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Transcript of Opening Address by NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin

Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
April 1, 1997

I spent the last year of my former career looking down at the Earth -- not for biodiversity, but for other purposes, military purposes. I became quite adept at understanding what needed to be done. I think one of the reasons I'm with NASA is that in the 1980s, I began to speak up about being concerned with NASA's Mission to Planet Earth Program, which was a program that focused on building hardware. It was a program focused on long-term stability for the scientists working on it, but in my mind it was not focused on the essential need we have and that's to get a biofeedback signal from the Earth, so we can achieve sustainable development.

The people at NASA are outstanding and they never had any concern about the transition out of a Cold War strategy, where everything we did had to be bigger and better than the Russians. We were beginning to commit to spacecraft for Mission to Planet Earth, but the program cost billions of dollars and, perhaps took decades. It was built around the spacecraft. What is most important is to have the research of NASA being driven by the science, not building elegant engineering temples in search of questions to answer. This is one of the reasons that I think that the discussions we're going to have over the next two days are very, very important. For the biodiversity community is a community we haven't aggressively interacted with.

We are spending $1.5 billion a year to understand the interaction of the atmosphere, the land, the oceans and the biosphere. And not to have its requirements driven by concerns about biodiversity, I think, would be a crime for this program. So, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Tom Lovejoy for acting as a host and coordinator, for bringing a lot of people together.

If you take a look at Earth from space it's very, very beautiful. I hope most of you have seen the picture of it that was taken from the moon, where you can see the Earth, this isolated ball thrust against a black sky. I think that picture, more than any other picture, brought about an understanding on this planet, among the people on this planet, that there's a finite boundary on the things that we have and this is all we have. That picture is probably, in my mind, the most important picture ever taken.

Now, I've never been to space, but I've talked to astronauts that have been in space and I've listened in on a lot of their conversations. And, as you listen to the astronauts, especially those that are going into space for the first time, superlatives are the words that keep coming back. How beautiful this planet is and how you begin to appreciate the balance between the land, the oceans, and the atmosphere.

I spend a lot of time with astronauts and we go to schools and talk to children. I've probably been in hundreds of schools by now as the Administrator. I try and get to schools all over the country, especially in low-populated rural areas of America and the inner city. Almost every time an astronaut gets up I get overwhelmed at their description of what our planet looks like, how beautiful it is. They describe the beauty, but they also describe some of the scars. And these scars are both from nature and the human species.

There's one scar I'd like to talk about to kind of set the stage today and that's in Madagascar, off the coast of Africa. Many of our astronauts, over the last two decades, have looked out on Madagascar and watched a tragedy take place. On the west side of Madagascar is a river, and silt comes pouring down that river. This silt is caused by deforestation taking place upstream and the subsequent erosion that takes topsoil and dumps it into the river. There's a reddish brown flow against a blue-green background. It's kind of like the blood flowing through a vein, but it's the life blood that's flowing out of Madagascar. This river was very, very productive for shipping and the mouth of the river is now almost filled with silt, so navigation of large ships is impossible. The port keeps moving progressively down towards the coast.

The effect of deforestation is devastating. Just think about it. The people of Madagascar are desperate to survive. In their attempts to survive, they're cutting down the trees and using them for firewood and selling the wood, just to survive today, and in the process they have gone from 15 million acres to two and a half million acres of forest. It's being eaten up at the rate of 579 square miles per year. The World Resources Institute estimates that in 35 years there will be almost total deforestation.

Now, Mary Cleave is here and for those of you who would like to talk firsthand, Mary is an astronaut. She's been in space twice already and she's seen what this looks like. From the ground, you don't get the total picture; but, from the height of space, you get a holistic view and to watch this river bleeding is unbelievable. Perhaps we haven't done enough of a job at NASA, and maybe this picture is something we ought to more aggressively show to the world. Now, Mary came back from space and she's working on the biology of oceans at NASA. I'll talk about that more in a minute.

