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Early Adopters of NASA’s PACE Data to Study Air Quality, Ocean Health

From the atmosphere down to the surface of the ocean, data from NASA’s PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem) satellite benefits ecosystems, human health, and underrepresented communities.

Years before the launch in February 2024, mission leaders from NASA teamed with dozens of applied scientists and environmental professionals to prepare for the many practical uses that could be informed by PACE data. PACE’s Early Adopter program integrates science data into business, environmental management, and decision-making activities to benefit society.

Centered in the foreground of the image is the top of a rocket, painted a white color and pasted with the PACE logo on the side of the cylindrical and cone shaped top. The rocket is connected to a structure to its left and to the right is a larger structure made up of beams and pillars. Behind the rocket and structures is a peach and pink colored sky, with whisps of clouds in it as well.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with NASA’s PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem) spacecraft stands vertical at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Feb. 5, 2024. PACE is NASA’s newest Earth-observing satellite that will help increase our understanding of Earth’s oceans, atmosphere, and climate by delivering hyperspectral observations of microscopic marine organisms called phytoplankton as well new data on clouds and aerosols.

The researchers specialize in a wide range of topics including water resources, fisheries and aquaculture, air quality and health, climate, and agriculture. These early adopters of the science provide a bridge between the PACE team and local communities and decision-makers who need accessible products for public use. Such work can help connect the new frontier of PACE’s hyperspectral and multi-angular polarimetric data to real-world problems – and find new ways to address challenges.

Helping Coastal Communities Keep Fisheries Safe

In coastal communities, knowing the quality of the water is essential for ecosystem health, safe and sustainable seafood, and recreation – not to mention human livelihoods that depend on fisheries.

The image is a satellite view, peering down on the ocean. The background of the image is the dark blue color of the ocean, but centered in the image is a swirling shape of light blue, milky substance – phytoplankton making up a bloom. In the foreground of the image are bright white clouds, seen in the top left corner and along the bottom of the image.
Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that live in watery environments. When conditions are right, phytoplankton undergo explosive population growth, creating blooms visible from space. Such a bloom occurred in the North Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Newfoundland in early August 2010. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image on Aug. 9, 2010. The paisley pattern of peacock blue owes its color to phytoplankton.
Credit: NASA/Goddard/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team

Marina Marrari, executive director of the Costa Rican Fishing Federation in San José is one of PACE’s early adopters. Marrari and her colleagues developed a mobile app that will pull in data from PACE’s Ocean Color Instrument to help inform the public about harmful algal blooms. Known as pezCA, the app distributes near real-time data about ocean temperature, chlorophyll concentration, and currents as measured by other NASA satellites. Once PACE data is available, the app will be updated to include a product on specific types of harmful algal blooms that can have toxic effects on people and animals.

Bringing Air Quality Alerts to the Midwest

Information on air quality and airborne particles (aerosols) is typically available for dense urban areas like Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York. Marcela Loría-Salazar, assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, plans to use data from PACE’s polarimeters and OCI to study air quality in locations in the middle of the United States, where there tend to be fewer ground-based monitors.

Urban pollution emissions, desert dust, and smoke from wildfires can travel from distant places – across continents or even oceans. (Think of the wildfire smoke that can blow from Alaska and Canada into the central U.S.) PACE gathers global data on this dust and smoke in Earth’s atmosphere every one to two days, and that data is open access – meaning it is available for anyone to find and download free from the Internet.

A satellite view shows the greens and orange browns of land in the Midwest of the United States. The land, split up by dark blue lakes at the top of the image, also has thin twisting rivers snaking through it. The land and water take up the background of the image. In the foreground are wisps of white clouds and gray smoke. Clouds are seen in the top left corner of the image and alone the right side of the image. The smoke trails from the top left of the image to the bottom right, and the land can be seen through the smoky plumes.
Smoke from Canadian wildfires drifts slowly south over the United States’ Midwest. The drifting smoke can be seen in this Terra satellite image taken in December 2017 over Lake Michigan, as well as parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio.
NASA MODIS Rapid Response Team / Jeff Schmaltz

Loría-Salazar and her team can use this information to track aerosols, studying how they change as they move over land, change altitude, and interact with other atmospheric particles. Her goal is to better understand how these aerosols affect human health when they’re inhaled. Her team works with the Oklahoma state government to develop solutions to improve air quality decision-making.

