, which changes course annually during the monsoon season. A few years ago, the government was looking to construct a second bridge over the river, but were worried that if the spot where the bridge would be built wasn’t chosen carefully, the river might change course and skirt the bridge. To solve this problem, they examined thirty years of satellite images and located a five kilometer stretch where the river had never changed its course. They constructed the bridge across the river at this location and since then, it has remained intact.
What has been the value of having teachers from India participate in this research?
Melanie: It has been invaluable to have people who can give me an in-depth perspective of the region. It has been really nice to hear different views and learn more about how you should go about getting information in India. For example, I have been sending a lot of emails to different forestry agencies in Punjab, but have not had any luck getting a response. Then, last week Rahul suggested that I send letters instead of emails because this is seen as being a more personal and less formal means of communication. And when Rahul and Bishakha go back to India, they are willing to help me go between these organizations.
Bishakha: Yes, I know of some non-governmental and governmental organizations and I have some friends there and so maybe I can create a kind of link between Melanie so that her project can be completed.
Do you have any other plans for continuing this collaboration when Rahul and Bishakha return to India?
Melanie: I’ve learned that there aren’t many classes that exist at the high school and college level in India to teach students how to use and interpret geospatial information and data. One hope we have is that when Rahul and Bishakha get back to India, they will be able to hold a seminar to share the skills that they learned with Indian students. There are free trial versions of software available online that I can share with them so these seminars could be completely free.
Bishakha: Yes, many of my students will be very interested to learn this type of scientific technique.
Rahul: I want to help Melanie continue with her research so that she can get some really useful data. I will do this by going to meet with the necessary researchers in India in person and I can also serve as the person on the ground. I can collect data from the different meteorological stations at a local level. Also, like Bishakha, I not only want to hold some workshops for students, but also share my knowledge on a broader scale. By profession, I am not only a teacher but also write scripts on science topics for the radio. I have been working on an eight minute script that will be broadcast over All-India Radio in Shillong about remote sensing. I hope this will help the general population begin to understand about this scientific technique.
What advice would you have for other researchers or teachers looking to bring international perspectives to their areas of study?
Bishakha: Environmental issues go beyond country and beyond continent. Politicians and leaders around the world are working on these issues because they can affect everyone. We are doing it on a smaller scale and I would encourage others to do the same.