The Eye in the Sky: Using Remote Sensing for Population-Environment ResearchMay 28, 2010 By Julien Katchinoffrecently concluded web seminar hosted by the Population Environment Research Network (PERN) engaged social scientists and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing experts to appraise the role of remote sensing data collection in population and environment research, and identify effective methods for future collaboration.
As the population-environment relationship attracts more study, scholars should consider how remote sensing data will be integrated within existing research needs, as well as how new programs and sensors will help meet future needs. Invited expert Sean Sloan of the University of Melbourne wrote that the potential societal benefits of this research are “immense, albeit largely unrealized. In my view, the principal benefit is that, for the first time, policymakers may draw upon a rich, national-scale empirical basis to develop social/agricultural/economic policy relevant to large-scale environmental issues.”
Cyberseminar participants considered several questions and topics, from determining the most appropriate sensors and instruments for the measurement of population and environment interactions, to addressing the challenges of interdisciplinary research and data interoperability. The discussion also touched on land use and land-cover change, as well how to apply the technology to specific case studies, geographic regions, PE issues, or scalar resolutions.
Demographer Jack Baker of the University of New Mexico raised a tricky issue in his contribution to the discussion of using night-time missions such as Nightsat to calculate population growth and urban sprawl. For his study of remote hunter-gatherers in rural Paraguay, Baker found that “they don’t have electricity so I don’t think they would be captured in satellite views of the night sky. It would be interesting to see how these population estimates I made perform in comparison to an estimate made using night sky imagery …in reality I would like to see lots of these sorts of comparisons before really feeling like I had a grasp on what the strengths and weaknesses of night sky approaches are,” he wrote.
PRB’s Jason Bremner pointed out that despite the high value of remote sensing to understanding human dimensions of environmental change, “the insights remain largely confined to peer-reviewed journals and the academic community. Conservation and development practitioners and policymakers don’t have access to and don’t read the peer-reviewed journals.” In addition, the increasingly technical nature of these methods will require “finding new ways to communicate what we know to those with no technical knowledge of the field,” he said. He urged the participants “to consider what you are doing to overcome the divide between what we know and what others about understand and can use to make decisions.”
Direct dialogue like this between social scientists and remote sensing experts can help establish stronger, more effective ties between two disciplines that would benefit greatly from each other’s support. Such collaboration will be increasingly necessary to address the increasingly complex challenges of population-environment connections.
Julien Katchinoff is a MA student at American University studying global environmental politics and a former intern with ECSP.
Photo Credit: Nightsat image of Osaka, Japan courtesy the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC).
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