An artist’s surreal view of Australia – created from satellite data captured 700km above Earth



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Infrared and visible light satellite data is recoloured to produce striking images of Australia.
Grayson Cooke , Author provided

Grayson Cooke, Southern Cross University

There are more than 4,800 satellites orbiting Earth. They bristle with sensors – trained towards Earth and into space – recording and transmitting many different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation.

Governments and media corporations rely on the data these satellites collect. But artists use it too, as a new way to image and view the Earth.

I work with Geoscience Australia and the “Digital Earth Australia” platform to produce time-lapse images and video of Australian landforms using satellite data.

My Open Air project, produced through a collaboration with Australian painter Emma Walker and the music of The Necks, features macro-photography of Emma Walker’s paintings set against time-lapse satellite imagery of Australia.

Open Air will be launched in Canberra on September 20, 2018.

Trailer: Open Air – showing Lake Gairdner in South Australia with turquoise desert, red salt lakes and pink clouds (Grayson Cooke 2017).



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Open access to satellite data

We see satellites as moving pin-pricks in the night sky, or occasionally – as with the recent return to Earth of the Chinese Tiangong space station – as streaks of light. And most us would have heard about satellite data being used for surveillance, for GPS tracking and for media broadcasting.

But artists can divert satellite data away from a purely instrumental approach. They can apply it to produce new ways of seeing, understanding and feeling the Earth.

Of course satellites are expensive to launch and maintain. The main players are either powerful corporate providers like Intelsat, enormous public sector agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), or private sector startups with links to these groups.

Luckily, many of these agencies make their data freely available to the public.

The NASA/US Geological Survey Landsat program makes 40 years of Earth imaging data available through Earth Explorer. The ESA provides data from their Sentinel satellites to users of the Copernicus Open Access Hub.

In Australia, Geoscience Australia‘s Digital Earth Australia platform provides researchers and the public with access to Australian satellite data from a range of agencies.

Landsat 8 image acquired in Australia in May 2013 over Cambridge Gulf and the Ord River estuary in Western Australia. Visible light bands highlight the different types of water within the estuary. Shortwave and near infrared bands highlight the mangroves and vegetation on the land.
Geoscience Australia, Author provided

Understanding and processing the data

Making satellite imaging data accessible, though, is not the same thing as making it usable. There is considerable technical know-how required to process satellite data.

The Landsat and Sentinel satellites are used by scientists and the private sector to monitor environmental change over time, using what is known as “remote sensing”. They travel in the low Earth orbit range, around 700km above the Earth and circle the Earth in around 90 minutes. After numerous orbits, they return to the exact same spot every 16 days.

Landsat and Sentinel satellites are equipped with sensors that record reflected electromagnetic radiation in a range of wavelengths. Some of these wavelengths fall within the visible light part of the spectrum (between 390-700 nanometers). In that sense, satellites image the Earth in a way comparable to a digital camera.

This image shows the percentage of time since 1987 that water was observed by the Landsat satellites on the floodplain around Burketown and Normanton in northern Queensland. The water frequency is shown in a colour scale from red to blue, with areas of persistent water observations shown in blue colouring, and areas of very infrequent water observation shown in red colouring.
Geoscience Australia, Author provided



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But the satellites also record other wavelengths, particularly in the near and shortwave infrared range. Vegetation, water and geological formations reflect and absorb infrared light differently to visible light. Recording these wavelengths allows scientists to track, for instance, changes in vegetation density or surface water location that indicate drought, flood or fire.

A single satellite image is made up of numerous bands recording data in very specific wavelengths. Getting a full-colour image requires processing in a GIS application to combine them, and assign the bands to either red, green or blue in an output image.

Images collected over 12 months at the Gulf of Carpentaria – 2016.
Grayson Cooke, Author provided

Bringing creativity to the data

This is where creativity can enter the picture. Being able to create false colour images that combine infrared and visible light in different ways allows me to produce beautifully surreal images of Australian landforms.

The image below shows the variance in environmental conditions over 12 months in 2016 at the Stirling Range National Park in WA.

A false colour image of Stirling Range National Park created by combining data relating to infrared and visible light.
Grayson Cooke, Author provided

Because geoscientists need clear images of the earth’s surface to analyse, they filter clouds from the data. I chose to take the opposite approach, highlighting the incredible array of meteorological conditions experienced by the country.

Clouds passing over the Eyre Peninsula in 2016.
Grayson Cooke, Author provided

There are many other artists working with satellite data. Clement Valla’s Postcards from Google Earth focuses on glitches in Google’s mapping algorithm, and bio-artist Suzanne Anker uses satellite imaging to produce extruded 3D environments in petri dishes.

Working with the Nevada Museum of Art, photographer Trevor Paglen will launch the Orbital Reflector satellite as an inflatable, visible sculpture, a prompt for wonder and reflection.

Artists place satellite data and usage in new contexts. They question surveillance practices and expose scientific tools and representations to new audiences outside science and the private sector.

The thousands of satellites winging their way around the Earth represent power and possibility, a chance to look again at the intersection between humankind and a changing planet.


“Open Air” will be officially launched at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra on September 20. It will also screen at the Spectra conference in Adelaide in October.The Conversation

Grayson Cooke, Associate Professor, Deputy Head of School (Research), Southern Cross University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Giving environmental water to drought-stricken farmers sounds straightforward, but it’s a bad idea


Erin O’Donnell, University of Melbourne and Avril Horne, University of Melbourne

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack last week suggested the government would look at changing the law to allow water to be taken from the environment and given to farmers struggling with the drought.

This is a bad idea for several reasons. First, the environment needs water in dry years as well as wet ones. Second, unilaterally intervening in the way water is distributed between users undermines the water market, which is now worth billions of dollars. And, third, in dry years the environment gets a smaller allocation too, so there simply isn’t enough water to make this worthwhile.




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In fact, the growing political pressure being put on environmental water holders to sell their water to farmers is exactly the kind of interference that bodies such as the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder were established to avoid.

The environment always needs water

The ongoing sustainable use of rivers is based on key ecosystem functions being maintained, and this means that environmental water is needed in both wet and dry years. The objectives of environmental watering change from providing larger wetland inundation events in wet years, to maintaining critical refuges and basic ecosystem functions in dry years.

Prolonged dry periods cause severe stress to ecosystems, such as during the Millennium Drought when many Murray River red gums were sickened by salinity and lack of water. Environmental water is essential for ecosystem survival during these periods.

Under existing rules, environmental water holders can sell and buy water so as to deliver maximum benefits at the places and times it is most needed.

But during dry years the environmental water holders receive the same water allocations as other users. So it’s very unlikely there will be any “spare” water during drought. During a dry period, the environment is in urgent need of water to protect endangered species and maintain basic ecosystem functions.

We should be cautious when environmental water is sold during drought, as this compromises the ability of environmental water holders to meet their objectives of safeguarding river health. When the funds from the sale are not used to mitigate the loss of the available water to the environment, this is even more risky.

Secure water rights support all water users

In response to McCormack’s suggestion, the National Irrigators’ Council argued that compulsorily acquiring water from the environment can actually hurt farmers who depend on the water market as a source of income or water during drought.

Water markets are underpinned by clear legal rights to water. In other words, the entitlements the environment holds are the same as those held by irrigators. If the government starts treating environmental water rights as barely worth the paper they’re printed on, farmers would have every reason to fear that their own water rights might similarly be stripped away in the future.

Maintaining the integrity of the water market is important for all participants who have chosen to sell water, based on reasonable expectations of how prices will hold up.

Can taking environmental water actually help farmers?

As federal Water Resources Minister David Littleproud noted this week, environmental water is only about 8% of total water allocations in storage throughout the Murray Darling Basin. In the southern basin, it is still only about 14%. This means that between 86% and 92% of water currently sitting in storage is already allocated to human use, including farming.

There are calls for the Commonwealth government to treat the drought as an emergency and to take (or “borrow”) water from environmental water holders. But the Murray-Darling Basin Plan already has specific arrangements in place for emergencies in which critical human water needs are threatened.

The current situation in New South Wales is not an emergency under the plan. Water resources across the northern Murray-Darling Basin are indeed low, but storages in the southern basin are still 50-75% full. Although many licence holders in NSW received zero water in July’s round of allocations, high-security water licences are at 95-100%. In northern Victoria, most high-reliability water shares on the Murray are at 71% allocation.

The situation can therefore be managed using existing tools, such as providing direct financial support to farming communities and buying water on the water market.

Environmental water is an investment, not a luxury

As Australia’s First Nations have known for millennia, a healthy environment is not an optional extra. It underpins the sustainability and security of the water we depend on. When river flows decline, the water becomes too toxic to use.




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Water has been allocated to the environment throughout the Murray-Darling Basin to prevent the catastrophic blue-green algal blooms and salinity problems we have experienced in the past. If we want safe, secure water supplies for people, livestock and crops, we need to keep these key river ecosystems alive and well during the drought.

In the past decade alone, Australia has spent A$13 billion of taxpayers’ money to bring water use in the Murray-Darling Basin back to sustainable levels. If we let our governments treat the environment like a “water bank” to spend when times get tough, this huge investment will have been wasted.The Conversation

Erin O’Donnell, Senior Fellow, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environment Law, University of Melbourne and Avril Horne, Research fellow, Department of Infrastructure Engineering, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.