Remote Sensing Expert Crystal Schaaf
Active in the field of remote sensing for more than 25 years, Crystal Schaaf uses remotely, or satellite, sensed data for environmental modeling and monitoring for land use management, urban land cover assessment, ecological, agricultural, and hydrological monitoring, and atmospheric and environmental forecasting, to name just a few.
She has published nearly 100 articles and served as the principal or coprincipal investigator of research grants totaling $22.2 million from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation.
Schaaf is now working on the development and use of operational products from NASA’s MODerate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MODIS) to monitor the Earth’s environments from the Terra and Aqua polar-orbiting space platforms. She is a science team member for both MODIS and the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor on board the newly launched Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership Preparatory Project Platform, or the precursor to the next generation of national meteorological satellites.
“The need to accurately monitor global surface albedo and capture surface land cover variability for climate and weather applications will continue into the future with such operational missions,” says Schaaf. “However, some of the most exciting new research work will be focused on applications that directly utilize radiative, phenological, and structural information derived from remotely sensed data.”
With the above in mind, she looks forward to training more students, in the classroom as well as through an active research program, to use these new satellite-derived data sources. “Doing so will improve our ability to monitor the environment, assess the impact of human activities, and inform efforts to mitigate the degradation of terrestrial, coastal, and marine environments in the future.”
Initially trained as a research meteorologist, she earned her BS and MS degrees in meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While there she carried out her research, under Dr. Reginald Newell, investigating the Walker Circulation and its impact on El Niño events. In fulfillment of her ROTC obligations and due to her advanced degree, she was assigned to the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory (now Phillips Laboratory) at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Massachusetts as an atmospheric research officer.
After four years of active duty, she joined the Laboratory as a civil servant. As part of the research team focused on improving the Air Force operational cloud detection algorithm, she became interested in characterizing surface properties to better distinguish cloud features.
During this time, she fulfilled a lifelong interest in archaeology by obtaining a second master’s degree through Harvard University Extension. Her work focused on the Moche civilization of Peru. Through a very generous collaboration with researchers at Ohio State University, she was able to use their oxygen isotope records from the Andean Quelccaya Glacier to show that the Moche people appear to have experienced a severe and prolonged drought in 562-594 A.D. In response, as evident in the archaeological record, the Moche made the necessary changes in their settlement and cropping patterns to ensure their survival.
From 1990-1994, Schaaf entered the Boston University (BU) Department of Geography as a PhD candidate and began her work with Dr. Alan Strahler and the MODIS Team focusing on the refinement and validation of a geometicaloptical anisotropy and albeldo model. In 1996, she left civil service to join the BU research team and work on both the MODIS products and definition of the VIIRS algorithms. It was in 2003, after the successful launches of the Terra satellite in 1999 and the Aqua satellite in 2002, she assumed leadership of the MODIS Albedo effort.