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Kamlesh Lulla

INTERVIEWEE: Kamlesh Lulla (KL)
DATE: October 5, 1999
LOCATION: Clear Lake City, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
REELS: 2038, 2039

Please note that videos include roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name’s David Todd and I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas and it’s October 5, 1999 and we’re in Clear Lake City at the NASA Johnson Space Center and we’ve got the good fortune of visiting with Kamlesh Lulla who is Chief of the Office of Earth Sciences for NASA. And I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for visiting with us about conservation and all the remote sensing work that you’ve done in that area.
0:02:08 – 2038
KL: You’re welcome and we’re delighted to welcome you to Johnson Space Center.
DT: I’d like to talk to you about your own personal history before we get into some of the remote sensing work that you’ve done. Perhaps you could tell us any early experiences that first interested you in the out of doors, the environment, Earth sciences and so on.
0:02:35 – 2038
KL: Uh, yes. One of the interesting things I can tell you is that since my younger days, I was interested in outdoors because I felt that there was a—an important element in my upbringing, both socially, culturally, as well as spiritually. I grew up, as you can tell, I—I’m probably more Texan now than I ever was but I grew up in South Asia and there the importance of having connection to nature was engrained in my childhood. And so, to me, reverence for outdoor and the use of outdoor both as a resource as well as something that we need to protect, conserve, and also sort of learn and understand was engrained early on. So that led me really to look at outdoors as not only place to play but place to study and learn from it. And to give you a specific ex—example, typically we would probably take a field trip and I grew up in a place where we had a preponderance of teak forest and bunion(?) trees and those kind of things and we were naturally part of what I would call outdoor types of educational settings without calling them outdoor activities, our education setting. So that had a deep impact on me. And growing up in that part of the world, you immediately realize the interaction between growing human populations and the environmental issues and it became very clear to me that I need to take active interest in learning how we can reconcile those kinds of issues.
DT: Did you notice as a young child this population issue? Was it apparent to you?
0:04:37 – 2038
KL: Yeah, that’s a very interesting question. When I was growing up, one of the things I noticed was that some of my favorite areas, outdoor areas, were being converted. Land use was being practiced so intensely that some of these areas were being converted for buildings, for other uses and so on. So even when I was like eight or ten years old I immediately realized that there was a interaction going on here that is very important in terms of preserving what we call in the, I guess, Eastern cultural values as a relationship with nature. So yes I was aware of that.
DT: And you also mentioned that the part of India you were from had Teak forests. Were those being used or developed in any way?
0:05:32 – 2038
KL: Well the teak forests had been the major resource for the forest communities and forest industries in India for a long time. And then, of course, when India was under British rule, teak was a major product that was exported to rest of the world so the teak forest was, yes, highly developed and—and used, if you will, for timber related industries. And therefore stands were shrinking much more rapidly that rest of the forest land.
DT: Do you remember any particular trips to these forests or to the other areas, the bunion…
KL: Bunyan trees.
DT: …yes bunyan trees…
0:06:20 – 2038
KL: Yes, actually I remember lot of trips. One of the things in my early childhood was that we took lot of these trips to simply enjoy what I would call seasonal variations of nature. For example, monsoon is probably a big nuisance but that’s a great time of rejoice—rejoicing for populations that were there because it brings rain and therefore you have everything green and that also results in food production. So we typically used to go and—during monsoon season in the wet part of the, you know, in the day, go out in the forested area, see how forest looks like during the mountain—monsoon region and—and—and also sort of swim in the flood waters and—and enjoy all the natural processes of rebirth and recycling as the monsoon floods brought woods and logs and so on. So those trips were very enjoyable and that’s really made a deep impression on me about the entire ecological cycle that occurs, you know, in natural systems.
DT: Was there anybody in your family or a teacher in your early days that helped you with these things, taught you things?
0:07:30 – 2038
KL: Actually in my family, my brother and my brother-in-law were the first influences. My brother-in-law used to work for the police department and by his job, by nature of his job, he went to—into these rural areas, forested areas, and later he became sort of a avid hunter. And when I say avid hunter, he really didn’t kill that much. It was more a hobby for him to photograph and shoot. He—he shot with camera rather than with guns. And so he took me on these trips to see deer, for example, and many times we would take trips to about 300, 400 miles from where I grew up to see the forested areas where lions—(?) lions, the Asiatic lions, you know, had habitats. So that had a deep impact and then when I went to school, that influence from my family, my brother-in-law and my brother, was further enhanced by my biology teacher who was, himself, a very much interested in not necessarily more as an ecologist but more as a person who believed that if we do not take care of the natural environment around us, that resources for us as—you know, will be also depleted. So that combination of biology education and family education is what really led me to a lot of these kinds of thinkings.
DT: And as you grew up, I understand earned not only one but two Ph.D.’s. Did any of your education along the course of these doctorates influence you to be more interested in conservation and remote sensing related things?
0:09:18 – 2038
KL: Yes, definitely. When I grew up, my major interest was to major in scientific discipline. So I—in my undergraduate degrees, I had chemistry background but as I started thinking about it, I leaned more towards the environment so I got my Master’s Degree in Environmental Science and Ecology. And then I did my doctorate because I was interested in this issue of how do we—how do we use the environment without destroying it and also support the human population. So my doctorate was in what we call agricultural ecology where we did experiments on growing wheat under natural conditions without destroying the ecosystem without excessive fertilizers and so on at the same time able to feed the world population. So agricultural ecology was my doctorate and all—all along my interest in—in conservation and nature actually was very much developed because I got interested in various activities in addition to my academic pursuits, in India and internationally, as a matter of fact.
DT: The green revolution is something people often think about in agriculture and the increased yields. What do you think some of the environmental impacts of that revolution were?
0:10:41 – 2038
KL: I’m glad you asked that question because one of the reasons I did my Ph.D. dissertation back then was because of green revolution because the green revolution was very marvelous thing where the scientists have come up with these wonderful varieties of crops that were genetically engineered in the laboratories. But when you bring them out in the field the question was, did they perform well without what I would call intensification of fertilization, pesticide use, and those kinds of other issues? So I wanted to answer that question because some of the varieties that were introduced in my part, where I grew up, in Western part of India, were never felt right. And, as a result of that, what I did was I selected seven varieties of wheat crop and grew them in various natural conditions to see which one would survive without much intensification of pesticides and fertilizers because lot of these farmers who were given the wheat seeds had no resources to apply these kinds of high, if you will, expensive, high-end materials to bring the crop production to the levels that they were expected to. So to answer your question, yes there were a lot of side effects of intensified use of definitely fertilizers and pesticides and the are that I worked in, several hundred thousand acres of land became saline or became salinized as a result of this.
DT: I understand that you weren’t satisfied with just that one Ph.D. but went onto secure another. Is that in a related field or…
0:12:30 – 2038
KL: Yeah it’s in—it’s in related in the sense that when I finish my doctoral work in agricultural ecology, I wanted to study large areas. For example, I came to realize that these kinds of issues, intensification of agriculture, create other problems such as soil salinization, water pollution, increased, you know, eutrophication in lakes. I wanted to study these issues at much larger scale, not only in my own backyard but maybe in the region, maybe in the country, maybe internationally. That led me to think that I need to look at a platform that is not just the field work, that will provide me with some quantitative as well as qualitative measures at large area. And typically the large area inventory was hard to do, is hard to do even today without either aerial surveys, aerial photography or remote sensing from space. So that really led me to get involved in remote sensing. And, early on, I used some aerial photography and, by that time, NASA had launched the Earth Resource Technology Satellite in early ‘70’s, in 1972. And so what I though was—here was an opportunity to learn what is happening at a larger scale using these satellite data from space. And that led me to then go into remote sensing and earn my second degree where I combined mainly my experience in ecological and Earth science fields with space sciences to see if we can get the signals from space with sensors to measure and monitor what’s happening in some of these ecological issues that we are trying to study.
DT: With this training you had I understand went to a teaching career and could you tell us about that and the response of some of the students to your interests?
