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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Publish and don’t perish – how to keep rare species’ data away from poachers



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Birdwatchers are keeping the location of the newly rediscovered night parrot a closely guarded secret.
Adventure Australia, Author provided

Andrew Lowe, University of Adelaide; Anita Smyth, University of Adelaide; Ben Sparrow, University of Adelaide, and Glenda Wardle, University of Sydney

Highly collectable species, especially those that are rare and threatened, can potentially be put at risk from poaching if information describing where they can be found is published. But rather than withholding this information, as has been recently recommended, scientists should publish such information through secure data repositories so that this knowledge can continue to be used to help conserve and manage the world’s most threatened species.

Scientists are encouraged to publish data so their discoveries can be shared and scrutinised. However, a recent article has identified the risks of publishing the locations of rare, endangered or newly described species.

The example of the Chinese cave gecko shows that these concerns may be warranted. The species went extinct at the location where it was discovered, potentially at the hands of scientifically literate poachers.

But instead of withholding such information, we suggest (in a letter published today in Science) that scientists can publish sensitive data securely, while minimising the risk of misuse, by using one of a range of currently available tools.

A little knowledge

Typically, the problem for threatened species is not that too much information is available on their population and location, but rather quite the opposite. For example, in New South Wales more than 150 species have missed out on conservation funding because of a lack of such information.

On the flip side, there is little evidence that encouraging researchers to withhold this information will thwart people who are determined to find specific species. Collectors who specialise in highly collectable species can get location information from a variety of sources such as wildlife trade websites, pet and naturalist clubs, social media, and the popular press. This is despite the range of laws, regulations (such as scientific and collecting permits) and community reporting aimed at restricting the collection and trade of endangered species.

Grove of Wollemi pine, the location of which has been kept secret for more than 25 years.
Jaimie Plaza

How to publish sensitive data

Many governments have implemented sensitive data policies to protect ecological and species data, based on their own lists of sensitive species. Many of these policies have been in place for almost a decade and have kept secure the locations of hundreds of highly collectable species such as Australia’s Wollemi pine.

These policies are practised by numerous data portals worldwide, including DataONE, South Africa’s National Biodiversity Institute, Australia’s Virtual Herbarium, Australia’s Department of Environment, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, and the Atlas for Living Australia.

A wealth of advice is also available to researchers and data managers on how to manage sensitive species information, such as the guidance provided by Science International and the Australian National Data Service. Science journals also work closely with open data repositories to ensure that sensitive species information is securely published – see, for example, the policies of leading journals Science and Nature.

Information entropy – why it’s a good idea to publish data before they are lost in the mists of time.
Michener (2006) Ecol. Informatics

One example of good data management is the AEKOS data portal run by Australia’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN). AEKOS contains data from different government monitoring surveys covering almost 100,000 sites across the country. Its default position is to make ecological data and information freely available for land-management or wildlife research.

However, sensitive data are flagged during the early stages of the publishing process. The data are then secured in one of three ways:

  • masking sensitive information by giving only approximate locations or non-specific species names

  • making data available only after approval by the legal owners

  • embargoing the data for a maximum of two years.

To ensure data trustworthiness, TERN’s data reviewers further check for any data sensitivities that may have been overlooked during submission.

What’s the alternative?

We recognise the importance of keeping the locations of highly collectable species secure, and the need for caution in publishing precise site locations. But despite recent concerns, the examples given above show how online scientific data publishing practices have sufficiently matured to minimise misuses such as illegal or excessive collection, disturbance risk, and landholder privacy issues.

The alternative is not to deposit these valuable data at all. But this risks the loss of vital knowledge in the quest to protect wildlife.

In tackling poaching, we should perhaps seek to motivate poachers to help protect our most endangered wildlife. Such tactics are thought by some to have contributed to the discovery of several endangered bird species populations, and potentially the recent rediscovery of the night parrot, after a century of elusiveness in Australia. If poachers are willing to turn gamekeeper, getting them to share their rare species knowledge securely would certainly improve conservation outcomes.


The ConversationThe authors acknowledge their co-signatories of the letter published in Science: Ken Atkins (WA Department of Parks and Wildlife), Ron Avery (NSW Office of Environment and Heritage), Lee Belbin (Atlas of Living Australia), Noleen Brown (Qld Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation), Amber E. Budden (DataONE, University of New Mexico), Paul Gioia (WA Department of Parks and Wildlife), Siddeswara Guru (TERN, University of Queensland), Mel Hardie (Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning), Tim Hirsch (Global Biodiversity Information Facility), Donald Hobern (Global Biodiversity Information Facility), John La Salle (Atlas of Living Australia, CSIRO), Scott R. Loarie (California Academy of Sciences), Matt Miles (SA Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources), Damian Milne (NT Department of Environment and Natural Resources), Miles Nicholls (Atlas of Living Australia, CSIRO), Maurizio Rossetto (National Herbarium of NSW), Jennifer Smits (ACT Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate), Gregston Terrill (ACT Department of Environment and Energy), and David Turner (University of Adelaide).

