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To space and back again: mapping Earth to save it

Perrine Huber of swissnex San Francisco explains how a collaboration between NASA in California and the University of Zurich will help scientists better understand how the Earth and its climate are changing.

As technical and scientific advancements take us deeper into the universe, researchers from the University of Zurich and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, are using the latest innovations to look back to Earth to find answers to the biggest challenges facing us today.

People like Michael Schaepman dedicate their lives to understanding more about our changing planet in the age of a global climate crisis with extreme droughts, rising sea levels, and coral reef destruction threatening our future on Earth. He’s a professor of Remote Sensing at the Institute of Geography at the University of Zurich and Head of Research in Global Change and Biodiversity.

Swiss science at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California

For two days, I accompanied Schaepman and a visiting group from Switzerland at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The visit was meant to kick off a new collaboration to further develop and map Earth’s biodiversity from above by building a new imaging spectrometer sensor head. It’s part of the ARES project (the Airborne Research Facility for the Earth System), an integrated research infrastructure to measure terrestrial processes on Earth at a regional scale.

The project represents a step towards “new scientific frontiers in mapping and explaining key processes” on Earth, says Schaepman. For the last decade, he has collaborated with NASA’s JPL and is the Principal Investigator (PI) of ARES and the scientific PI of the APEX airborne imaging spectrometer.

This collaboration will allow scientists to use airborne instrumentation to map three components of the Earth System:

●  The biosphere – the global ecological system integrating all living beings and their relationships

●  The lithosphere – the outer layer of the Earth, including the crust and uppermost mantle, and

●  The cryosphere – the frozen parts of Earth’s surface such as sea ice, snow cover, glaciers, ice caps, etc.

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