0:14:33 – 2038
KL: I was very much interested in pursuing research and—and teaching because I thought it would be very, very important for us to bring in a comb—rather bring in students who will go into what I would call interdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary approach to some other problems. Typically, as you know, the way the sciences have evolved is each discipline developed its own set of tools and technologies and concepts and then it becomes sort of isolated. However, we came to realize, especially those of us in ecology, that Earth systems are not isolated. And, as a matter of fact, the biggest contribution of Apollo program, in my view, was the full descry of the Earth that astronauts from Apollo flight brought back that shows that the—the Earth is a finite, interconnected and interactive system, atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere. And all the rest of the activities that occur on Earth are very much interactive. So if you are an oceanographer and don’t study coastal areas or don’t study atmosphere, you are not going to understand much about what’s happening at a planetary scale. So that was the intention, to bring all these interdisciplinary research activities together. And so I went and taught in a department which was a combined department which taught Earth science, space science and geography at a small university. So that gave me an opportunity to share my interdisciplinary approach with students. And I was delighted that I had the eight students who finished their Ph.D. degrees with me and twelve master’s and they’re teaching at various locations in this country.
DT: And what sort of enthusiasms did they have?
0:16:32 – 38
KL: The students were very en—enthusiastic. I think you probably have noted that the maturing of interdisciplinary approach in science began maybe twenty years ago. And I was right at the early stages of that and it is so mature now that NASA, for example, about eight or ten years ago established Ph.D. fellowships in what we call Earth Systems science which means that you don’t study Earth as a geologist, oceanographer, ecologist, but you study it as a person who looks at an integrative system because each system has impact and interaction with the other system. And then after that, the human influence that we have interacting with all these systems on Earth. So I think it—the students were very en—enthusiastic and therefore, you probably have seen that maturation of knowledge into the kinds of titles of these recent journals that you would not see 15, 20 years ago. For example, we have a journal in Earth science now called Global Biogeochemical Cycling and we have a journal called Human Dimensions of Global Change. We have a journal, for example, called Global Change in Environmental Analysis. These kind of things were unheard of just 15 years ago.
DT: Can you give some examples of how this more interdisciplinary way of looking at the Earth and environmental impacts differs from the more specialized ways of looking at things and how you get a different view of…
0:18:03 – 2038
KL: Cer—certainly. For—for example, in the past just to give you an example and I’m biased because I had training in—in ecology and I studied deforestation issues for a long time in many parts of the world. For example, in the past, the biologist would go and conduct a survey of an area and say okay, this forest is being destroyed at such and such rate or this forest has been converted into agricultural land at such and such rate. However, what was the impact of that activity on the water that flows through that land, river or the stream that carries the sedimentation, because of deforestation, into the land or into the—into the other water sources was not understood. Then the hydrogeologists would study and wonder why the sediment has increased. So there was no relationship between what happened to the forest versus what is happening to sedimentation. So the interdisciplinary approach connects these two kinds of independent findings and explains what is happening at that—if you will, interrelated skill. The other good example is what does, for example, deforestation do to the temperature of the air, of the cloud patterns. In the past, for example, an atmospheric scientist may say well somehow the temperatures of this region are increasing. However, had you looked at the deforested map, he would have said hey there’s a reason why I think there is a connection here between what is happening to the biology and what is happening to the air temperatures, you know.
DT: I see.
0:19:35 – 38
KL: These are simplistic examples but these are to illustrate the point.
DT: After you were doing teaching and research at the university, you came to NASA in 1988…
KL: Yeah, 1987…
DT: What brought you here?
0:19:57 – 2038
KL: Well I was already working as I mentioned with NASA, data NASA products when I was a university professor. I had a lot of research activities that were in part supported by NASA among other agencies, National Science Foundation and others. It was actually the decision for me because I wanted to make sure that I worked for an agency where the future sensors as well as future space flights bring meaningful information and data on what is happening on the surface of the Earth so that the scientists both in—in traditional and interdisciplinary ways can analyze it. I thought long and—and hard about it and even though I enjoyed my academic life very much, and of course, federal job is a very different environment, I decided to make the switch because the opportunity was to participate and influence the future course of remote sensing. The—there was opportunity to develop new and innovative methods and techniques and instruments to put in space. Of course, there was an opportunity to work with human space flights and train astronauts and make astronauts Earth smart and—and—and sort of make general awareness about what is happening at planetary level. So these opportunities certainly were attractive to me and I decided to make the switch.
DT: When you came to NASA in 1987, the Earth sensing program and the photographs that had been accumulated had reached all the way back into the very early days of the space program. Can you take us back to that and how the program got started, even the years before you were here?
0:21:48 – 2038
KL: Yeah I think the—the interesting thing is you probably have heard in—in many ways, this is sort of a folklore, that when they were building first space capsules in early Mercury, Gemini days, prior to Apollo, that there was always a—a intellectual debate between engineers and scientists. Engineers wanted to build a very safe capsule without a window so that astronauts and they’re going into space and go around the orbit and come back. However, there is always—there was always a push between scientific and astronaut communities to put a window in a spacecraft so that they can not only look outside and look at Earth for that matter, but also get the sense of the scale and sense of, in my view, well-being, because we, as human beings, even though we may be happy as an instrumented pilots but we like to get visual sense. Visualization is a very, very important source of information for the way human beings are made to work. And so I think once the window issue was resolved and the window was put into early spacecraft, John Glenn was the first to take his small camera and take a picture of an Earth glimpse. That is the first Earth photograph which we have published on our website, that shows very fuzzy layers of Earth’s atmosphere and the little, you know, fuzzy background of the curvature of the Earth. It was like a discovery like Columbus—like a person would make of hey, here is how my Earth looks from space and—and I think that sense is very, very
KL: important because astronauts are engineers, pilots, but they also are connected to what I call “home planet”. And so that—that is how it started. After that, once that was done, each subsequent flight added more and more and each astronaut became, in my view, savvy Earth observer. And so after the early flights and, of course, the Apollo program, by that time, the desire to photograph Earth during every space flight was very intense. And largely it was driven by the astronauts who wanted to look back on their home planet. And during the Apollo, as I mentioned earlier, the beautiful view of the Earth that Apollo brought back, that full descry of the Earth, the Earth in one frame, you know, the entire circular…
DT: …blue ball…
0:24:22 – 2038
KL: …the blue ball, the blue marble is, in my view, the most revolutionary byproduct of Apollo program. Apollo program was designed to go to the moon and land human beings on the moon. That was great. But from a scientific, ecological perspective, that blue marble view of Earth changed the conceptual thinking in scientific community. Instead of esoteric concept of ecosystems, working systems and they’re all related, here was a physical proof. Again, a visualization type of a thing. Here—here was a physical proof about the interrelated nature of the Earth and how this blue marble exists in the bleakness of dark space around it. And, you know, depended upon the energy from the sun. So, in my view, that picture really led to what I would call future NASA Earth science experimentation and putting sensors in orbit. During Apollo days, we put multi-spectral cameras, camera that look in different wavelengths are called multi-spectral, and these cameras were then later modified and they became orbiting satellites, what we call Earth looking satellites or Landsat cameras. So there is a big connection between what we did in those days and—an unmanned program. But coming back to the manned program, after Apollo, there was intense program of looking at Earth during Sky Lab. You know, Sky Lab was our first space station. In—during Sky Lab, we have various robust, Earth-science experiments and a very large team of Earth scientists participated in looking at radiation budget of the Earth, land uses, geological mapping, geographic processes and there’s a big report published in the late ‘70’s on the results from Sky Lab. Then when we were developing the shuttle program, there was no question that there would be beautiful windows in the shuttle spacecraft. And when that program developed, again, astronauts started taking photographs with hand-held cameras such as Hasselbrad or Linhof, these are large format cameras. And so over the years, in the shuttle program itself, we have collected over 300,000 images of Earth. And before that, we have collected about 100,000 images. So we have a database of 4—almost 400,000 images, of very wonderful, unique views that have documented over the past 35 years the planetary conditions, if you will.
DT: Can you tell us a little about the kinds of photographs and the kinds of phenomenon that you were trying to focus on in the Gemini-Mercury stages and into the Apollo and Sky Lab and Shuttle programs? Were there things that were unique to each of those chapters in NASA’s history?
0:27:12 – 2038
KL: Yes, there were—the interesting thing is the early programs were a sort of based on understanding how do we photograph Earth? How—what kind of pictures are better? What kind of film to use? What kind of photo techniques to use? And—and in the process of doing that, they also collected some very, very useful images in various parts of the world. In the Sky Lab, there was a more rigorous scientific program. There were calibrated instruments, there were, as I mentioned, multi-spectral cameras, and also there were investigators funded by NASA on the ground to verify what was happening while the spacecraft was in orbit. So it was a multi scale investigation if you will. And that resulted in number of very important, for example, advances in Earth sciences, environmental sciences. For example, the first ever urbanization growth map of Nile Delta and the City of Cairo, if you see the Gemini photo and photos from Sky Lab, you see how the urban sprawl has occurred in that part of the world because that’s one of the most crowded places people live. So there were a lot of advances made and—and the Earth scientists and environmentalists came to a conclusion that yes, this is a viable way to look at Earth. Earth from space does provide some very meaningful, very useful information at a scale which is not available from other sources. So if you have multi-pronged approach, where you ground investigators, very fine, what space signals are telling us, you can make very meaningful quantitative models of what scientists can see. That happened in Sky Lab. Then after Sky Lab, during NASA’s launch of unmanned satellites, the entire field of Earth remote sensing mushroomed and so all the satellites such as what we call Landsat I, Landsat II, Landsat III, all the way now we have Landsat VII, flying around the—in polar orbit collecting information about there is—has provided enormous, enormous amount of data for scientists to analyze to see how the Earth has changed or is—is changing. Not only that but we sort of became pioneers in that sense that other countries like France then had their own satellites. Now countries
0:29:38 – 2038
KL: like India now have their own satellites and so on. So there is a—sort of a globalization of this technology, if you will. On the space shuttle side, because the function of the space shuttle was mainly to take things into orbit as a cargo ship, release them or—or do experimenting station, most of the space shuttle flights were very specialized Earth-science flights. For example, in addition to astronauts taking photographs from the window and looking at Earth, there were—there are preloads that were flown in the space shuttle, for example, called radar laboratories where the radar looks at Earth in various radar parts of the spectrum and measures, monitors, for example, the flooding, the snow cover changes, geologic patterns and those kinds of things. So combining what we do on the shuttle and what NASA does with automated robotic satellite, there is plethora of information sort of revol—revolutionized in my opinion how scientists can look at Earth.
DT: You’ve been talking about the different programs and the space vehicles that each of those programs included. Can you talk about the cameras and sensors and how things have evolved and what each camera or sensor is capable doing?
0:31:17 – 2038
KL: Yes, for example, the early cameras and even the cameras that are used for hand-held photography are normal cameras. They take photographs that are typical color photographs. So, for example, the 35mm camera that you may be using on your birthday party, astronaut can take that up in space and shoot the same kind of photographs except at a different scale but you will see the same kind of, you know, normal color photographs. So what we did, in addition to normal color photographs using those cameras, is we also added what we call an infrared film. An infrared film give us an infrared photograph. Now this is not a heat seeking infrared so that you do not see the temperatures but you see the reflection from water or from plants or vegetation or from, you know, cities which is much different from the color images, normal color images. So, for example, an infrared film from the plants or vegetation will appear purple or red because the kind of energy they absorb. While in the normal photograph, the plants or the vegetation may appear blue or bluish green. So these infrared photographs added another dimension because we could detect stresses in vegetation. We could detect if there were pollution episodes like are in water bodies because if there was a matter of vegetation flowing in a lake, that will show up as red and normally black water body in infrared. So the detection abilities in—by using that infrared technology went very up, highly up. In terms of photography from space on unmanned satellites, we have both the optical or what we call visible relevance, infrared relevance and terminal relevance so you can actually look at the same area and look at it in different parts of the spectrum and then get what we call information that is unique to each part of the spectrum. For
0:33:15 – 2038
KL: example, the terminal part will show what the temperature profile was. So, for example, if a nuclear power plant was leaking, you can detect the temperature of that leak. On the other hand, the infrared will provide where the leaks were occurring and then visual part would provide the sort of a general look at the entire landscape. So each part of the spectrum provides a distinct information. When—when we combine that information then you get what I call a complete picture of what was happening, you know, in that particular day and when the image was taken. Now radar technology is, as you know, an active microwave technology. Radar is a very common term. People see radar images all the time on the—on the weather channel. You know, when you want to see whether the showers are happening in your hometown or not. So these radar, simply stated, are signals when an instrument sends a burst of energy, hits the target and goes back to the sensor. That’s called radar. You know, rad—range and detection. So radar images look at Earth in various relevance again and they record active bursts of energy and we convert those into images and they show us a very different pattern because radar’s ability, for example, to penetrate clouds, to penetrate surface. So, for example, when we flew radars on the early shuttle flights, we could penetrate the few centimeters of sand in Middle East and locate old arterial river channels, for example. Or old silk routes, or old silk routes, old routes of animals that might have migrated on those deserts past and so on. So each—each of these sensing devices has given us very distinct and unique information.
DT: You’ve mentioned that some of these sensors are operated by people, astronauts, and others are automated. Are there things that are unique to each way of collecting data?
0:35:16 – 2038
KL: Yes, as a matter of fact, I’m glad you asked that. There is uniqueness is having a intelligent human observer handling camera. So when, for example, we were flying radar—radar payloads on the shuttle, astronauts were taking hand-held photographs. Because they were trained, intelligent hum—observers have number of advantage and let me list just three. One is having an intelligent observer handling cameras, you immediately remove marginal, unusable data because this person is trained, has be—has become Earth smart as a result of training. So he or she may just pick an area that is only going to be immediately useful to scientists and not take an image of an area that he or she thinks is not useful. For example, I wanted to look at deforestation area. So if it is cloud covered, this intelligent knows not to turn on the camera because I won’t see the forest. But if I’m interested in clouds then it’s a different matter, then he can take the picture of the cloud, for example, over a forest or over a desert. So that’s one advantage. The second advantage is the ability of an intelligent, trained observer to recognize unusual patterns or unusual occurrences. Robotic satellite, for example, will continuously take pictures however, many times, as you know very well, that robotic satellites are not operated all the time. And they may miss something very important. But if there is a shuttle flight going on and something exciting is happening or something different is happening, the intelligent observers can capture that data for you. And I’ll give you one simple example. During the Kuwaiti fire episode in early ’91 or ‘90’s during the Gulf Crisis, we had a shuttle flight going and we were one of the early ones to look at the fires physically by capturing the image because we told the astronauts keep
0:37:27 – 2038
KL: your eyes open. You are going over this target and lo and behold these are huge smoke plumes over—over Kuwait. Now some of the automated satellites, during that time, missed the data. They captured the data later because the fire went on for many, many days but that is an—the third advantage of having an intelligent person, human being in space is that you can replan and redirect your mission. For example, you have robotic satellite taking pictures over certain area. You can hardly, you know, change that because that’s how it is programmed. But during the human space flight we can, for example, we can say forget about deforestation in—in this part of the world, there are big fires in Indonesia. So you can replan what you are going to do and take the data over some of the important activities that may be occurring at the time of the flight. So those are the major differences.
DT: You said that the astronauts were Earth-smart. How do you make them Earth-smart?
0:38:36 – 2038
KL: That’s one of the jobs that we and my team has at this center. When the astronauts are selected, they are very smart people. Lot of them are engineers and pilots, some of them are scientists and M.D.’s and Ph.D.’s and all of them want to fly. So our job is to take these NASA’s smart astronauts and make them Earth-smart. The way we do it is we do it through training and this training takes form of three different I guess, if you will instructional. One is we have for them field trips. We conduct Earth science training field trips for astronauts when they’re selected to be astronaut candidates. We take them out in the field and we, for example, show them how the geologic processes work, why were mountains formed this way, why were delta created this way and then what we do is through these field trips is sort of get their boots muddy and give them a sense of what happens really on Earth. Then the second thing we do is classroom instruction. In the classroom instructions we talk to them about various Earth science disciplines, all the way from Earth system science, how the—how the systems are integrated. Then we go into sub-disciplines and tell them about geologic formations or ocean processes, ocean currents, climatic and weather phenomena, El Nino’s and those kinds of things. And then what we do is show them how these processes appear or look from space. So we bring in the space component and when we do that—so when they fly they already anticipate this is how a deforested landscape is going to look like from space because we already trained them. So they become Earth-smart from that point-of-view. The third thing we do, of course, is we give them customized, individual—individualized training tools and training sets. So, for example, for each mission we will meet with them for about fifteen hours and tell them that on their mission they are going to see these kinds of specific areas in Africa, in Asia, in Texas or in United States. And then we select some targets or some sites from those areas and train them specifically so that they are again using space photography from previous missions, other imaging from unmanned satellites. We show them this is how, for example, Gulf of Mexico looks from space. So it’s one thing to drive around the Gulf. It’s another thing to see it from 165 nautical mile up in space when you are an astronaut. So all these processes then culminate into a final briefing we give them before they fly. Before they fly, we have a final briefing with them, what we call quarantine brief, when astronauts are in quarantine we give them an updated version of what is happening on the planet as they fly over because they’re going to see most of the world either in 58–28º mission or 57º missions. We tell them that these are the kind of things that are happening. Are there any volcanoes erupting? Are there floods anywhere? And by feeding that information and then telling them how these events look from space, for example, I can bring a historic photo of Mississippi flood and say okay, this is how a flooded river looks when you are 165 nautical miles up. So they became
KL: smart. So when they’re up in orbit, immediately they can recognize that yes this is a flooded river or this is not a flooded river or this is an erupting volcano or this is a dormant volcano, those kind of things.
DT: Once they’ve gone up and they come back, what sort of impression does the view from space have on them?
0:42:28 – 2038
KL: That’s another very good question. Obviously each individual astronaut responds and reacts differently to the experience. The first time fliers—the first time fliers always, in my view, get very excited to look at the majestic appearance of Earth from orbit, the majestic beauty of the layers of the atmosphere, the—how the blue curves of the planet look to them. And as they get into the flight, they begin to recognize patterns, they begin to recognize cities, they beg—they begin to recognize coastal areas so they get very, very encouraged about their pattern of recognition abilities. And as they fly they really begin to recognize the same feeling that ecologists or environmental scie—scientists had in ’69 when the first marble, global view of the space cam, that this planet is really very interconnected intricate system. So to just give you some samples, there are several astronaut pilots whom I would probably say that before the flight were not necessarily interested in environmental issues or conservation or ecology, come back and they really marvel that—that yes these are important issues and they become sort of my—in my view, very much fascinated by the whole planet that they live in. For example, in 1996, in—in an interview Lauren Shriver, who was a typical air force pilot for—for example, say that hey, I was so amazed that this Earth is able to survive all the things that we do. So they sort of become very, very involved at—both at, in my view, personal and emotional level and also at a professional level. And—and the second time they fly they become much better and they really get very interested because lot of these people come to realize that yes, there is—space provides unique opportunity for them to experience planet at a scale which you cannot appreciate when you are on the ground or, you know, on the airplane.
DT: Maybe you can talk about this scale problem, maybe tell us what sort of problems you can see from 165 nautical miles up that you can’t see from 1000 foot aerial photo or along the ground.
0:44:52 – 2038
KL: Very—very good—very good question. Let me just tell you one of the major research topic in environmental and Earth sciences right now is how to integrate scales of observations. For example, this issue of scale and integration of observation findings, that scale is not unique to—to Earth sciences. You know, it’s—it’s very much an issue in a lot of the oth—other disciplines as well. You know, whether it is physics or medicine. For example, you know, you probably have heard the famous quote that “Fluttering of the wings of a butterfly in forest in Mexico, what do they do to the climate in South Asia”. How are the interrelated? The obvious answer is yes, they are interrelated but do we know how do we integrate those skills of observation. So it’s very important to know that there are certain types of issues that cannot be studied either from ground or 15 feet high or 100 feet high or 1500 feet high. You have to go to 165 nautical miles or even higher, maybe as a satellite, you know, 500 or 600 mile—you know, nautical miles in polar orbit. These issues are typically what I would call regional to global scale issues. Let me give you a concrete example of that. As a Texan, I was very concerned couple of years ago when there were fires in Mexico, in central part of Mexico. They were burning agricultural fires and due to the climatic event called El Nino there was a drought. And these fires were created or—or generated during wind conditions that these winds directly blew into southern part of Texas, actually in Houston, in Austin, people experienced either the smoke or the haze. If not direct smoke but a lot of hazy conditions. But there were many ha—hazy days. And my colleagues at EPA tell me that particulate matters went all the way up to the State of Oklahoma. Now this is the kind of scale you cannot study from ground or from 15 or, you know, 100 or 200,000 feet. You need a space perspective. So what we did, we have a data from NASA’s unmanned satellites that
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KL: showed us where the fires were and how the smoke was coming that. So that provided us with a large scale regional view. Then from photography, at that time, we had an astronaut on the Mir Station and he took pictures of these fires from Mir Station and they brought us down to another scale which is, in my view, regional view but that is less complicated than the satellite view. So we could actually mea—measure and make individual plumes of fire on that scale. So the satellite gave us the global sort of—or rather the regional view and very—if you will, esoteric view. Then you’ve got real physical evidence where the fires were. You could actually locate locations of fires. And then if you combine that with ground investigation and air—aircraft flight and you can measure what were the concentration, for example, of gases and troposphere, you know, lower layers of atmosphere and what were the concentration of particulate matters in upper layers of atmosphere and so on. And then you can—you can plug those into the models and see if there were any hazard—hazardous conditions for people with, you know, lung problems. So they’re—they’re practical implications of these. But to give you an example, another example of the scale, when you are standing on Gulf of Mexico, for example, and worrying about erosion that is occurring on the beaches as a result of some hurricane or some—as—as a result of rising sea level, you can only see a very small chunk from your field studies. If you go to air, you can maybe increase your study a little bit but if you go into space, you can actually see the entire coastal system and how the coastal system is being changed as a result of, you know, rising sea level or impact of winds or hurricane and how much of a beach erosion is occurring. So space provides a very unique perspective in terms of looking at what I love to call continental scale, regional scale and transcontinental movement, if you will, of—of materials and matter that typically are not fathomable from other scales.
DT: Could you give some other examples of instances where human activities have made some sort of impact on the environment and NASA’s made an effort to track them over a long period of time?
