A few months ago, a group of scientists from the Czech Republic arrived at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center to learn more about using remote sensing satellite data to analyze forest fires.
EROS 50th History: Building Relationships Through International Training
Their May 2023 visit to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, came almost exactly 50 years after EROS’ First International Remote Sensing Workshop welcomed 33 scientists and engineers from a dozen countries in June 1973.
In those early years, there was only one civilian Earth-observing satellite—ERTS-1, later renamed Landsat 1. And there were two main options outside of a university setting to study Landsat data and remote sensing science: Come to EROS, or have EROS scientists come to you.
The five decades of international training through EROS have fostered an appreciation of the value of observing land change over time. But the cultural exchange has also fostered something that proved to be valuable in its own right: good will among scientists across the globe, even during times of conflict.
That first international training course took place in EROS’ Downtown Office in Sioux Falls, followed by the second in the brand-new center that fall. This started a tradition of EROS-sponsored workshops biannually through 1987 and then annually through 1991.
By 1976, at the seventh workshop, a pattern had been established. “We’d have a week or two of lectures and exercises, an academic approach. Then there would be a field trip,” said EROS’ Ron Beck. “South Dakota is tailor-made for that because if you go from here to Deadwood, you hit it all: agricultural land, rangeland, an arid environment—the Badlands—and a mountainous forest area—the Black Hills.” In the final week of the course, the international students would use Landsat images to help address real-world problems in their home countries.
“A big part of it was selling the concept of Landsat globally,” Bill Draeger, who was EROS’ training coordinator at the time, said of the international coursework. “And part of it was just bringing the technology to the front, spreading the word.”
Soon, another tradition started: Volunteers in Sioux Falls hosted international dinners each spring and fall for students attending the workshops. Draeger coordinated the events, making sure that both hosts and guests felt comfortable via questionnaires about any potential dietary restrictions. The EROS newsletter at the time touted the dinners as a highlight of the workshops: “From the positive comments that have been received, both hosts and students alike enjoy making new acquaintances, whether it be over a simple meal or an elaborate dinner.”
By the time the 26th event marked the switch from biannual to annual workshops in 1987, 520 international scientists and resource managers from 90 countries had visited EROS. Fourteen representatives from Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Pakistan, Switzerland and Sudan attended the fall course that year.
It was not lack of interest in remote sensing that ended the workshops, but economics: Numerous countries started asking EROS to send its instructors to them. It was less expensive for foreign governments and universities to pay for the instructors to come to them than it was sending large contingents to South Dakota. Draeger said he personally journeyed to China, Argentina, Mexico and the Philippines.
The efforts of Draeger, Beck and others helped build the reputation of Landsat data and EROS’ expertise, eventually ensuring a steady demand for EROS products around the world once researchers elsewhere were trained up and saw the value of the data. Even before the workshops ended, in fact throughout EROS’ history, EROS personnel traveled far and wide to train others.
For example, from July 22 to August 15, 1978, four representatives from EROS conducted a four-week remote sensing workshop in Tehran, Iran, in cooperation with the Iranian Remote Sensing Center. Forty students attended the workshop, which included a field trip to the study areas. World-changing events nearly interfered with the training relationship between EROS trainers and the class. Only four days after the workshop ended, arsonists burned down a theater in Abadan, Iran, killing 377-470 people and intensifying the Iranian Revolution, which largely isolated Iran from the West.
That near-miss didn’t deter continued international training, however. Witness the list of expeditions in 1979 alone:
- EROS personnel took part in a three-week remote sensing course in Nairobi, Kenya, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which operated a regional remote sensing facility there. Twenty students from the host country, Tanzania, Sudan, Rwanda, Swaziland, Botswana, Somalia, and Uganda took part.
- An EROS representative visited Western Australia and New South Wales with a U.S. delegation to see, among other things, their Landsat receiving station, which was acquiring data. The Australians expected their processing facility to be operating by 1980.
- EROS also helped personnel from other federal agencies planning trips abroad. In 1979, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staffer visited EROS to buy Landsat imagery of Costa Rica in advance of a trip to help that country set up its first national wildlife refuge.
Delegations at EROS
Not all international visitors to EROS participated in formal training. In the pre-internet era, often the only way to get direct information was in person. Some individuals or groups came to Sioux Falls in search of particular data or to see how using Landsat data to observe land change might benefit their home country.
