Apr 23, 2004

Keeping an Eye on Central America


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NASA-supported researchers have developed software anyone can use to fly, video game-style, over Central America and survey its current environmental conditions.





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April 23, 2004:  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.


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The view evokes a kind of intuitive understanding of these environmental concerns that words alone can not provide.


Right: A computer-generated, 3-dimensional landscape of the Caribbean coastal plain of Costa Rica based on satellite data. [More]

Juan Mario Dary, the environmental minister of Guatemala, plans to give such an aerial tour of Central America this weekend. Only he won't actually be in a plane. In fact, he won't be anywhere near Central America. He'll be in Tokyo, Japan, at the second annual Earth Observation Summit.

The tour Dary plans to give will be 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.




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"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 few."

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 ( 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.


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Above: 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. This perspective view was created using software from Skyline Software Systems.

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 software (GIS).


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Left: Dan Irwin (light blue shirt) in Central America, flanked by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and Ghassem Asrar, NASA's Associate Administrator for Earth Science. Irwin is the NASA manager of SIAM-SERVER. [ ]


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, construction will begin on a central data storage facility in Panama. In addition to being the information warehouse for the project, the Panama facility will be 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.


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Right: Much of Central America's rich biodiversity in is being destroyed by "slash and burn" agriculture. This photo was taken in Petén, Guatemala, by Daniel Irwin.

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.


Web Links

SIAM-SERVIR -- the Web portal of environmental maps and data for Central America discussed in this article

CCAD -- home page (in Spanish) for the intergovernmental Central American environmental organization, which is the principal authority in the region for SIAM-SERVIR.

USAID -- home page for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is funding part of the SIAM-SERVIR project

The World Bank -- home page

Landsat 7 -- home page for one of the satellites contributing region-wide environmental data to the SIAM-SERVIR database

Terra -- home page for the NASA satellite carrying the MODIS instrument, which provides daily data updates to the SIAM-SERVIR database

Mesoamerica Burning -- (Science@NASA) The rich diversity of wildlife in southern Mexico and Central America is in peril. Local governments are using satellites to get a grip on a vast "corridor" system of protected lands.

Skyline Software Systems -- company providing some of the mapping and 3D terrain software used by SIAM-SERVIR

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