She also works with tribal nations to help inform air quality decisions in their communities. For example, setting prescribed fires is a traditional activity to preserve ecosystems, but the fires do put smoke into the air. By using satellite data, tribal managers can make better-informed decisions about the potential risk of acute smoke exposure on a given day.

Tracking Health of Marine Mammal Ecosystems

Phytoplankton are the center of the marine food web. These microscopic organisms are food for bigger animals like zooplankton, fish, and shellfish – and ultimately whales and dolphins. While PACE can’t directly detect fish or mammals below the surface of the ocean, it can view communities of phytoplankton, which can inform scientists about the ocean ecosystem in which fish and mammals live.

Centered in the image is a woman wearing a white linen shirt and dark pants. She is sitting on a rock, her knees tucked up as if she is in a crouching position. She has blonde hair which is blowing slightly with the breeze to the left of the image. The rock she is sitting on is brown colored and has small craters in it. The rocky landscape extends behind her where it then reaches the ocean, which is a light cray color. There are rocks extending from the ocean as well.
Liz Ferguson on the coast of the oceans where she studies marine mammals.
Courtesy of Liz Ferguson

By examining phytoplankton, scientists can gain valuable insights into changes occurring within marine habitats, as these microorganisms often serve as early indicators of regional ecosystem health. Liz Ferguson, CEO and marine ecologist for Ocean Science Analytics, studies marine mammals off the Pacific Coast of North America.

Monitoring plankton communities enhances scientists’ ability to perceive the intricate dynamics within marine ecosystems. By closely monitoring shifts in environmental variables and the behavior of indicator species such as marine mammals, Ferguson can study the impact of climate change on the California current's ecosystems.

Doubling Up Satellite Data

Some species of phytoplankton produce toxins that can be dangerous for humans, pets, and livestock. When these phytoplankton multiply to large numbers, it’s called a harmful algal bloom.

Richard Stumpf and Michelle Tomlinson, oceanographers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), use satellite data to study these blooms and help inform communities about their risks. They have been using data from the Ocean and Land Color Instrument on the European Space Agency's Sentinel-3 satellite, which captures Earth data by measuring certain wavelengths of light. PACE’s Ocean Color Instrument sensor does the same, but as a hyperspectral instrument, it can detect more than 200 wavelengths – more than five times the number observed by Sentinel-3 and other current instruments.

A man is seen to the left of the picture wearing a blue polo shirt with the NOAA logo on it and a brown, felt material cowboy-like hat. He is facing the right side of the picture and is looking three short, cylindrical containers stacked on top of one another that he is holding. The bottom container has a green hue while the top two are more clear. Behind him is the blue green color of the ocean.
Richard Stumpf examines water from plankton net tows in Lake Erie taken in early summer 2023. A net tow concentrates plankton from the water making it easier to identify what is present, particularly when a bloom is developing. The middle jar is the unfiltered lake water, the top one is from an area that has mostly zooplankton (microscopic animals), and the bottom (greenish) one has cyanobacteria.
Courtesy of Richard Stumpf

PACE data can help Stumpf and Tomlinson continue their research on how the color of harmful algal blooms change over time and space. Choosing specific wavelengths of data from PACE can also help verify the data from Sentinel-3 and extend the long-term data record.

The hyperspectral capabilities of PACE can allow scientists and environmental managers to not only spot emerging blooms, but also identify the specific communities of phytoplankton that make up the bloom. Detecting these details helps scientists better inform local water managers about the location, timing, and type of harmful algal blooms, which can help mitigate risks to the public.