UMass Boston Professor of Environmental, Earth, and Ocean Sciences Crystal Schaaf looks to the sky when she wants to show her remote sensing students how to obtain, monitor, and interpret climate information.
Schaaf is a member of the scientific team interpreting data from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MODIS) and the VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite) sensor on board the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) platform, NASA's newest Earth-observing satellite. The data is then used to track weather and climate changes.
In October, a few months after joining the UMass Boston faculty, Schaaf was invited to Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara, California, to watch the satellite launch in the early morning hours.
“You see this huge blast of light and then, seconds later, the sound of the boom,” Schaaf says. “Then it starts rising up, quite slowly, into the air and heading out away from us.”
Many of Schaaf’s remote sensing students, who had been following the NASA team’s progress in class, woke up early to watch the launch online.
“I was able to come back and show them the pictures. They were able to experience a little of what is involved in a satellite team and get to see data that I’ve been working so hard to generate,” Schaaf says.
Schaaf and the other members of the scientific team evaluating the VIIRS’s imagery products are currently evaluating the data and comparing it to the albedo data, which is a measure of the reflectivity of the Earth’s surface, from both the MODIS satellite and the albedo data collected on the ground.
“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,” Schaaf says. “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.
“My data are used by scientists in Europe, they’re used here in the States for our modeling efforts, they’re used to do crop land monitoring by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), they’re used to do fire monitoring, so there’s always something new you can do with the data.”
In more than 25 years working in the remote sensing field, Schaaf has published more than 100 articles and served as the principal or co-principal investigator of research grants totaling $22.2 million from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation. Until now, she has considered herself a land scientist, which is why she is enjoying working with UMass Boston faculty members focused on coastal systems.
“Frankly, most scientists focus on either the land or the ocean because the tidal regions are very difficult to model and capture from space. I am also very excited to be joining UMass Boston at this point in time because there is so much going on here these days with the new Integrated Sciences Complex, the new influx of terrific students, and the new projects,” Schaaf says.