Locusts & Monkeys

Soil moisture data from the SMOS satellite and the MODIS instrument acquired between July and October 2016 were used by isardSAT and CIRAD to create this map showing areas with favourable locust swarming conditions (in red) during the November 2016 outbreak. Data courtesy of ESA. Copyright : CIRAD, SMELLS consortium.

Spatial resolution is a key characteristic in remote sensing, as we’ve previously discussed. Often the view is that you need an object to be significantly larger than the resolution to be able to see it on an image. However, this is not always the case as often satellites can identify indicators of objects that are much smaller.

We’ve previously written about satellites identifying phytoplankton in algal blooms, and recently two interesting reports have described how satellites are being used to determine the presence of locusts and monkeys!


Desert locusts are a type of grasshopper, and whilst individually they are harmless as a swarm they can cause huge damage to populations in their paths. Between 2003 and 2005 a swarm in West Africa affected eight million people, with reported losses of 100% for cereals, 90% for legumes and 85% for pasture.

Swarms occur when certain conditions are present; namely a drought, followed by rain and vegetation growth. ESA and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have being working together to determine if data from the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) satellite can be used to forecast these conditions. SMOS carries a Microwave Imaging Radiometer with Aperture Synthesis (MIRAS) instrument – a 2D interferometric L-band radiometer with 69 antenna receivers distributed on a Y-shaped deployable antenna array. It observes the ‘brightness temperature’ of the Earth, which indicates the radiation emitted from planet’s surface. It has a temporal resolution of three days and a spatial resolution of around 50 km.

By combining the SMOS soil moisture observations with data from NASA’s MODIS instrument, the team were able to downscale SMOS to 1km spatial resolution and then use this data to create maps. This approach then predicted favourable locust swarming conditions approximately 70 days ahead of the November 2016 outbreak in Mauritania, giving the potential for an early warning system.

This is interesting for us as we’re currently using soil moisture data in a project to provide an early warning system for droughts and floods.


Earlier this month the paper, ‘Connecting Earth Observation to High-Throughput Biodiversity Data’, was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution. It describes the work of scientists from the Universities of Leicester and East Anglia who have used satellite data to help identify monkey populations that have declined through hunting.

The team have used a variety of technologies and techniques to pull together indicators of monkey distribution, including:

  • Earth observation data to map roads and human settlements.
  • Automated recordings of animal sounds to determine what species are in the area.
  • Mosquitos have been caught and analysed to determine what they have been feeding on.

Combining these various datasets provides a huge amount of information, and can be used to identify areas where monkey populations are vulnerable.

These projects demonstrate an interesting capability of satellites, which is not always recognised and understood. By using satellites to monitor certain aspects of the planet, the data can be used to infer things happening on a much smaller scale than individual pixels.

Small Sea Salinity & Satellite Navigation Irrigation

Artists impression of the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) satellite. Image courtesy of ESA – P. Carril.

A couple of interesting articles came out in the last week relating to ESA’s Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) mission. It caught our attention, as we’re currently knee deep in SMOS data at the moment, due to the soil moisture work we’re undertaking.

SMOS was launched in November 2009 and uses the interferometry technique to make worldwide observations of soil moisture over land and salinity over the ocean. Although its data has also been used to measure floating ice and calculate crop-yield forecasts.

The satellite carries the Microwave Imaging Radiometer using Aperture Synthesis (MIRAS) instrument, which is a 2D interferometric L-band radiometer with 69 antenna receivers distributed on a Y-shaped deployable antenna array. It has a temporal resolution of three days, with a spatial resolution of around 50 km.

A recent ESA article once again showed the versatility of SMOS, reporting that it was being used to measure the salinity in smaller seas, such as the Mediterranean. This was never an anticipated outcome due to radio interference and the land-sea boundary contamination – where the land and ocean data can’t be distinguished sufficiently to provide high quality measurements.

However, the interference has been reduced by shutting down illegal transmitters interrupting the SMOS signal and the land-sea contamination has been reduced by work at the Barcelona Expert Centre to change the data processing methodology.

All of this has meant that it’s possible to use SMOS to look at how water flows in and out of these smaller seas, and impact on the open oceans. This will help complement the understanding being gained from SMOS on ocean climate change, ocean acidification and the El Niño effect.

A fascinating second article described a new methodology for measuring soil moisture using reflected satellite navigation signals. The idea was originally from ESA engineer Manuel Martin-Neira, who worked on SMOS – which we accept is a bit more of a tenuous link, but we think it works for the blog! Manuel proposed using satellite navigation microwave signals to measure terrestrial features such as the topography of oceans.

This idea was further developed by former ESA employee Javier Marti, and his company Divirod, and they have created a product to try and reduce the overuse of irrigation. According to Javier, the system compares reflected and direct satnav signals to reveal the moisture content of soil and crops and could save around 30% of water and energy costs, and improve crop yields by 10-12%. It is a different methodology to SMOS, but the outcome is the same. The work is currently been tested with farmers around the Ogallala aquifer in America.

For anyone working in soil moisture, this is an interesting idea and shows what a fast moving field remote sensing is with new approaches and products being developed all the time.

Monitoring ocean acidification from space

Enhanced pseudo-true colour composite of the United Kingdom showing coccolithophore blooms in light blue. Image acquired by MODIS-Aqua on 24th May 2016. Data courtesy of NASA.

Enhanced pseudo-true colour composite of the United Kingdom showing coccolithophore blooms in light blue. Image acquired by MODIS-Aqua on 24th May 2016. Data courtesy of NASA.

What is ocean acidification?
Since the industrial revolution the oceans have absorbed approximately 50% of the CO2 produced by human activities (The Royal Society, 2005). Scientists previously saw this oceanic absorption as advantageous, however ocean observations in recent decades have shown it has caused a profound change in the ocean chemistry – resulting in ocean acidification (OA); as CO2 dissolves into the oceans it forms carbonic acid, lowering the pH and moving the oceans into a more acidic state. According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ocean pH has already decreased by about 30% and some studies suggest that if no changes are made, by 2100, ocean pH will decrease by 150%.

Impacts of OA
It’s anticipated OA will impact many marine species. For example, it’s expected it will have a harmful effect on some calcifying species such as corals, oysters, crustaceans, and calcareous plankton e.g. coccolithophores.

OA can significantly reduce the ability of reef-building corals to produce their skeletons and can cause the dissolution of oyster’s and crustacean’s protective shells, making them more susceptible to predation and death. This in turn would affect the entire food web, the wider environment and would have many socio-economic impacts.

Calcifying phytoplankton, such as coccolithophores, are thought to be especially vulnerable to OA. They are the most abundant type of calcifying phytoplankton in the ocean, and are important for the global biogeochemical cycling of carbon and are the base of many marine food webs. It’s projected that OA may disrupt the formation and/or dissolution of coccolithophores, calcium carbonate (CaCO3) shells, impacting future populations. Thus, changes in their abundance due to OA could have far-reaching effects.

Unlike other phytoplankton, coccolithophores are highly effective light scatterers relative to their surroundings due to their production of highly reflective calcium carbonate plates. This allows them to be easily seen on satellite imagery. The figure at the top of this page shows multiple coccolithophore blooms, in light blue, off the coast of the United Kingdom on 24th March 2016.

Current OA monitoring methods
Presently, the monitoring of OA and its effects are predominantly carried out by in situ observations from ships and moorings using buoys and wave gliders for example. Although vital, in situ data is notoriously spatially sparse as it is difficult to take measurements in certain areas of the world, especially in hostile regions (e.g. Polar Oceans). On their own they do not provide a comprehensive and cost-effective way to monitor OA globally. Consequently, this has driven the development of satellite-based sensors.

How can OA be monitored from space?
Although it is difficult to directly monitor changes in ocean pH using remote sensing, satellites can measure sea surface temperature and salinity (SST & SSS) and surface chlorophyll-a, from which ocean pH can be estimated using empirical relationships derived from in situ data. Although surface measurements may not be representative of deeper biological processes, surface observations are important for OA because the change in pH occurs at the surface first.

In 2015 researchers at the University of Exeter, UK became the first scientists to use remote sensing to develop a worldwide map of the ocean’s acidity using satellite imagery from the European Space Agency’s Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) satellite that was launched in 2009 and NASA’s Aquarius satellite that was launched in 2011; both are still currently in operation. Thermal mounted sensors on the satellites measure the SST while the microwave sensors measure SSS; there are also microwave SST sensors, but they have a coarse spatial resolution.

Future Opportunities – The Copernicus Program
The European Union’s Copernicus Programme is in the process of launching a series of satellites, known as Sentinel satellites, which will improve understanding of large scale global dynamics and climate change. Of all the Sentinel satellite types, Sentinels 2 and 3 are most appropriate for assessment of the marine carbonate system. The Sentinel-3 satellite was launched in February this year andwill be mainly focussing on ocean measurements, including SST, ocean colour and chlorophyll-a.

Overall, OA is a relatively new field of research, with most of the studies being conducted over the last decade. It’s certain that remote sensing will have an exciting and important role to play in the future monitoring of this issue and its effects on the marine environment.

Blog written by Charlie Leaman, BSc, University of Bath during work placement at Pixalytics.