Now, I talk about the physics of what's going on and the economics of what's going on, but three-fourths of the plants and animals on that island are unique to Madagascar. So, if those plants and animals disappear from Madagascar, they disappear from the planet Earth. With us today is Dr. Mittermeier, who knows the problems of Madagascar well. Now you say, "Okay. So what? The people of Madagascar want to do it to themselves. What can we do about it? They're desperate to consume the resources of their children, to survive today, to get firewood or just to sell these incredible timbers to be able to buy food and try to bring it up the river." (And, by the way, it's very difficult bringing anything up that river because the more they cut, the more difficult it is to go up that river.) "Well, it's their problem."

If you've heard of the rosy periwinkle, it sounds like a simple flower, unless you suffer from leukemia. Sometimes it's a lifesaver because sometimes lifesaving drugs developed from the rosy periwinkle protect the lives of people. The loss of this flower, just this one flower, could have had repercussions worldwide, maybe on someone that you know. Now, Madagascar is one island and its ecology and biodiversity affect the rest of the world. I gave you but one example. We are all really interconnected.

Now, there's a pioneering spirit we have in America that goes back to the pioneering days when people could go out to the middle of the country and isolate themselves and make their own tools and live in almost complete isolation. But we are becoming more interconnected.

When I was born in 1940, there were about two billion people on this planet. In less than three generations, our population has almost tripled. It took thousands of years to get to two billion people and in my lifetime I've watched it almost triple. For the next two generations there are different models but one thing is for sure -- our population is going to continue to grow. As it grows, we become more interdependent on each other and more dependent upon technology.

One thing is clear, you can't steal from the future to survive in the present. It becomes unconscionable because what we're doing is just stealing from our children. The problem we have is we all want continued economic growth, but it has to be sustainable. To be sustainable, we need some sort of biofeedback signal from our planet. You know, in our own bodies we are able to judge whether we're eating too much or too little. We get biofeedback with headaches and stomach aches and other such things. But in the area of sustainable development, in the area of conservation, in the area of biodiversity, much of the debate is based on supposition and feeling and a small data set, not a holistic data set that's shared by everyone, developed by everyone -- so no one feels someone else is putting something over on them.

What we're about at NASA is the rational part of the equation, to collect the data in an open, balanced manner, thoroughly peer-reviewed, and to make that data available to policymakers. Now, many of you are interfacing with the policymaker community. It is our goal over the next two decades to provide a rational data set so policy will be made based upon what we know, not based upon what we think we know. And all this is crucial for sustainable development. Sustainable economic development is something everybody wants, but you can't keep going without having a feedback signal. No system works like that. We need to focus on data collection, data analysis and data dissemination.

Now, here is the problem. If the United States of America, which has the resources to do this, goes off and does by itself some of the work, developing countries might say, "Well, they're using it for economic control. You did it [developed your own country], now it's our turn to do it. You're using your information to prevent us from doing the things that you did." So, not only must we objectively collect the data and review that data in a peer-reviewed fashion, we must do it on a global basis. We must involve every nation on this planet as part of the data collection, data analysis and data dissemination.

Towards that end, NASA right now, I think, has agreements with 65 countries. We're reaching out to a lot of the developing countries - not to tell them what to do, but to work with them as partners. Some of the work that Dr. Lovejoy referred to was done in cooperation with the Brazilians. We worked very closely with them as colleagues, not as the United States' coming in to tell Brazil how to manage its resources. We need to collect the data on local, regional, national and global bases.

Now, there is another observation that the astronauts made; I didn't bring the picture with me. When they're in the Shuttle they take pictures of the edge of the Earth. You know you can see the horizon, you can see the curvature of the Earth and you can see the dark space, and there's a transition zone that glows bright blue. It's about 10 miles high and that's all there is to our atmosphere. That's another picture that's incredibly, incredibly powerful because that atmosphere knows no national boundaries. If you have pollution in one country, it's going to come to another country. In fact, we can watch the Chinese work their fields because they move so much topsoil we can see the dust cloud coming across the Pacific Ocean when they cultivate the fields. You can see it. It is unbelievable. What's going to happen to that topsoil two or three generations from now? Now, no one else could see it, but people have a sense about it. At NASA we could see the topsoil and dust particles coming across the ocean.