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KL: Yes, there are several. For example, I—I’ll probably take you around the world. For example, we have monitored lakes in Africa. An example, very clear-cut example is Lake Chad in Africa in—in the—on the border of what we call the green line of Africa near Sahel Region. This lake was photographed actually by early astronauts in 1966 and it was full and it was photographed later by astronauts in ‘80’s and ‘90’s and even to this day, almost 90% of the water of that particular lake has—surface water has evaporated or has been lost. So the lake is now less than 10% of what it used to be just in 1966. Now there are tremendous implications of this observation. We have a 30 year record on this particular lake. This is just for an example. We have several lakes that we have monitored like this. That—the implications are as follows: first of all, if you look at geologic history of this area, this lake used to be much, much bigger and—maybe 10,000 years ago. The current history was that this lake was let’s say oh about 28—29,000 square kilometers. Now it is more than 15-1600. So what has happened is four countries Nigel, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria used to depend upon the water of this lake. Now there is this scarcity of water resources. And—and the—and—and so there’s an
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KL: issue there. The other interesting thing is what if geologic history is right and the lake in the long geologic history comes back. There is an issue there because what happened when the lake bottoms dried up, people moved in the lake. There are little villages in the lake. There are about 30,000 people that live in the dried bottoms in the lake. And—and so what—what would happen if the lake decided to expand again. There is another, you know, human dimension to this. So this is—this is an example of how, you know, one can monitor repeatedly an area and get a—what I call environmental profile of recent environmental history. The second example from Africa, I’ll take you, for example, to South America where in early ‘70’s during Sky Lab, in the Amazon basis, for example, we could only see very small amount of burning of forests, you know, just a maybe few acres or few hundred acres. By 1988, after the re-flight of the shuttle, that exercise of burning, clearing forests, burning, clearing forests resulted into 3 to 4 million square kilometers of forest covered with smoke for extended period of time. And—and that is another area, for example, we have watched over years how it has changed. Not only…go ahead…
DT: I remember reading in the paper recently that some of these photographs from space of the fires and I think it was in Brazil were contested by the Brazilian governments which claimed that the fires weren’t as extensive as these photographs in space indicated. How can people attack the truthfulness of these pictures? I mean, they don’t lie.
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KL: That’s a very good question. And—and I’ll give you sort of a maybe a little bit long answer because some of the discussions that—that happened in—in our office and I was involved in—in those. Initially when these kinds of photographs, for example, were made public, naturally the first reaction was well is this—is this really true and what’s happening and is this the extent of it? But as you mentioned, the space evidence is very different from what is happening on the ground. They were probably making a census of fires on the ground, they were making census of fires from the airplane surveys and when you take the census and sampling and extrapolate that, you may not get the same results as you see a big scale picture. And so in their mind, I think, they were justified in saying that well from what we see, this doesn’t make sense. But once they saw the pictures, once they—once they saw the evidence and once they talked to our colleagues at NASA, they came to realize that we need to look at this more clearly and objectively. So, as a matter of fact, currently my office does not but there are other NASA scientists who are working closely with Brazilians and monitoring biomass burning and fires, both from air—airplanes and from unmanned satellites. And what we do is we provide our observations from shuttle program to these teams that are monitoring on the ground and from the satellites to plug in our data from the models to see how extensive the—the burning is. So there is no dispute now that the burning is extensive because a lot of land has been cleared and converted. But typically, that’s a very good question because typically when you see something from space, one of the reasons I got involved as—as an environmental scientist into—into space business is because many times the evidence collected on the ground is limited both in scope and scale. That’s one. And second limitation is interpretation. So, for example, if you look at a map of forest cover published by United Nations in ‘80’s, it shows areas of the world as being forested that are really depleted because it’s a very—not that people are trying to tell you something
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KL: wrong. It’s just that it’s very hard to come to grips with how large your forest is in a region or in a country just based on the ground surveys. But if you look at the space imagery you get, in my view, a broader, larger scale and objective views because the sensors are going to pick up where the forest is and where it isn’t. And there is, of course, conceptual part of this. How do you define a forest? If you are, for example, a forester in a very arid country, ten trees and two acres may be a forest to you. And if you live in tropical forest, 100 trees and an acre is not a forest. So there are a lot of conceptual issues as well. So that is why I think obs—obs—observing globally what is happening from space provide us with a unique opportunity to assess once for all what is the condition, for example, of certain areas of our planet in—in that sense.
DT: Can you tell me some more of these instances of what you’ve been able to view from space?
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KL: I can give you a few more examples. For example, in Central Asia, you probably have heard that there is a—one of the largest inland lakes or seas called Aral Sea is drying up. We have observed that from space over the number of years and we have seen how this once a very huge water body in the middle of Central Asia, now in the country of Kazakhstan, formerly it was in USSR or Soviet Russia, now it’s part of Kazakhstan, has become dried up. Now from the ground they knew that something was happening but the space views provided us with an—with a very accurate picture of which parts were drying up faster, not only that but what were the implications of drying of sea of that magnitude. So that’s another example. There are examples for—you know, for example, even—let me just give you one quick example in Texas. Lake Amistad—we saw from space and measured it…
DT: The Rio Grande…
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KL: That’s right. We saw that in space measuring that in—in mid ‘90’s when we had drought conditions, the lake water, you know, lake levels declined. And we have data from Sky Lab and other days when the lake was full. So you can actually monitor even in your own backyard what is happening. So similarly, for example, what is happening in Galveston Bay, you know, in terms of impact of where the wetlands have been reduced and where the wetlands have, for example, they’re trying to restore. So you can actually monitor both. I wanted also to make a point that space platform is very important. Not only you can see some of these things that we are doing to the environment but, on the other hand, if we are doing any efforts to restore the environment can also be seen. So, for example, some of my colleagues in the remote sensing community are now looking at areas in South America where I just spoke about huge fires that these areas have been abandoned by the loggers. They’re coming back. The vegetation is coming back what, in ecology, we call succession. Succession is occurring. And we can actually pick up those areas from space to see whether the areas are going to go back into their forest conditions or there is going to be some other intermediate step but anyway you can monitor the restoration or even what I would call resiliency of, you know, areas using space imagery. So those are some of the examples I quickly gave you. The other important example I want to give you is—which we briefly touched upon earlier is the ability of space imagery to really look at what I call the most visible, most concentrated human habitat, that is, a city. Cities from space are fascinating because you can see that cities in North American continent are large and huge and sprawling. Houston is a good example and you can pick those up easily from space photographs. And if you look at the photographs of city of Houston or Dallas or Austin or New York or Los Angeles from the Sky Lab data of mid ‘70’s and now in—twenty years later, from ‘90’s, you can see how the cities have grown, which part of cities have grown, for example, can also be seen. So you can actually see where the populations are settling in where, you know, economic build-up and land use intensification is occurring. We had a lot of studies on those—those kind of things. But you can apply this internationally as well and see what is happening to the cities around the world. And now cities around the world, you know, for example, cities in Japan are more concentrated. Cities in Asia are more concentrated in small space, you have more people. So you really need a different kind of space imaging. You need very high definition, high resolution imaging to see cities in some of these areas. And—but—but globally we are able to show that from space you can easily study the issues related to urbanization, migration into urban areas, also migration out of urban areas and development of suburban areas and what impact it has on water quality
or around vegetation or on surrounding, if you will, outdoor, natural areas. One of the last examples on this kind of thing I’ll give you is recently some of my colleagues, we did a small proof of concept studies. Can we, for example, recognize what we call ghettos or slums, for example, in countries like South Africa? Where, you know, during Apartheid people were concentrated in small, rural areas, you know, called designated areas? And the interesting answer is yes. Recently we have published a paper where we have been able to identify these areas called the rural ghettos from space imagery because they create an impact on the surrounding vegetation and they have—therefore there’s a clear signal that there—that that vegetation has been altered and you can see that the protective areas of their neighbors where their fences, you know, versus where, you know, if you will, concentrations of populations of people. So there is a lot of use of space imagery in that sense, lot of for the nighttime—by the way, nighttime space imagery, not necessary from shuttle but from other sensors is used to sort of help the demographers determine what kind of pop…
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DT: Could you continue to tell us about some of the remote sensing images that have told us about impacts of human activities on environmental systems?
