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Visualizing the future of Arizona

ASU, NOAA exercise examines next-gen satellite data's role in urban health and resilience


Satellite image of Arizona

A nighttime image of Arizona from NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite on June 12. Image courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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June 21, 2023

In 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders snapped a photo of the Earth emerging from shadow, its surface marbled with swirling clouds. Subsequently dubbed Earthrise, the photo has been called the most influential environmental photo in history and credited with kickstarting the environmental movement. 

The photo’s profound impact illustrates the importance of gaining perspective to improve understanding and awareness.  

The next generation of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites promises to deliver greater perspectives on Earth to help understand its complex systems more than ever before. Through high-quality data and observations, NOAA’s satellites will provide better insights and measurements for policymakers contending with a changing climate and safeguarding the public against extreme weather events. 

To better understand how these satellites will be used, Arizona State University and NOAA co-hosted a two-day exercise, bringing regional stakeholders together to examine hypothetical NOAA temperature and air quality data and its role in building a more resilient future. The event was part of NOAA’s Pathfinder Initiative, which gathers feedback to ensure current and future missions provide the data and services decision-makers need in a changing climate.

Data-driven decisions

The exercise was held at SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center, on June 14–15 and convened representatives from city, county and state governments, as well as federal agencies and academic institutions. Participants examined three hypothetical scenarios impacting the Phoenix metropolitan area and theorized their agencies’ response and coordination. The first simulated a summer heat wave with unhealthy levels of ozone, the second an unhealthy air quality day combined with a fireworks event, and the third a dry haboob sweeping across the Valley of the Sun.

“We’re here to observe and listen,” said Vanessa Escobar, NOAA Pathfinder lead and senior policy advisor and user engagement scientist in NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS). “These exercises help us move things from a global and national perspective into the local context of our user community so NESDIS can better support the planning and decision-making needs of regional organizations through our services.”

For each scenario, participants were invited to explore how the hypothetical data would inform, influence or support their decision-making and communication to the public. Stakeholders discussed how to translate the data into actionable advisories based on different populations and their unique needs, as well as identified gaps and lapses in communication and coordination.

Air quality departments considered how to align messaging and distribute the same type of data, whether that meant simply using the Air Quality Index or providing more specific particulate matter and ozone data to inform the public of the risk. Phillip Scharf, representing Central Arizona Shelter Services, expressed the importance of distributing land surface temperature data alongside air temperature to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness.

Speaking at the start of the event, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego lauded participants for their role in making Phoenix a “decision-based city.” 

“It’s fascinating to see how science is used in public policy, and I'm so glad that you're here to help with the gaps and make sure we communicate that data more effectively, including to those who are most vulnerable and most in need,” she said. 

'A fire hose of data'

Each scenario relied on synthetic data created using NOAA observations of previous heat or air quality events to project what future NOAA satellite systems could potentially capture.

The data was generated by a team of ASU and NOAA researchers led by Tim Lant, director of program development at ASU Knowledge Enterprise. The team included Jiwei Li, an assistant professor in the School of Ocean Futures; Sean Bryan, an associate research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration; Jennifer Vanos, associate professor in the School of Sustainability; Jianghai Peng, a geoscience PhD student in the School of Earth and Space Exploration; and Joseph Karanja, a geographic information science PhD student in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

“We used a deep learning-based method to enhance the current one-kilometer resolution to something around a 10-meter resolution to allow stakeholders to see and imagine how more powerful satellites could deliver finer detail and better data products,” Li said.

Li likened the data to using a time machine to show people the technology they’ll have in 10 years’ time. 

“In the future, the data volume, handling and storage could be 10 to 100 times more than today. So, every agency needs to get ready for that, in staffing and skills and data space to handle that,” Li said. “How do they manage this data? How can they use it to better inform the public? How can they use it to prepare for these events?”

“We're going to have a fire hose of data,” Bryan added. “We're going to go from lacking data to having more images than we know what to do with. So, we'll need new software capabilities to combine these data in an automated way to present it to the user in a way that makes sense.” 

The increase in volume will directly translate into both spatial and temporal resolution for users. For example, instead of a singular air quality reading for a city or county, satellites of the future will be able to measure individual neighborhoods continuously, determining how healthy the air is at rapid intervals. 

Today’s challenges inform tomorrow’s technology

In addition to preparing public agencies for the future, the synthetic data used in these exercises guides NOAA’s development of future satellite systems and services. 

“We view this as an opportunity for advocacy,” said Andrew Heidinger, NOAA senior scientist. “If people are excited about this data, we can use that support to secure funding down the line. It also informs decisions on what the capabilities of future systems will be — we want to deliver what people want.”

Heidinger works on the Geostationary Extended Observations (GeoXO) satellite system, the next-generation observational system that informed the ASU-hosted exercise. Since 1975, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) have circled the globe, providing continuous atmospheric observation and data for NOAA and NASA. 

When the latest GOES satellite reaches the end of its service in the early 2030s, NOAA plans to launch the GeoXO system. GeoXO promises to greatly expand on the observational capabilities of GOES, improving forecasting and modeling, as well as providing advanced warning for environmental hazards such as wildfire, droughts and flooding. Impressive as it sounds, NOAA wants to ensure that the planned capabilities of GeoXO align with what users need.

This is accomplished through the NOAA Pathfinder Initiative, a program that partners with sophisticated local users to understand how they apply NOAA data to their decision-making needs through exercises. The feedback gathered from exercises supports the development of future NOAA services and missions. Members of the Pathfinder Initiative range from airlines and news corporations to federal and state agencies and universities such as ASU.

“When we looked at this Pathfinder study, we set out to look at its value for Maricopa County,” Escobar said. “And ASU essentially said, ‘We will bring everybody to the table because we have to approach this together.’”

This event marked the first Pathfinder exercise hosted by ASU and brought together the necessary organizations to provide feedback for GeoXO’s atmospheric composition instrument as well as other future NOAA services. Participants included federal, state and city-level agencies such as the National Weather Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the city of Phoenix Office of Heat Response and Mitigation.

“NOAA creates amazing data for the United States,” Escobar said. “But we want to make sure that our information is accessible, digestible and actionable. So, having these discussions really helps us improve and ensures that our products, services and satellites are targeting the needs and the challenges environmentally. We want to build towards a future where NOAA provides the best and most reliable information at your fingertips.”

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