11 November 2020

Supporting sustainable development from space

By Associate Professor Moritz Müller

While the ongoing pandemic justifiably dominates our current life and plans, there are other areas that also require our attention. Several studies suggest a close link between occurrences of pandemics and the impacts of climate change and loss of biodiversity. While it cannot be made ‘responsible’ for the latest pandemic, our ongoing destruction of planet Earth is certainly not helping in fighting its impacts.

Poor air quality, often linked to intense and unregulated development, has been highlighted in several countries to impact the severity of Covid-19. Preserving our environment will not only support our children and grandchildren but might even help us in our current crisis. 

An approach to better manage our resources promoted by many around the world is to make use of new technology, the ever-increasing computing power and harness the information that can be gained from Big Data. Satellites and drones for examples, enable us to look at large areas in great detail and over time span ranging from days to months to years.

Commercial satellite providers offer satellite imagery which can distinguish features as small as 20cm, more than sufficient for a farmer who is interested to find out which part of his field needs more water or which plants are affected by diseases. Freely available satellite imagery, for examples those provided by the European Space agency (ESA) and The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), can also be used for some of these applications. They also have the advantage of being available for longer time and allow us to look into the past and see patterns and changes over time.

One area where a lot of changes are taking place and which is of particular interest to Sarawak are coastal and marine ecosystems. Sarawak has around 750km of coastline, the second longest in Malaysia. More than 80% of Sarawak’s population live along or close to the coastline. Our coastal waters provide ecosystem services such as sustenance for people, coastal protection against wave action and of course recreational activities.

Managing and controlling such a vast area is extremely difficult as highlighted by regular reports of illegal fishing boats intruding into our waters. Satellites and remote sensing offer a fantastic opportunity to monitor and safeguard this area but unfortunately, coastal and marine ecosystems are also particularly challenging for remote sensing applications. Nothing good ever comes easy, right? 

Satellites with active sensors send signals down to Earth and pick up the reflected signal which is then translated into an image and ultimately into (actionable) knowledge by researchers. Other satellites measure the natural light coming off the planet. Either way, when satellites receive a signal, up to 80% of that signal comes from the atmosphere and images need to be corrected for that interference.

If one wants to monitor beaches, coral reefs and seagrass using satellites, there are additional complications. As we all know from our own cooking experiments at home, many ingredients dissolve in water such as salt and sugar. Others like herbs do not dissolve so well.

Substances such as salt will absorb and herbs will reflect some of the light. Thus, the signal received by the satellite has information about multiple material present in the water. So it is just a matter of separating this signal into contributing matter!

This would be ‘easy’ if the water was always the same and never change or move around, but what would a beach trip be without waves? Tides bring in salty water from the sea and mix it with the freshwater coming off the land. Constant change and constantly changing water ‘ingredients’. You can see where I am going with this. It’s a tricky business for which one needs special software and skills, that can help translate observations to environmental knowledge.

Remote sensing is relatively new to Malaysia compared to the more advanced and experienced countries such as the United States, Australia and countries in the European region. But science fortunately, knows no boundaries. Some of our PhD students have spent several months at CSIRO Australia (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), one of the world’s largest and most advanced research institutions. Such collaborative interactions align well with the objectives of the Australia – Malaysia strategic partnership.

Under a collaboration programme sponsored by the Australian Academy of Science, Swinburne together with its partners from CSIRO, NTU and UNIMAS, are building the Sarawak Data Cube which will collate observations about land, atmosphere and ocean processes from several satellites. Knowledge gained during the project will help marine resource managers make appropriate responses to mitigate and reduce impacts observed, thereby achieving sustainable development of our valuable marine resources.

Moritz Müller is an Associate Professor with the School of Chemical Engineering and Science at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at mmueller@swinburne.edu.my.