Andrew Lowe, Director of Food Innovation, University of Adelaide; Anita Smyth, Data manager, TERN, University of Adelaide; Ben Sparrow, Associate professor and Director – TERN AusPlots and Eco-informatics, University of Adelaide, and Glenda Wardle, Professor in Ecology and Evolution, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

19th century weather data is helping climate scientists predict the future


Linden Ashcroft, Universitat Rovira i Virgili; Howard Bridgman, University of Newcastle, and Ken Thornton, University of Newcastle

The 19th-century English historian Lord Acton famously advised people to live in both the future and the past, and said “those who do not live in the past cannot live in the future”.

It may seem a stretch to apply this famous quotation to climate research, but we can’t possibly understand how the climate will change in the future without first understanding how it changed in the past.

Australia’s official climate record, kept by the Bureau of Meteorology, begins in 1910. But historical climate records kept before the development of national meteorological organisations are valuable tools for improving our understanding of what has happened in the past.

They also put the present into a long-term context, and improve climate models used to predict the future.

What can old numbers really tell us?

One thing historical records can help us understand is extreme weather events – the aspect of climate change that has people most concerned. How can we prepare cities and buildings for storms in the future without understanding what previous storms have done?

It is true that historical observations have reliability issues and are sometimes hard to compare to modern observations, which are recorded in a standard way. However, old weather records can still tell us a lot about year-to-year changes, and there are many ways to minimise reliability problems.

There are several climate and weather analysis products that recreate how the atmosphere behaved over time. In the Southern Hemisphere, these climate tools are generally uncertain until the mid-20th century, due to a lack of – you guessed it — long-term data.

Historical records can also help us hone climate models for predicting the future. Some of the atmospheric and oceanic features that dominate our climate have cycles that can last several decades. This means that modern climate data starting in the 20th century may only capture one or two cycles of a particular feature, making it hard to train climate models on the full range of our climate variability.

Historical weather records are also important for past climate analysis. Extracting the climate signal from tree rings, ice cores, or documentary data, requires instrumental climate records for comparison. The longer the climate records are, the better this comparison will be.

What exists for Australia?

In the past few years, concerted efforts at the Bureau of Meteorology and several universities have been able to recover and analyse a large amount of historical climate data for Australia. Most of these observations come from Australia’s southeast, as this is the region that was first colonised by Europeans.

There are now studies that explore temperature, rainfall and atmospheric pressure variability in southeastern Australia back to the 1860s. Several studies have even rescued data from 1788.

With these newly recovered observations, we have learned a lot about Australia’s climate in the 19th century, as well as the early years of English colonisation. But there is still a lot we don’t know.

In particular, the majority of our old weather data come from coastal locations, where the weather is more sensitive to local factors rather than large-scale features such as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

A rare opportunity

In 2011, some weather diaries were donated to the University of Newcastle and University of New England. The diaries contain 45 years of daily handwritten weather observations of a Mr Algernon Belfield taken on his 8,000-hectare property, Eversleigh, near Armidale in northern New South Wales.

A H Belfield at Eversleigh
Belfield Family

A pastoralist, amateur meteorologist and astronomer, Belfield took these meticulous weather observations every morning at 9am from June 1877 until August 1922, a month before his death.

His observations continued through the period of the 1891 shearers’ strike, the Boer War, Australia’s Federation, the First World War and the Centennial and Federation droughts.

Belfield’s diaries also span the period that inspired Dorothea Mackellar’s famous ode to Australia, My Country.

The last few decades of the 19th century were indeed times of “droughts and flooding rains”, thanks to a string of La Niña and El Niño phases of ENSO.

Belfield weather diaries
Ken Thornton (Author)

Belfield’s steady hand captured the weather at Eversleigh during a time of dramatic variability before the impact of human-induced climate change, in a region where the climate is highly correlated with ENSO.

His detailed records, therefore, provide us with a unique opportunity to uncover more about this period in our climate history than ever before.

The handwritten records are scanned but need to be transcribed into a digitised format. We are looking for volunteers to help us with this important task of recovering our climate history. If you are interested, please contact us here, to help shed light on Australia’s past, present and future climate.

The Conversation

Linden Ashcroft, Senior Researcher, Universitat Rovira i Virgili; Howard Bridgman, Conjoint Professor, University of Newcastle, and Ken Thornton, Affiliate, Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.