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KL: Yes, I—I’ve given you several examples. Let me go back to examples that are some of the examples that are very dramatic and very interesting both not only in the U.S. but in rest of the other parts of the world as well. And these are the examples related to what I call habitat modification, alteration or even destruction. For example, right in—in Harris County in our own backyard, there is a little organism called prairie chicken. The prairie chicken habitat has been altered here that some years ago in the newspaper you used to hear stories about well the last few prai—prairie chickens are going—not going to survive. And you can see that the habitat of the prairie chicken, in Texas, has been altered and this can be easily and more accurately met from astronaut photography from space images where we know where the agricultural, you know, land use has moved and versus the rural areas have been converted into huge farms or huge, you know, developments. So then, of course, take—taking that same example of habitat modification a little further and maybe more dramatic. For example, the areas in some parts of Asia, I’ll just give you an example because I happen to be personally familiar with some of these example, is in Eastern most part of the Indian subcontinent, there is a—an area called Sunderbans, this is a habitat for Tigers and that habitat has been monitored using space photography by astronauts and other sensors where we have seen over the last 25, 30 years, gradual decrease in the areas for tigers to roam around. In just 100 years of human interaction, in that part of the world with the forest, the tigers have been reduced from thousands to less than 100. And that is a good example of how habitat has been altered, modified so that these animals no longer—so now the countries of India and Bangladesh have set aside a reserve and this is easily monitored especially using color infrared photographs because it is on the coast. It has lot of mangrove—mangrove vegetation and that appears very, very wonderful on infrared as a dark patch of red forest. And that patch can increase or decrease over the years. You can actually monitor the shrinking in some areas and also protection that has helped to grow habitat in some areas. And overall you can see how the habitat due to human intensive agricultural activities has been transformed. Similarly you—you can apply these kind of habitat modification changes to various forested areas in South Central Asia where a lot of bird habitats have been modified, where certain threatened and endangered species, for example, have been noted and they are directly related and you can see from space imagery that the habitat—that the area required by these birds has been drastically altered. So there is—there are islands of habitat but there’s no one contiguous corridor for habitats to move into. The
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KL: most interesting example that I was personally involved in research a couple of years ago is an interesting example, you know, we talk about human impact but also indirectly human impact also results in impacts created by other animals. In the country of Botswana, I was involved in the project with some other colleagues who were funded by AID which is the American Agency for International Development of monitoring the impact, large amount of elephant populations were causing on the habitat. These huge elephant populations were destroying the vegetation and habitat for other animals because of what human beings did. Human beings actually did a few good things. For example, there was a license required for hunting. The hunting permits were declined. On the other hand, the property owners put huge fences so the movement of ani—elephants became an issue. And so they were confined to a very, very narrow, very, very, you know, small area of the habitat. And when you have more elephants in a limited amount of space, with limited resources, they start impacting habitat very adversely. And so we found that large elephant populations were actually destroying the vegetation that would have—in the short run, sort of helped them survive. So they were sort of out of sync with what I would call the capacity of the habitat to support them. Now lot of locals blamed elephant populations for that but the real truth was that it was the human action that cause the fragmentation, if you will, of habitat. Now that I’ve introduced the word fragmentation,
KL: fragmentation is a very important and hot ecological issue. And space imagery is very useful in seeing how habitats can be fragmented. Hab—habitats can be fragmented naturally by natural processes or they can be fragmented in an accelerated way by human processes. So, for example, when you build a huge super highway in California, you may fragment the habitat of a coyote and—and they may not be able to reproduce and interact as a result of population in fragmented habitat declines. And there are many interesting examples. And you can actually map this fragmentation in many parts of the world. One of the most important landmarking NASA contribution especially for Amazon, that’s an area again of my research interest, was that scientists in early ‘90’s determined that from satellite imagery and from astronaut photography, that it’s not only important to know how much total deforestation is occurring but how the habitat is being—how the forest is being fragmented. Fragmented was more important contributor to decline in biodiversity than total loss of forest cover. Now we know that this is a very important topic because, even in Texas, there are efforts by various agencies to do the fragmentation analysis in a program called Gap Analysis all over the state. So these remote sensing data that NASA provides to these scientists is imagery that shows very clearly where the hab—extent of fragmentation occurs and also how quickly the fragmentation occurs because that also has implications for biodiversity type issues. So from habitat alteration to fragmentation, let me also talk about the habitat modification as a result of something else that was going on, whether it was in the air or in the water. Many a times, what will happen is that there will be certain areas of the habitat that will be modified and the species would like to move to other hab—favorable habitats. The interesting thing that we find, again space
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KL: imagery shows this, is that the organisms do not have large enough corridors to move and so how can they survive? You know, typically you get an argument from people that well organisms are biological entities and biological entities know how to adapt which is very true. You can see that biological entities do adapt. However, if there is no way for these organisms to move into those corridors, their adaptation capability is going to be only limited because there is only certain amount of adaptation you can do with a resource limited environment. So what space imagery does is provide us with a basic understanding of how the carrying capacity changes due to fragmentation. So these are some of the examples related directly to the conservation ecology and my interest in applying space imagery, especially to these habitat issues is because when I was growing up, I was very much interested in tiger, for example, projects of World Wildlife Fund. You know, growing up as a child I used to watch what is World Wildlife Fund doing to protect tiger, for example, all over the world. And for a while we had good news. But again I’m hearing in late ‘90’s that the governments and the countries are not doing enough to protect whatever little, you know, we have left in terms of habitats. The other interesting thing I find is that habitats are also impacted by what we do in cities. As I mentioned, Mexican fires earlier but, cases in, for example, in China for even in our backyard here in—in California or Los Angeles basin, the quality of air is affecting or causing stresses, for example, on vegetation systems. Our forest ecosystems, our grasslands and so on. And that stress leads to what we call die-back of populations. And when you have a die-back which can be detected from space imagery and space imagery can—remote sensing can help you identify where the die-back of certain species of trees has occurred. You lose what in ecology we call keystone species. And if we lose those
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KL: species then the entire food chain dependent on that gets destructed. So it’s a very, very intricate and very complex interaction. But the symptoms can be seen and identified and quantified from space imagery. And then, of course, you need ground-based investigators to see what happened to mammal populations, bird populations. Obviously you cannot see those populations under imagery directly but you can see their habitats certainly under imagery. So these are the examples of how conservation ecologists and biologists can actually use and are using NASA imagery. NASA, as a matter of fact, has a special project from Goddard Space Flight Center, not from Johnson, of helping conservation biologists use space remote sensing to monitor, map, and accurately model the habitats so that they can then use the data to create more accurate biodiversity models to see what is happening to biodiversity activity. NASA is very interested in applying space technology to protection of biodiversity.
DT: Can space imagery show the difference between a forest and a clear-cut area or between an area that has been range land and an area that’s turned into crop land. But more qualitative difference. The difference, for instance, between a hardwood, softwood, biodiverse forest and a pine plantation and maybe the difference between a native prairie and a coastal Bermuda patch that’s been improved exotic grass.
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KL: That’s a very good question. The answer is yes. If you look at the spectrum of information available from remote sensing types of imagery, for example, astronaut imagery is very good where you can see the forest from grassland or forest from wetland or wetland from, you know, other types of vegetation. However, to see whether it is, for example, a beech forest or a hardwood forest or a softwood forest or a pine plantation, you have to go to a much better resolution imagery that is available from satellites. And, for example, NASA’s Land satellites provide the resolution where you can say yes this is a hardwood forest and this is a mixed forest or this is a pine forest. Yes, you can do that from space imagery. As a matter of fact, most of the inventorying is being done with those kinds of images. So if you look at the scale of interpretation, if you want to know what I would call land uses and land covers at a much broader scale, you can take what we call low resolution course, satellite photography. If you want to do better than you go into astronaut photography. If you want to go and identify individual stands, if you will, of a—of a beach meadow forest or a pine forest then you go to what we call high resolution imagery and you can do that. And those are all being used by practitioners in the field. And—and also let me tell you clear cutting, for example, it can be seen from—even from astronaut photography, even from the imagery that is not very high resolution because it has a distinct signature. So it has a distinct signature also it has distinct shape. So it—from a (?) imagery, we can very clearly see, for example, Pacific Northwest, clearcut areas that are square, you know, checkered squares of where a bunch of trees left alone, the ones have been harvested then left alone and you can actually see a nice chess board type of feature on the space imagery. Now if you want to know exactly
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KL: which species then you get a imagery that is a little more high resolution. And if you really want to identify them—why it’s happening to the count of trees, then you have to get remote sensing from the airplane. You can put cameras in the airplane and fry—fly and get the ground cover, you know, information. So all these can be then integrated into getting the complete, in my view, of inventory of—of that habitat.
DW: You mentioned that developing world nation would look at these results and dispute some of the things that they show. Has NASA worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and used any of this kind of imagery?
KL: That—that’s a very good question and this question comes up very often because the—you give—you give an example of, you know, burning the, you know, the rainforest in Brazil, for example, the dispute about that. NASA makes this data or this information available to public. In this case, for example, in the case of the fires in Amazon basis, you know, this information was made available and the State Department, you know, being international situation, State Department had the information and they dealt with answering the questions. As a matter of act, information was shown to Brazilians but in terms of using this in case of ship channel or disputes where—whether industries are monitoring their, you know, effluents and—and their output, if you will, into the environment NASA doesn’t—doesn’t directly get involved but the data is there. For example, our ozone monitoring satellites are—data are available from NASA websites. Now we work cooperatively with other agency whether it’s Department of State and EPA and make all this information available to them. Our idea really is to partner and solve the issue because many times what happens is we are a public agency and we want to make sure that this information is viewed as a public information. The important thing to realize is that other people are free and have, in the past, used imagery to prove that well this particular group of industries did this which is seen on the satellite imagery. We don’t get involved in that because it’s—it’s not our function as a public agency. Now let me just tell you there are examples where legal disputes have occurred and parties in the legal disputes have used imagery from space to make their point. And that—and, in many cases, that imagery has been taken as a good and justified, if you will, evidence of what happened. But, as an agency, we try to stay clear of that because we have a charter to provide—produce the data, provide the information and let public use it in the best, you know, sense. Also internationally, what we do basically is we rather work in partnerships. For example, if I’m working on a Brazilian project, the Brazilians are aware of what I’m doing and my findings and they review it so that I—because I want make sure they—if they have other data on the ground that doesn’t fit in the models that I have generated that we have dialogue rather than confrontation. You know, so that’s the approach, especially the Earth science takes. Now obviously there are going to be disputes. People are going to say well no, this is not related to this and this is not related to that. And since the scientific debate can go on but in terms of legislative and in terms of international, you know, concerns, NASA does work cooperatively with—with those
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KL: agencies.
DT: I was curious about a particular class environmental problems that I’m sure NASA and other agencies in countries are interested in but that I would think it would be very difficult to view. The example that comes to my mind is air toxins which are often difficult to see or taste or…
KL: Yeah, it’s true. The toxins—toxins, for example, you—you cannot—unless they create a haze or they create some kind of a signature in some visible or—or infrared or thermal regime of the spectrum, you cannot see from space. You know, you have to have—what you are talking about is really a chemical sampling. You want to fly an airplane that will take the air in and analyze the profile of chemicals and say okay, these are toxins. You cannot—those kinds of class of environmental problems are definitely not the kind of things you do from this kind of remote sensing. However, there are other kinds of remote sensings you could do. For example, you could capture the air sample and have an instrument, you know, that then takes the air sample and analyzes and—and directly transmits the data to your computer. You know, that kind of remote sensing you can do but these are a certain class of environmental issues. For example, if you tell me that—that Galveston Bay or the water quality, I can tell you the general water quality is suspended matter but if you tell me, well what is the pH of this water, you cannot do that from my imagery or from remote sensing imagery. You need, you know, ground. So those are different kinds of measurements.
DT: I noticed that in this aerial photo of Houston-Galveston area that there’s an image of Galveston Island and there’s been a lot of discussion about the erosion of the island. Is there enough information in these remote images to indicate whether this erosion is due to natural factors or to man-made factors such as dams on the Mississippi or other causes?
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KL: Well that’s a very good question. There is enough information for two major things. One is that erosion is occurring so we can identify the process has been occurring and the second is location, where it is occurring. But the causes, whether it is occurring due to dam somewhere or due to some other process are not easily—they can be—they can be infer but they are not directly seen from this imagery because remember imagery is taken at a particular time and also it depicts the condition of that time and that particular cause may or may not be active at that time. So that’s another point. That when you look at remote sensing imagery, that provides you with what I call a very important snapshot of what is the state of that particular ecosystem or environmental landscape. However, you have to go a little deeper in terms of getting other sources of data. For example, to what caused the erosion to occur. Now many times where the erosion is will give away the cause. So we get very important locational information, we get very important process information. Oftentimes, we can also deduce causal information but that’s not always true. So, for example, I can see a big smoke pile over a forested area but I cannot say that
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KL: a farmer did it or somebody else did it. I can only see the—what happened. Sometimes it’s very hard to, you know, determine the cause. The important thing to realize is that remote sensing provides us with a very important information of the extent also how large or how small the phenomena or the process is. For example, on the Galveston example you gave, we can map the entire course and say—tell you that here are the areas that are sensitive to erosion. That is a very useful information. It may not—so it provides a lot of information but, as you know, in science, we need other kinds of information to make what I would call the picture complete or the model complete.
DT: Let me give you another example of something that may have some sort of signature on the surface but I don’t know if it does. Subsidence has been a huge problem in the Houston/Galveston area with places subsiding up to ten feet. Is there an indication of that on the surface from the coastlines or something that…
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KL: Yeah, there is. As a matter—as a matter of fact, you cannot—you may not—if the subsidence is so small that you cannot see directly on the imagery unless it’s a huge one. But there is a surrounding information, for example, the change in the coloration, the change in—in the, if you will, the structure of geological nature in that area, you can deduce that, yes, there is a subsidence. As a matter of fact, geologists, in this area, have used this matrix to map areas of subsidence. But that’s a good question, a good example.
DT: Something that you’d mentioned before, it seems like one of the big challenges for the environmentalists and others, is how to restore ecosystems that have been damaged. And I’m curious if, if you all have been able to document wetland restoration or other kinds of restoration efforts of – and not just the impacts of human activities but some of the beneficial impacts as well.
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KL: That’s a very, ah, good question. The restoration part is – has started just recently. The early part, the scientists were busy trying the understand the impact, the extent of impact, were it was occurring. And as a matter of fact it is very easy to see the impact, because impact has been going on for a long time, and in many cases the impact is very much – ah – at a scale that can be seen from the space imagery. The restoration efforts are being monitored by the remote sensing community and NASA is providing the space imagery to do that. However, ah – because they are recent, five or six years, we are not seeing many examples in the literature. I gave you two examples, one in Amazon, you know, the monitoring of successional stages in the forest that have been – ah – left alone and – and they are coming back. Restoration, for example, another interesting example I would give you is a – a restoration of coral reefs, as being monitored using space imagery. My astronaut photography is very good at looking at coral reefs, ah, globally. So, we are using, ah – ah – astronaut photography from space to monitor how coral reefs are coming back in certain parts of the world and how the bleaching in other parts has been declining. The third restoration is habitat, as I mentioned earlier, there are areas, many countries and many conservation groups have set aside what we call national parks, national preserved areas, you know, different names in different regions. But, these are areas set aside for, ah, restoration and also for studying, you know, the – there are some countries, they have this program called the Bio Program where certain areas of ecosystems where are set aside. Ah, those are being monitored. And their growth, or rather the expansion of those areas is being monitored, yes. But they are small compared to the impact, ah, that we have studied. I think in the next ten years you will see more literature coming out on those using remote sensing. But, a couple concrete examples, is for example in coral reef area we are working with an international coral reef monitoring organization were they are using remote sensing to create a base line database system were they can identify each and every coral reef on the Earth. Because, you know, coral reefs are poorly mapped. Some coral reefs are mapped as, as ah, I guess that some of the maps are so old that, these were created in 20s, or even 1900s when early explorers may have gone, for example, those areas and there’s a little dot on the map saying reef. That database, for example, is being updating using space imagery. The good thing is that, then that will act as a restoration database because those are the reefs that have not been touched and, you know, people are now sensitized about the database. So, this international database is actually on the internet and we are working with them, ah, for that restoration effort. So that’s a very good specific example.
