NASA-supported researchers have developed
software anyone can use to fly, video game-style, over Central America
and survey its current environmental conditions.
by Patrick Barry
Flying over the lush,
mountainous landscape of Central America, a local environmental
official points out plumes of smoke where "slash and burn" agriculture
is destroying hundreds of acres of rain forest. In the distance,
dark-tinted waters of a red tide nearing coastal fishing villages
are clearly visible from this altitude. He points to a silt-filled
river snaking through the forest below - a symptom of soil erosion
caused by unsustainable farming practices upstream, he explains.
The view evokes a kind
of intuitive understanding of these environmental concerns that
words alone can not provide.
Juan Mario Dary, the
environmental minister of Guatemala, gave such an aerial tour of
Central America recently. Only he wasn't actually in a plane. In
fact, he wasn't anywhere near Central America. He was in Tokyo,
Japan, at the second annual
Earth Observation Summit.
The tour Dary gave
was a virtual flight over a computer-generated, 3-dimensional
landscape - something like a "flight simulator" video game. The
view through the window, though, is reality. It's based on real
satellite and geographic data, offering a "big picture" view of
how humans are affecting the rich diversity of wildlife in the region.
A computer-generated, 3-dimensional
landscape of the Caribbean coastal plain of Costa Rica
based on satellite data.
"In some ways, it's
better than the real thing," says Daniel Irwin, a research scientist
at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. "The user can choose which
'layers' of the data they want to see, some of which aren't obvious
from a real plane: conservation park boundaries, small village locations,
ecosystem types, and endangered species habitats, just to name a
This virtual landscape
software is one of many new tools that Irwin and others are developing
as part of an international project called SIAM-SERVIR, an acronym
in Spanish meaning "Mesoamerican System of Environmental Information
- Regional System of Monitoring and Visualization."
Through a coordinated
effort between the seven countries of Central America, NASA, the
World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID),
and others, SIAM-SERVIR is creating an easy-to-use Web portal to
environmental data for the entire region. The portal (http://servir.nsstc.nasa.gov/)
is online now, though it is still incomplete. The importance of
having daily wildfire data available during the spring fire season
convinced them to pre-release the site, Irwin says. It will be finished
later this year.
Daily, near real-time
updates to the portal are based on NASA satellite data, acquired
and processed automatically. Web surfers - whether students, scientists,
or Central American politicians - can view the information in a
variety of ways: interactive 2-dimensional maps, "fly throughs"
of a 3D virtual landscape, or they can download a specific slice
of the raw data to do their own analysis.
"This project will be
ending a distinctive feature of Central America, where environmental
information has always been jealously guarded by institutions or
people. Now instead we hope that the information will flow freely,"
says Rafael Guillen, Irwin's primary technical collaborator in Central
America and an expert in Geographic Information Systems mapping
This perspective view was created using software
A scene from the flyby. False colors in this satellite image
of Lake Nicaragua represent types of land cover: green
is forest, while purple, red, and pink represent specific
combinations of agriculture, bare soil, and urban areas.
Anything that can be
plotted on a map can be integrated into the master database: historic
geographic records, modern road maps, satellite spectral data from
Landsat and MODIS (MODerate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer),
or wildlife habitat data from traditional fieldwork. Irwin, Guillen
and colleagues hope that all this information, freely available
and easy to understand, will help Central Americans make better
decisions about the region's beleaguered natural resources.
In July 2004, construction
began on a central data storage facility in Panama. In addition
to being the information warehouse for the project, the Panama facility
is a kind of "situation room" - a "mission control" for monitoring
the health and condition of rain forests, croplands, rivers, and
coastal waters throughout Central America. USAID is funding the
development of this facility, as well as six smaller facilities
in each of the other Central American countries: Belize, Guatemala,
Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. These smaller
national centers will be staffed by experts with direct access to
the central database for helping address the environmental issues
in their own countries.
Central America is a region with a great richness and diversity
of tropical wildlife: though it only constitutes roughly 1% of the
planet's surface, the region is home to about 7% of all land-dwelling
species. The region is also home to a rapidly growing and widely
impoverished human population. Serving the needs of the people without
bankrupting the natural resources on which they depend is an enormous
challenge to political decision makers.
photo was taken in Petén, Guatemala, by Daniel Irwin.
of Central America's rich biodiversity in is being destroyed
by "slash and burn" agriculture.
It was local decision
makers who came up with the idea for this Web-portal project, explains
Irwin. The impetus came from an intergovernmental organization called
CCAD (a Spanish acronym meaning "Central American Commission of
Environment and Development"), which combines and coordinates the
efforts of the seven Central American countries' ministries of the
environment. Regional treaties charge the CCAD with the task of
promoting environmental protection and sustainable development throughout
the region. This new Web portal is one tool they sought to help
them in their work.
"We're not telling the
Central Americans what needs to be done," says Irwin. "Rather we're
trying to listen and develop products and tools based on their needs.
It is a demand-driven process."
Once development of the
system is finished and local experts have been sufficiently trained,
control and operation of the system will be turned over to the local
environmental authorities, though NASA will remain available to
them for technical support.
Meanwhile, anyone with
an Internet connection can visit. At the
portal you can see plumes from fires and watch rain clouds drift
by. Eventually, when the site is complete, you can hop aboard a
virtual plane and fly up and down the long Central American coast
- just like a high-level environmental minister. As Irwin says,
in some ways, it's better than the real thing.