• 04.02.12

Using Satellites To Stop Outbreaks Before They Start

Sometimes the only way you can make sure you’re seeing the big picture is to look at it from really high up. And now, with satellite imagery, that bird’s-eye view is offering many new solutions.

Months before the first raindrops fell this rainy season, scientists peering down on Africa could see the first signs of a major disease outbreak. Armed with satellite data showing unusual rain and weather patterns, NASA contacted the World Health Organization–which, in turn, got in touch with African governments such as Kenya, Somalia, and Tanzania–warning of mosquito-borne Rift Valley fever. They launched a disease prevention effort long before the first infected mosquito bite.


“With a lead time of three months from prediction to outcome,” writes The Scientist magazine in their feature on the expanding applications for satellite field work, the outbreak of Rift Valley fever in 2006–2007 “marked the first time that scientists were able to successfully predict an outbreak of the disease.”

Fields as diverse as public health, ecology landscape restoration, anthropology, and even animal behavior are now being monitored, measured, and analyzed with space-based tools. The effort has been made possible by 30 years of ever-sharper remote sensing technologies that give researchers ubiquitous cheap, reliable, and global imagery over most of the planet.

While muddy boots give investigators insights on the ground, researchers are starting to tap into detailed satellite views (available through Google Earth and elsewhere for free) that give a “big-picture understanding of how organisms interact not only with their immediate environments, but also with the more expansive, global landscape,” over years or even decades.

For now, the success stories include gauging coral health by monitoring fish feeding patterns on reefs, managing entire landscapes by watching how goat grazing affects vegetation in Hawaii, ornithologists at Cornell studying bird habitats from space, and forests being mapped down to species and tree height with the latest generation of sensors.

The first wave of publications using Google Earth and other remote sensing resources are now hitting journals–we reported on the farmed fish census— and there’s more to come.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.