Maine Benefits From Space Observations: Will Congress Axe Them?

July 25, 2017 | 1:16 pm
Photo: Henry Zbyszynski CC-BY-2.0 (Flickr).
Brenda Ekwurzel
Senior Climate Scientist, Director of Climate Science

The U.S. House of Representatives appropriations committee approved of a budget that, according to figures my colleague Hannah Nesser calculated, includes over a quarter cut from NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) Systems Acquisition funding compared to previous fiscal year enacted level.  What exactly is on the chopping block for this and other cuts to NOAA and NASA?  Are any vital to key economic sectors in Maine?

Maine tourism sector

Maine coast

Enjoying the Maine coast (July 2017). Photo by Erika Spanger-Siegfried

This is the season when the population of Maine swells as the state welcomes many visitors to its beautiful coastline, inland lakes teaming with fish and mountains to explore.  I am also drawn to the special character of a Maine summer.

I look at a fuzzy black and white image from early in the last century and recognize the tree that extends out over the water and takes a sharp turn upward.  I have paddled by this tree over many summers stretching back to childhood.

It is not surprising that a distinctive tree figures in my experience of Maine, as it is the second most forested state (percent tree cover) in the continental U.S.  Observations from space such as Landsat data support Maine forest stock assessments.  Those forests help keep the lakes healthy for fish and the common Loon that seeks large clear lakes in the summer.

Tourists also flock to salty estuaries, rocky cliffs, and especially the beaches.  There is plenty for visitors to explore since Maine boasts the fourth largest coastline in the nation.

I appreciate my colleague Rachel Licker pointing me to the latest data on tourism.  Tourists in 2016 supported nearly 106,000 jobs in the state.  That year brought around 6 billion in revenue with the total impact of tourism as high as nine billion dollars.  To help keep visitors and residents safe on Maine roads and eating healthy seafood, sensors far above Maine whizz by on satellite orbits – largely unnoticed.

Maine Universities, NOAA, NASA and some direct benefits from space observations

Freeze thaw graphic by NOAA

Accurate and early warnings of freeze and thaw conditions could improve rural road restrictions with earth observations from space. Source: NESDIS/NOAA

Professors and their students at Maine academic institutions along with specialists at NOAA and NASA pay close attention to key satellites and the data they provide.   This information greatly benefits Mainers and Maine’s economy.  Here are just two examples of some direct benefits derived from earth observations from space that are calibrated by research support on the ground or in the ocean:

  • National Center for Environmental Information (NCEI) is part of NESDIS which is part of NOAA under the Department of Commerce.

The state of Maine benefits from critical freeze-thaw conditions supplied by NCEI in order to adjust the weight limit on roads less well traveled.

This information helps prolong the life span of critical road infrastructure in the rural parts of Maine.  It also helps to reduce the time for road restrictions benefiting local businesses and freight industry decisions with more advanced lead times.

  • The Maine Space Grant Consortium.

Maine is the largest supplier – 62 % in 2014 – of soft-shelled clams in the US. Yet, Maine suffers losses in commercial revenue – millions of dollars a year – where shellfish harvesting areas are closed due to toxic conditions.

To help address this issue, NASA awarded the Maine Space Grant Consortium to study “Multi- and hyperspectral bio-optical identification and tracking of Gulf of Maine water masses and harmful algal bloom habitat.”

The consortium’s research is critical for improving future satellite missions such as PACE which could provide earlier and more accurate warning systems to prevent people from eating unhealthy shellfish.

As members of Congress dig into the proposed budget cuts, now is the time to ask which aging satellites are at jeopardy of not keeping on track to be replaced in time to ensure seamless coverage of the state and prepare for new and improved sensors?

What plans are in place to ensure healthy Maine shellfish for human consumption going forward?  Is that program for reducing road restrictions for spring shipments in Maine funded at an operational level?  Many livelihoods depend on these answers.

About the author

More from Brenda

Brenda Ekwurzel ensures that program analyses reflect robust and relevant climate science, and researches the influence of major carbon producers on rising global average temperatures and sea level. Dr. Ekwurzel is a co-author of the fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) Volume II. She presents frequently to a range of audiences on climate science, educating the public on practical, achievable solutions for climate change.