DT: Another thing you brought up earlier, you said that the remote sense images picked up signs of the silk route and some of the very old environmental impacts. And I’m curious if there have been uses for this remote information from say, Taco Canyon, or other places where the fall of these civilizations has sometimes been ascribed to environmental impacts or other types of challenges, even though that’s another issue?
0:29:33 – 39
KL: Yeah, there – there that’s a very good question. Actually, believe it or not, at one of the NASA centers, not here but at Marshall Space Center, there’s an archeologist on NASA staff who works on these types of issues, using remote sensing to see if we can detect signatures of past civilizations, to see if we can detect human impacts that occurred, some hundreds, maybe couple hundred years ago. And the radar technology is rapidly evolving. Ah, the example I gave of – about the silk routes or the old river channels in the desert are from arid, arid desert areas and it is very easy for radar to penetrate those areas and, ah, you know, get a signature. In forested areas it becomes very hard. So they are now developing methods and technologies were radar can pinpoint, remove the forest cover and go into the deep soil, to see if we can see the remains, so we are hopeful. But, ah, the success stories right now, from what I can encounter, are not necessarily from places like Taco, but from very arid Middle Eastern examples, where we have discovered these. But I think we are on the threshold getting remote sensing to – to tell more about these lost civilizations in, you know, other areas. The important think to recognize is that the sensing technology is limited by physics, and many times the physics, ah, is so complicated because of layers of information that has accumulated over the site that is of historical and, you know, ecological importance. So, ah, the use of remote sensing in archeology is probably growing very rapidly and especially radar remote sensing. Ah, now, in terms of astronaut photography, if the impact was so large that it influenced the surrounding vegetation and landscape and water, that can be picked up. But it has to be really, really large scale impact.
DT: You talked a little bit about the impact of older civilizations. Can you talk a little bit about some of the major challenges for our own civilization that you see for remote testing?
0:31:53 – 2039
KL: Yes, I’ll, I’ll be interested in just telling you my perspective. I think one of the major challenges for our civilization is really to understand how the Earth system is interconnected and how it works. There are very important scientific questions that we need to answer. And, and that, some of the detailed scientific questions, that are probably not good for this interview forum. But, for example, as scientists we do not know the rule of clouds in, of our ecology, in our climate, what do the clouds do to our radiation budget? Ah, are the clouds responsible for cooling? So there are many, many fundamental questions that we have to answer before we come to any conclusions about how, what is, lies ahead in terms of the systems of the Earth. But, in terms of broader scientific and philosophic discussion on the challenges for future civilization, indeed, I think important questions about how wisely and appropriately we use resources like water, resources like bio-diversity, resources like agricultural as well as, in my view, forested lands, that are going to be continue to shrink if we grow in numbers. You know, October 12 is the day they celebrate 6 billion people on Earth. Ah, it’s a challenge. How do we reconcile the growing numbers of human occupants with the rest of the ecosystems. So, I guess if you want to summarize this, lot of people call this sustainable development. But I think, more than that, there’s also a challenge in terms of how do we then make sure that some of the area of Earth that are really, what I call, hot spots, where if we don’t do something immediately those areas are going to be in not a very good
0:34:08 – 2039
KL: shape. So, when I look at these issues there are two kinds of issues; long range issues and issues that need immediate concern, issues that need immediate attention, if you will. The issues that need immediate attention are resource related issues, especially water, and especially agriculture and forest production systems. On the long range issues, we need to understand how from decades to centuries does our Earth change in terms of climate and what is our relationship to the solar system. Most of the debate that we hear about global change and how the Earth is changing has been occurring without knowledge of how the changes may be influenced by what is happening in the galaxy itself. That’s the dimension that needs to be integrated. So that’s an immediate scientific challenge as well. So I think if you look at the long range forecast some of the fundamental scientific questions need to be answered and then some of the practical resources use, slash, sustainable development questions need to be answered. But more importantly I think the challenge is, can we and do we have the ability to understand the signals that we are seeing from space imagery, from remote sensing, and then interpret them and not only analyze them scientifically but take appropriate management decisions that would then make the choice for future generations to survive.
DT: As a scientist I’m curious if you could comment on something that has gotten a lot of coverage in the main stream press, this idea of the Gaia Hypothesis. When you look at the Earth as this blue marble, do you think that that’s an appropriate way to describe it, that the Earth acts like a cell in a sense?
0:36:06 – 2039
KL: That’s a very good question. And having followed Jim Lovelock’s work for many, many years… Gaia Hypothesis is fascinating. Ah, that it is a system, and the system certainly has feedback loops and has mechanisms, of course, Lovelock’s model, to some extent, by necessity, has to be very simple and has to be simplistic. Many times simple models are the most effective and beautiful tools to show something. On the other hand I think the debate is clouded, in my view, because people get involved in the semantics, whether it is metaphysical or physical or whether it is physiological. I think there it, the truth is somewhere in between. There is a quality to this planet that is self-sustaining, whether you call it Gaia, whether you call it self-sustaining ecosystem, or whether you call it self-sustainable development that has occurred over the centuries where the intricate relationship between the living organisms, the atmosphere, the ocean has developed to the level that we are able to replicate these systems, ah, is another matter. So, there is something there. But the important thing, as a scientist I think, my view is that there is interesting and very fundamental relationships between these systems. And these relationships are certainly interrelated have feedback mechanisms. Ah, some people may not like to call it Gaia, they may want to call it, ah, you know, as we do at NASA, Earth system science or Earth system approach. But there is that feeling that we have to understand our entire system and as a scientist I think that is one of the important things that we have to do is to not think in segmented and fragmented way, but have a conceptual revolution where we look at this as a system. Whether you call it Gaia, or non-Gaia doesn’t matter.
DT: One last question. You were talking about these feedback loops. As a scientist who has reached a lot of accomplishment in your career, do you have advise for young people who are coming up who are interested in environmental science and studies. How has this been worth while for you? How could it be rewarding for them?
0:38:40 – 2039
KL: Ah, yes indeed. I think the young people, in my view, are very interested in looking at Earth as a system. As a matter of fact they are very interested in, ah, space as well because it’s exciting. And, I’ll tell you, let me begin my comments by saying that two or three years ago Space News, which is a business publication in the space business, published a survey of what American taxpayers want NASA to do. You know, American taxpayers are, ah, our bosses, they pay for what we do at NASA. And so, in this survey the interesting thing to me was that 92% of American taxpayers want NASA to monitor Earth’s environment from space, which is more than doing human space flight missions – 88%, more than they’re looking at space flight plane – 80%, you know, more than international space projects. Overwhelmingly, this generation of Americans is interested in space monitoring of Earth. And so I’m very excited about young people, because it is their mantel to take this space technology, the space program and not only explore the frontiers of gospel sphere, go to Moon and Mars, but also look back at our planet and use this marvelous opportunity to understand how we can meet the challenges right here on Earth using space observation. So I think the career for them is going to be rewarding as it has been for me. And I think it’s very interesting because, ah, before we understand what happens on Mars, I want these young scientists to be, potential scientists to be, to understand what happens on the climate on Earth, so that they can then use those models and understand what happened on Mars. We will not be able to understand what happened to Mars unless we understand what’s happening right here, to our El Nino, to our drought, to our fires, because ultimately, Mars had a climate and if we understand how the climate works here then we can use those models, fine tune those models, and understand what’s happening on other planets. So there’s a connection there as well. So
0:41:01 – 2039
KL: I think it’s very exciting to be in environmental science and in space science. And I think young people will find this very, very rewarding. Now, the other important thing is, of course, the element of adventure. You don’t have really, necessarily go out and get adventure from Six Flags or, or adventure parks. There is adventure right here. Go out in the field and do field surveys when a satellite data has been collected in some mountain or in some remote part of the world. So there is a lot of adventure right there for young people, in my view. And that’s what actually brought me from adventure it became science and from science I got into space science. So, it has been very exciting for me personally.
DT: You’ve made it very exciting for us. Thank you very much.
0:41:48 – 2039
KL: Thank you.
End of reel 2039
End of interview with Kamlesh Lulla