I recently had the opportunity to visit a few cities and in one city I saw that they were paving over most of the productive farmlands with highways, factories and houses. You might think this was in the United States, but this was Beijing. They took me to their remote-sensing center and they proudly showed me the pictures from space. They said, "Hey, Dan, here's a picture of Beijing 10 years ago and here's a picture today." You look at the picture and some of the most productive farmland in China was paved over as Beijing doubled in size. Now, they've had a system that was set up for thousands of years where the farmers were right on the outskirts of the city - on the most productive land, which is very fertile. The farmers would raise their foodstuffs and in the morning bring it into the city with animals and bicycles. Now, they've pushed them back so far the whole system for producing foodstuffs is disappearing as factories and bridges and housing and other things are going up. Is it right or wrong? I don't want to judge that. I'm just stating a fact, that here is a biofeedback signal they're getting. They proudly showed it to me, but that biofeedback signal is not getting to the planners in Beijing.

One need only take a look at the Washington Post a few days ago when they talked about the Washington area. In the '80s, the Washington area lost over 211,000 acres of green space - farmland, barren land, and forest and wetlands - nearly five times the size of the District of Columbia. From 1990 to 2020, they predict we'll lose another 309,000 acres -- 28 acres per day. Some say it's a mistake; some say it's progress. I'm not here to pass judgment, but you've got to understand the impact and you need to see it, not just read about it over time, you need to see it. People need to see it. And hopefully, with this feedback signal, when you take a look at the human growth around the productive areas in the United States and the productive areas in China you get some sense about how we can get to real city planning and not irrational city planning. In the end we'll be just fine. Our children will be fine, but our children's children and those that come after them ought to have the same benefits we had.

So the NASA mission is a mandate from the American people through the President and the Congress, to understand the interactions of the land, the ocean, the atmosphere and the biomass and to build predictive models of the environment - local, regional, national and global; weekly, seasonally, and inter-annually. That's our mission. That's what we're about. Today, the best we can do is a five-day weather prediction, which is not always accurate in and of itself. We are not sure whether we're experiencing the natural variability of our climate or human-induced global change. If we're ever to manage our resources, we have to understand this.

We've been making some progress in understanding the El Nino. We worked with the French and we've developed a spacecraft mission called TOPEX/POSEIDON, which has a radar that measures the ocean surface to within about an inch. So when El Nino occurs in the Pacific, which is an event that we are not sure how and why it occurs, but when it does occur, there's a hot spot in the center of the Pacific Ocean. You get thermal expansion so the ocean rises a bit. With this spacecraft, we can watch this heat wave travel eastward across the Pacific until it hits the West Coast of the United States.

I come from Los Angeles, where you normally get 12 inches of rain. One season we got 50 inches of rain. Think about what that does in that kind of climate. Being able to predict that is crucial because El Nino impacts 39 crops in 33 nations. Just in terms of foodstuffs around the world, it is crucial to understand it.

We're making further progress with other devices. We just launched a scatterometer on a Japanese satellite - you notice it's not all American satellites. We're trying to work with other countries to make this happen. This scatterometer is helping us measure the surface currents of all the oceans, which is helping us sharpen up our climate models because air currents affect things. The next big step is to fold in chemistry and physics and include biology in our regional, local, and global models because transpiration from plants has a huge impact on local and regional weather.

We're making progress. We're moving forward. We have airborne and space remote sensing. We have active and passive sensors. A passive sensor is like the eyeball, reflected and emitted light come off the surface of an object and into the sensor. An active sensor is a sensor like a radar. You send out a pulse. You wait until it hits and you get the reflected signal from that pulse. We were working with radars with some of the folks that are trying to understand what's happening to the gorillas in Central Africa and looking at the vegetation and other things that affect gorillas. With these sensors, we fingerprint biological and non-biological activity.