This snapshot from a 1976 in-house report gives an idea of the diversity of people as well as topics. Visitors included “Mr. Hansen, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, to discuss the applications of remote sensing for uranium exploration; Siamak Agah, National Iranian Oil Co., Tehran, Iran, to discuss applications of remote sensing to oil exploration; … Doug Glendinning, Senior Officer, Survey General’s Office, Western Australia, to discuss remote sensing data applications and processing; Dr. Ed. Chao, USGS, Reston, to discuss geologic applications of remote sensing and digital analysis systems and their capabilities in preparation for his trip to China; and Gana Diagne, Director General, International Organization for the Control of Migratory Locusts in Africa, Bamako, Mali, to discuss applications of remote sensing data to determine flood effects along the Niger River and to determine locust breeding areas.”
Some connections between EROS and foreign scientists foreshadowed closer ties among the United States and other countries. In 1985, for example, the United States and China signed a protocol to promote cooperation in remote sensing, cartography, geographic information systems (GIS) and other areas. Two scientists from EROS traveled to the Ningxiang area in Hunan Province. The following year, Chinese scientists visited the Black Hills in South Dakota and spent time at EROS. The exchange continued through 1989 and resulted in several published papers and an overview of the project published in 1992.
In 1990, six delegates from the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Geodesy and Cartography and related agencies visited EROS under the glasnost policy of openness to learn more about U.S. mapping related to environmental concerns. One visitor, Viktor Savinykh, was a cosmonaut who had flown three missions in space. An American delegation that included people from EROS had visited the Soviet Union the previous year.
Scientists from around the world continued to visit EROS over the years for individual projects. But some EROS-linked ongoing programs involved training both at the center and abroad. It just makes sense that wherever EROS provides remote sensing data for a project, it’s accompanied by training.
A prime example of this is the Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) Network. EROS has been working with this program ever since the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) requested help from EROS in 1987. FEWS NET uses remote-sensing based greenness mapping to show where crops are failing and today includes a variety of monitoring methods. The training on how to use the data provided by EROS continues today.
For the AGRHYMET (Agriculture, Hydrology and Meteorology) project, another USAID-supported effort that started in 1992, EROS employees traveled to various parts of Africa to train local researchers about using remote sensing data, especially to Niamey, Niger, where the AGRHYMET Center was located. EROS sent the needed equipment, including computers, plotters and an antenna, to Niamey with the idea that the program would become self-sustaining, but the program maintained strong ties with EROS as well as a continuation of training for years.
EROS provided training on yet another project, the Global Observation of Forest Cover and Global Observation of Land Dynamics, or GOFC-GOLD, which was launched in 1997 and is supported primarily by NASA and the European Space Agency. EROS sponsored researchers—mostly from Asia and Africa—to stay in South Dakota for a few weeks of training on remote sensing basics, and then NASA paid for science training at Boston University. In a 2019 story about GOFC-GOLD, Professor Suspense Averti Ifo of Marien Ngouabi University in the Republic of Congo emphasized the value of the training in building his own knowledge. “The internship at Sioux Falls and Boston changed my vision of tropical forest management,” Ifo said. “Above all, it allowed us in my laboratory to consider studies on changes in forest cover” through deforestation and degradation.
Today, training typically involves a mix of online and in-person sessions. For example, an agreement in 2020 to share irrigation mapping and water consumption modeling technology with Brazil’s National Water Agency involved hands-on training, visits to EROS and webinars.
As the participants in those programs affirm, in-person training by EROS personnel, whether in South Dakota or elsewhere, can be invaluable. However, these days, anyone who wants to analyze Landsat data can access it via the internet, or even the cloud, at no cost. Classes about remote sensing are available in universities in many countries. In theory, foreign researchers would never need to visit EROS—if data were all that was necessary.
But like the Czech delegation that visited in May, many international visitors to the center cherish the collaboration with experienced researchers who can provide insights into programs back home.
Scientists from LANDFIRE (Landscape Fire and Resource Management Planning Tools) and other programs at EROS that model fire behavior, for example, are helping the Czech visitors start their own framework in a country that up to now hasn’t had much experience with forest fires. Marketa Podebradska, along with her colleagues Monika Blahova and Lucie Kudlačkova, found being at EROS in person made a difference. “It was very helpful to hear about their process of development, and we brainstormed how this process could be applied to the Czech Republic,” Podebradska said.
In connecting on both a scientific and personal level, the three women were following in the footsteps of a 50-year-old tradition at EROS.
1966-1979: How Sioux Falls Ingenuity Secured the Center
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