Comprehending Climate Change

Scientists have made great strides toward understanding the causes and effects of climate change, but there’s still much left to learn. GEOINT can be the ultimate teacher, an expert panel said at GEOINT Foreword.


In classrooms and conference rooms across the country, fall reverberates with the sound of a single customary question: How did you spend your summer?

Whatever you did, it’s nothing compared to how Mother Nature spent hers. While you were barbecuing, camping, swimming, and cycling, she was busy causing record heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest, fueling devastating droughts and wildfires in the West, stirring up massive hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, and concocting catastrophic floods and mudslides in Western Europe.

Thanks to decades of expert research and analysis, scientists can now confidently attribute extreme weather events like those of summer 2021 to climate change. And yet, countless questions remain. For example: How much more will the climate change, and how quickly? What will the impact be on current and future generations? Is it too late to stop it? And if so, how can we adapt?

GEOINT can help scientists and policymakers answer these and many other important questions about the planet, a panel of climate experts suggested Tuesday at GEOINT Foreword, GEOINT 2021’s pre-conference science and technology day.

Titled “Climate Change: Following the Science for a More Secure Nation,” the 30-minute panel discussion focused on the science and culture behind climate change, the intersection of climate science with national security, and the role of geospatial intelligence in climate-related decision making. Moderated by Odean Serrano, Ph.D., founder of the Countering Wildlife Trafficking Institute and chief of GEOINT programs at Earth League International, the panel featured four participants:

    • Christopher Tucker, Ph.D., chairman of the American Geographical Society;
    • Vasit Sagan, Ph.D., director of the Saint Louis University Geospatial Institute and a member of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee;
    • Shirish Ravan, Ph.D., head of the Beijing office of the United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER) program, within the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA); and
    • Nicolas Henschel, director of the Office of Geomatics, Source Operations, and Management Directorate of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

During introductory comments and a subsequent Q&A session, each panelist tackled the subject of climate change from a different angle. Tucker, for example, stressed the unsung role of population growth in climate change, the solution to which he said is neither science nor sustainability, but rather “empowerment, education, and integration in the workforce of women and girls.”

Sagan, meanwhile, highlighted the growing importance of artificial intelligence and machine learning to climate science, and detailed efforts by St. Louis University to build a robust future GEOINT workforce that will be capable of leveraging technology to its full potential.

Ravan underscored the importance of remote sensing for disaster response, while Henschel previewed the climate-science contributions that NGA will make with its newest 3-D digital elevation model—a global 2-meter-resolution elevation model that will be updated once every three months upon completion in 2024.

Perhaps the most compelling part of the panel, however, came near the end of the session, when all four panelists were asked to weigh in on the consequences of climate change inaction. Those consequences might include not only environmental disasters like extreme weather—which are devastating enough—but also social disasters like extreme hunger.

“Last year, locust outbreaks globally affected 50 million people,” explained Sagan, referring to a 2020 plague of locusts that spread across dozens of countries in Africa and the Middle East; exacerbated by climate change that has made the environment more hospitable to them, the pests ruin crops and therefore leave entire communities food-insecure. “That … is one incident, and that’s the cost of not taking any action.”


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