How Earth observation data is being used to study Ireland’s ecosystems

25 Nov 2020

Dr Sita Karki. Image: ICHEC

Dr Sita Karki of NUI Galway and ICHEC is combining satellite data and ground-based research to monitor important ecosystems in Ireland.

After completing her undergraduate degree in Nepal, Dr Sita Karki moved to the US in 2010 to pursue a master’s degree in environmental management and geographic information systems (GIS) from Idaho State University.

She went to work as a GIS specialist for the Michigan Geological Survey and then received a doctorate in hydrogeology from Western Michigan University. Since 2018, she has been working as an Earth observation computational scientist with the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC), based at NUI Galway.

‘With the increase in the spatial resolution and frequency of data acquisition, the size of the Earth observation data is increasing every second’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was interested in the field of environmental sciences ever since I knew about the field in my school, although I did not know that I could pursue it as a career. During our educational trip to the Bay of Bengal in 2008, I learned about the regional scale of environmental problems such as pollution, flooding and sea-level rise, which hugely attracted me to this field.

The dream of becoming a full-time researcher, however, was sparked during my graduate school life when I was exposed to a range of career possibilities.

More recently, after moving to Ireland, I found that not only can we work as researchers, but we can make a meaningful difference through our work.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Currently I am working on two projects funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, both of which are focused on using satellite datasets for studying the environment. In one of the projects, we are using satellite data from the European Space Agency to study the water quality for inland water bodies.

In another project, we are using satellite data to map macroalgal blooms across coastal and transitional areas of Ireland. These research projects will be of use in allowing small businesses to harness the benefits of remote sensing.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

All research work is important, but I think the work that I am doing is important because we are trying to develop techniques in which Earth observation datasets could be used to complement traditional field work and monitoring.

This helps in reducing the logistical cost of environmental monitoring while offering the opportunity to provide information at a wider scale in a periodic manner. Remember, only by tracking the indicators such as water quality or macroalgal blooms, we can investigate their contributing factors and recommend corrective measures.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Both of these research projects have commercial importance such as for tracking water quality for the fishing industry or mapping the growth of seaweed for seaweed harvesters.

Monitoring the quality of water via indicators like chlorophyll and turbidity is important for understanding the productivity of the aquatic ecosystem. Similarly, being able to monitor the growth of seaweed using remote sensing data sets is very crucial for resource allocation and planning.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

With the increase in the spatial resolution and frequency of data acquisition, the size of the Earth observation data is increasing every second.

Despite this, the field itself is very narrow and specialised. There are also very limited software resources available to deal with geospatial data, not to mention the lack of skilled manpower for data handling and transfer in many institutions. This often leads to bottlenecks during a project life cycle.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

This field is full of misconceptions. From the outside, the field seems quite flashy and colourful. But much of our time is spent writing code, testing and troubleshooting in the dark and going to technical forums to find answers from the open-source communities.

Also, many people have the misconception that Earth observation is taking over field measurements and the role of a researcher.

This is also not true since Earth observation equips a researcher with an advanced understanding of a problem needed for informed decision making. The role of field validation and human judgement will always remain fundamental to the growth and development of this field.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I think the future of Earth observation is very promising. With the advancement of satellite technologies, we are collecting huge amounts of data that was not possible just about a decade ago.

In the coming years, we would have accumulated a huge amount of historical data required to continuously validate our models. Our model predictions will get more and more precise and the margin of errors will slowly drop.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic