UMass Boston Professors, Students Watch Launch of Satellite That Will Gather Data for $970K Grant

Colleen Locke | February 11, 2013
Professor Crystal Schaaf and UMass Boston graduate students were on hand for the satellite launch.

Professor Crystal Schaaf and UMass Boston graduate students were on hand for the satellite launch.

Landsat Satellite Data to Provide Accurate Weather and Climate Models

A group of graduate students from University of Massachusetts Boston and professors Crystal Schaaf and ZhongPing Lee were at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California Monday, where they watched the launch of a satellite that will be churning out data for UMass Boston researchers to use in a project funded by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The launch, a joint project between NASA and the USGS, happened Monday at 1 p.m.

The Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) satellite, which was called Landsat 8 when it reached space, will add to the longest continuous data record of the Earth’s surface as viewed from space. The project already has collected more than 40 years of information about land and ocean surfaces, cloud cover, and temperatures. In addition to using the data for short-term weather forecasting and longer-term climate models, researchers are also able to monitor wildfires, view storm damage, assess snowpack for water and irrigation, and track deforestation.

Schaaf and Lee, professors in the Department of Environmental, Earth, and Ocean Sciences, are part of a team that received a five-year, $973,275 USGS grant. Working with Yanmin Shuai of Earth Resources Technology in Maryland, the UMass Boston professors will develop an algorithm to establish the surface albedo of land and nearshore areas of North America.

“Albedo describes the reflectivity of the earth—how much of the sun's energy is being reflected back to space rather than being absorbed at the surface to heat the land and water and provide the energy needed to drive photosynthesis and the Earth's life cycle,” said Schaaf, the principal investigator. “When forested areas are disturbed through harvest, deforestation, hurricane, or beetle damage, the albedo is changed and if the area is big enough, the local climate can be affected. For example, a patch of trees that was dark and absorbing energy in the winter might now reflect the sun and allow the wind to whistle through. We need to know how much energy is being absorbed or reflected to do accurate weather, climate, and carbon modeling.”

UMass Boston graduate student Yun Yang is working alongside Schaaf, using Landsat data to study how soil moisture affects dissolved carbon in salt marshes, rivers, and estuaries, improving our knowledge of how the coastal ecosystem works. Yang’s study focus is the Boston area, particularly the Neponset River Watershed.

“Landsat 8 will bring us more high-quality data for our research,” Yang said. “I am very excited to participate in such a historical event.”

Schaaf, her students, and Shuai will focus on how albedo levels will be altered by climate change and other disturbances above the sea surface, while co-investigator Lee will study the environment in clear nearshore waters, such as coral reefs and seagrass beds.

“The to-be-launched Landsat 8 is a very exciting new development for Earth observation and Earth science,” Lee said.

About UMass Boston
With a growing reputation for innovative research addressing complex issues, the University of Massachusetts Boston, metropolitan Boston’s only public university, offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s nine colleges and graduate schools serve nearly 16,000 students while engaging local, national, and international constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service activities. To learn more about UMass Boston, visit

Tags: college of science and mathematics , crystal schaaf , csm , eeos , research , satellite , satellite launch

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