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Satellite-and Shuttle-based remote sensors are especially adept at providing image and physical property data regarding atmospheric and ocean surface conditions, usually scanned from meteorological/oceanographic platforms. Example from two of these (GOES and NOAA) are described on this page but the main treatment is reserved for Section 14. Metsats look mainly at cloud cover, water vapor, wind patterns, advancing fronts, and certain atmospheric properties. SeaWiFS is a dedicated oceanographic satellite whose sensor measures in multibands (visible and near IR) that specify ocean color and chlorophyll content (in algae and plankton). To these specialized satellites should now be added a third group - a large array of satellites just launched or to be launched in the next 5 years that gather integrated information on the Earth System - land, marine, atmosphere, and biological aspects of the terrestrial environments. Although not the first directed towards this endeavor, Terra is now operating and returning data that prove the value of this approach.

Other Remote Sensing Systems: Meteorological, Oceanographic and Earth System Satellites

As suggested earlier in this Introduction, among the first satellites in the U.S.'s entry into space were those designed to demonstrate that weather systems and climate variations could be monitored at regional or even continental scales, thus greatly improving the realtime surveillance of clouds, temperature variations, water vapor, and moving fronts (especially tornadic vortices and hurricanes). The Nimbus series has already been mentioned (page I-7), but the images there emphasize land features rather than meteorological conditions. In Section 14, we will review the entire history of the "Meteorology from Space" programs that include satellites operated by several other countries. Suffice here to show two typical examples.

The first is a January 21, 2000 scene covering part of the western U.S. and adjoining Pacific Ocean as imaged many times each day by the GOES 10 (geostationary) satellite. The land tones are darkened so that the cloud patterns, in white to gray tones, stand out.

GOES 10 image made at 1:00 AM PST on January 21, 2000 from geostationary orbit, looking at western North America from northwestern Mexico, western Texas, northward into Canada and up to the Gulf of Alaska.

The second scene was made by the NOAA 15 satellite that was the principal monitoring system that followed the westward progress of the powerful Hurricane Floyd which struck the U.S. mainland in mid-September of 1999. This color composite shows Floyd in the early morning of September 15 after it had passed over the northern Bahamas and was bearing down on the north Florida coast. The size of this hurricane can be grasped by noting that the bottom left of the image covers the Everglades (in green) whereas the top left includes all of the Georgia coast into South Carolina.

NOAA-15 image made during the morning of September 15, 1999 showing the full extent of the huge Hurricane Hugo as it passed the Bahamas and headed northwest toward the upper Florida to South Carolina coast; this storm caused more damage by flooding than by winds; Florida Everglades in green.

Many meteorological satellites are adept at picking out chracteristics of the oceans such as silt/sediment patterns, temperatures, wave trains, and current circulation. But several satellites have been flown primarily to sense these and other properties of the ocean surface (again, see Section 14). Among these are Seasat, Radarsat, the Coastal Zone Color Scanner (CZCS) on Nimbus 7, and SeaWiFS (now operating).

On SeaWiFS, several bands cover the blue, green, and red parts of the visible spectrum, and into the near infrared, yielding data that can be used to display variations in ocean color or, for particular bands, indications of the distribution and intensity of chlorophyll that resides mainly in surficial plankton. This SeaWiFS image maps the generalized ocean colors as well as chlorphyll concentrations (in red, yellow, and orange colors) on a near global scale during September, 1997.

A SeaWiFS composite covering much of the globe as displayed in planimetric format, indicating primarily variations in chlorophyll (from high, shown in reds, oranges, yellows) to low (in blues and purples), integrated over part of the month of September in 1997.

Terra is the "flagship" satellite in the Earth Science Enterprise (ESE) that is the United States contribution to a continuing scientific effort often referred to as the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program. Mentioned at the end of the Overview, the IGBP and its spin-offs are of sufficient scope and merit to deserve its own Section (16) in this Tutorial. The five sensors on Terra are: MODIS, MOPITT, MISR, ASTER, AND CERES. For the moment, we show here just a single image (others will appear in Sections prior to Section 16) made by the ASTER instrument on Terra. This scene is of volcanoes in the Andes mountain chain of South America. Volcanoes are important components of the Earth System being studied by the ESE in that they affect the environment on regional to worldwide scales by expelling into the atmosphere gases and dust that can affect weather patterns.

ASTER false color image of volcanoes in the Andes Mountains.

The last image in this Introduction is also constructed from a multispectral satellite sensor which produces color imagery. It is a natural color "portrait" of the entire globe, in which vegetation-rich areas are in green, vegetation-poor (including deserts) areas are in various shades of yellow and brown, and ice is in white. One thing brought out in this world view, is that a large part of the total land surface does not have extensive vegetation cover - this helps to visualize the possibly precarious state of those biomes that contain most of the living species, recycle oxygen to the atmosphere, and provide organic raw materials and foodstuffs for the health and survival of the human race and many members of the animal kingdom.

A SeaWiFS image similar to the one above in which data collected over the Earth’s continents have been classified to show active vegetation (greens), semi-arid to desert surfaces (buffs and yellows), and ice (white).

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Primary Author: Nicholas M. Short, Sr. email: