DECEMBER 2006 / JANUARY 2007 – NO. 11

The View From Above

by Karen Rudnicki


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Man-made satellites swimming in Earth's orbit offer its inhabitants a unique vantage point from which to view many of life's phenomena, among them growth and loss. Beamed back shots of Brazil's Amazon River Basin in South America, monitored by NASA satellites, show deforestation occurring to the tune of 6,000 square miles each year. In Africa's Great Rift Valley, a swath of land running from Syria to Mozambique, satellites monitoring land conditions and vegetation density can help avert disaster by predicting where disease has the right condition to break out. In 1977, 200,000 people in Egypt were infected with Rift Valley Fever, transmitted from mosquitoes, when flooding in Kenya caused otherwise arid regions to bloom with vegetation. But information being pulled from satellites over the area enabled scientists to track the bugs' movement and keep the loss of life from exceeding 2,000.

What other forms of loss can we see from the eyes in the sky?

The sands of the Sahara, between 1980 and 1990, have shifted the desert's southern border 80 miles south. 65% of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties were saved from a new strain of juice-sucking phylloxera after satellites' visible light and infrared cameras detected nutrient deficiencies in the vines at an early stage of development, long before the farmers or vintners would have been able to see the damage. Glaciers and ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are observed by satellites but the compiled information doesn't always indicate definitively which are shrinking or growing, and whether the sea level is correspondingly rising or falling, proving there are some issues even a satellite can't define.