Your TV has three colors and, as I'll talk about later, we make satellite measurements in seven different colors and 36 different colors. If I take a look at different colors that are reflected off plants, I can fingerprint when they are starved for water or whether they have a pest that could be destroying them. I can even, in some cases, determine what the pest is. I can determine whether they have too much nutrition or not enough. From space, we're looking at working with farmers so that you can literally farm by using a global positioning satellite to understand the stresses on vegetation and help farmers be much more productive so they don't over-utilize water, so they don't over-utilize fertilizer, so they don't over-utilize pesticides, which could contaminate the springs. It is also an unbelievable process that we're going through in forestry management now.

Imagine a year-end, long-term prediction of natural disasters or if there is global warming and the oceans might start to rise. The insurance industry is beside themselves. They're beating up NASA saying, "Why aren't you moving faster in predicting what's going to happen to the tidal basins?" A one-meter change, or a one-foot change, in the sea level could be devastating to cities like New Orleans.

In [the area of] biodiversity, we work on terrestrial ecology, land use change, biological oceanography. The technologies of data systems are already interactive, but from our standpoint, I think we're missing some of the connection [with the biodiversity community].

This is why we are having the workshop. We really need some help from you, not in telling us how to design sensors. Not in building spacecraft. We know how to do that. But what are the things that you're looking at? Where should we start doing fingerprinting of the systems on the planet? Where should we be doing fingerprinting of biological and physical processes that will help you better understand what's happening to biodiversity?

Now, Tom has invited some of the brightest individuals in the struggle to maintain biodiversity -- the leaders in the field. So we need you to help us understand how we can be more effective in helping you solve biodiversity problems, global biodiversity problems.

We have all these sensors I talked about. Let me talk a little bit about the passive measurements to give you a sense of what we do. Visible light has a spectrum so you can only see colors, red through violet blue. Now if you go to longer wavelengths [on the electromagnetic spectrum], it's called infrared. Infrared is characteristic of a given set of physical processes, namely collisions among molecules. When molecules collide, they give off energy in the infrared.

So what we really do from space is, as I said, take pictures in different wavelengths that characterize different physical and biological processes. We do it with two terms that you'll hear today, spectral resolution and spatial resolution. Spatial resolution is how big, in size, is the thing that you can resolve. In the case of LANDSAT, it's 30 meters or about 100 feet. When you're making holistic measurements, you're really not interested in features that are real small like reading license plates on cars. NASA's not interested in that. Other people concern themselves with that. So, roughly the measurements that we will gather are on the order of tens or hundreds of meters or kilometers in spatial resolution. When you're looking at forests that's more than enough to make significant measurements.

Now, there are commercial spacecraft that are going to have very high spatial resolution. NASA could serve as a central point to help you figure out where those spacecraft are. We could lead you to the commercial suppliers of those data because we don't like to interfere with the commercial marketplace.

Spectral resolution says how small a bandwidth did I look at. This is where you get into fingerprinting different processes. LANDSAT currently has seven spectral bands. We've been using LANDSAT four to seven spectral-band data for decades. It's a set of measurements that we're going to be making for decades more so we have a continuity of data. We keep making the same measurements day after day and week after week, month after month and year after year so we can understand the processes. We now have made tremendous progress. We're building an instrument called MODIS, which will have 36 colors that one could look at. That will be going up on the EOS-AM Platform in 1998, and over a 15-year period there will be a continuity of data with the MODIS measurements.

This summer, we are working on an experimental satellite, not an operational one, with 384 bands. It's called Meriwether Lewis Satellite after the explorer, because this could give us incredible, incredible fingerprinting. It would be awfully nice if one of the pilot projects we have, used the Lewis satellite to start fingerprinting processes critical to biodiversity. I mean, it's a whole new field that will be opening up. It is an amazing spacecraft.

One of the other things I'm proud about is it used to cost billions of dollars to build a spacecraft like this and it used to take a decade. This spacecraft was built in two years. We're learning how to be more efficient. That's just a little advertisement for the wonderful people at NASA.

Chemical processes. We can use passive remote sensing to understand chemical processes taking place in the atmosphere. That's how we fingerprinted and told the whole world [the link between] what was happening with the little spray cans that people had and the destruction of the ozone layer. We used aircraft and spacecraft to do two types of measurements - one type is fully holistic measurements from space and the other measurements actually collect samples of the air so we get ground truth and can compare it [with the space measurements].

We fly converted U2s. We are developing a remotely-piloted vehicle that goes to 100,000 feet and stays there for hours. We hope to have remotely-piloted vehicles that could be solar-powered and stay up there for weeks. We have a full set of tools. Again, these tools are there. We'd like to know how to use them better.

We also measure the vegetation canopy and we've had two missions so far. Diane Evans is here. You've met Diane? There she is. She's a program manager for the Jet Propulsion Lab. We have another radar mission going up in 1999 where we're going to do a nearly global topographic map. We'll do the measuring in different frequencies.

We have an X-band radar, which is a very, very high frequency, higher than what you have in the TV signals from space. And C-band radar like TV from space. It's a lower frequency, higher wavelength. Then L-band radar is like the UHF frequencies. Why do we have different frequencies? At the very low frequencies, you can penetrate the vegetation so you can know where the surface of the Earth is. As you go to the very high frequencies, you can know where the top of the vegetation canopy is. The middle frequencies give you some sense about what's in between. With these types of devices, we're going to make a total global radar map, from 60 degrees north to 60 degrees south, of our planet. It just hasn't existed before. This is going to be another very, very useful tool that you can use.

Let me give just one or two more examples and wrap up. LANDSAT has been a powerhouse. It's been up there for two decades and we've been working with one project in the humid tropics of Brazil. Compton Tucker from NASA Goddard, are you here today? He's coming this afternoon. He was a leader on this project along with David Skole at the University of New Hampshire.

Now understanding the changes in the humid tropics is important. I don't have to tell you that the humid tropics are hothouses for biodiversity. Until Tucker and Skole made their measurements in Brazil, we didn't know how to measure the deforestation with reasonable accuracy. They were able to make high-accuracy measurements, and they found that the deforestation in the first half of the '90s was less than we would have expected. That was the good news. But the bad news was, due to our fragmentation of the forest, there is a much worse impact on biodiversity. We've only solved the first half of the equation. People are going to go in, and chop up forests in an unplanned manner, and the world is told everything's okay because the rate of deforestation is not as bad as we thought. But if you still destroy the biodiversity, something needs to change. Again, we can't ourselves change it in Brazil. We're working with the Brazilians, providing rational data, not emotion. The data help the Brazilians understand what's happening in their own forests.

You should have received a copy of the Tucker and Skole paper. Of all papers in the field of global change that are highly cited, this was ranked number two since 1993. Their work was a major, major finding. We intend to work with other countries in other areas in the same way.

Oceans are almost 70 percent of the planet. We've been using ocean color as a measurement. This is one the areas that Mary Cleave works in and Gene Feldman. Mary and Gene are from NASA Goddard. He traced the impact of the '82-'83 El Nino event to the distribution of phytoplankton around the Galapagos Islands. Then further studies were done to understand the impact of the change in the phytoplankton. There was a decline in the foodstuff for fur seals.

There are a whole series of new instruments coming out. We have a lot of capabilities and a lot of things that we can do. We have incredible data networks. We even designed these data networks so that they're user friendly. It will pop up on your computer on the Internet and you can be hooked in. Without having huge service charges, you can find the data that we have. We need you to help us utilize our sensors, our data sources. We need you to work with us so that our children will be able to go to the parks in Los Angeles and not have smog alerts. So that my wife, who has asthma, can move out to Los Angeles. So that our children will have resources to build homes. So they'll have resources for energy and transportation and we'll all have productive lives.

I hope that we have a very, very successful interaction. No one knows the outcome, but in my mind this is a very, very crucial step. We at NASA take it very seriously. We take very seriously the charge we've been given by the American people. And you can make a difference in getting a better biofeedback signal for this planet. Thank you very much.

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