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Millions of people in the United States and billions around the world live unaware that employees of a far-off USGS facility surrounded by South Dakota farm fields are working every day, in many different ways, to help improve their lives—and have been for decades.

1966-1979: How Sioux Falls Ingenuity Secured the Center

1966-1979: How Sioux Falls Ingenuity Secured the Center

1980-1999: Through Uncertainty to a Firm Footing

1980-1999: Through Uncertainty to a Firm Footing

2000-2023: Data and Science Surge

2000-2023: Data and Science Surge

The original intent of the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center, which opened 50 years ago, was to store and distribute imagery from the fledgling Earth-observing Landsat satellite program, along with other land remote sensing imagery, such as aerial photography. But the science potential that tantalized early on also has flourished inside and outside of EROS since.

Research and science tools originating at EROS can touch many aspects of our lives: food and water, threats to our homes and property, the policies of cities and states where we live, and the management of public lands and wildlife.

The pioneering work at EROS in “land cover”—showing what exists on the land at a given time and how it changes over time, from forests to farm fields and grasslands to cities—has provided a definitive foundation that factors into land and resource management decisions and research throughout the United States and beyond. Learn about the valuable agency partnerships this involves and the evolution of land cover science at EROS in this story.

“The real legacy of EROS has been the advancing of the state of the art of land remote sensing from a civilian use perspective, especially in applications related to land change science, which it helped create,” said EROS Center Director Pete Doucette in a recent Eyes on Earth podcast episode. “I think we put that science on the map, in a manner of speaking.”

Keep reading here to see many other examples of EROS science and their role in society.

Food and Water

Despite their distance in space, satellites can help people see a lot about the crops growing on Earth —and the imminent food supply. They can tell the types of crops being grown, the quantity and health of the crops, and the changes from one year to the next or even one decade to the next, especially with a record as long and consistent as Landsat’s.

A room with people sitting at conference tables attentive to a man at a podium
Jim Rowland, former leader of the Famine Early Warning System Network work at USGS EROS, conducts FEWS NET training in Haiti in 2012. Image credit: Courtesy of Mike Budde, USGS

One important agricultural effort at EROS began in the 1980s in support of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s efforts to address crop failures and prevent food shortages and famine in West Africa. For example, using satellite data with a broader view of Earth than Landsat provides, scientists at EROS mapped the crops during the growing season to analyze changes in the conditions, helping to identify and prevent potential locust plagues. Other USAID work to help food-insecure countries monitor their cropland and rangeland for signs of drought continues today. Closer to home, EROS has contributed to drought monitoring tools for the United States since 2009.

Satellites help us keep an eye on how water bodies change over time—when lakes, rivers and wetlands dwindle or fill up. A less obvious but increasingly important use of satellites that can help farmers is illustrated by the evapotranspiration work that has been performed at EROS since 2006. To figure out the amount of water used by croplands and other vegetation—and make adjustments in irrigation to improve efficiency—land surface temperature measurements taken from space indicate the water lost to evaporation and plant transpiration. EROS scientists model and map this water loss and make it available at a global scale for farmers, policy makers, researchers and other water managers to use. It also contributes to the drought monitoring work in Africa and countries around the world with concerns about food shortages.

Homes and Property

Every day, news stories seem to spotlight a different threat to homes and property—even lives.

Wildfires raged through Canada, sending smoke over much of the continent, and through Greece and Maui, upending entire communities, just to name a few prominent examples in summer 2023. Fires destroy homes and businesses, and the burned areas are at greater risk of erosion, landslides and flooding.

screenshot of LANDFIRE Remap Existing Vegetation Type over Hawaii
This is a screenshot of a LANDFIRE layer of data that details Existing Vegetation Type (EVT) - very specific classes of trees, shrubs and other plants - over the island of Maui. This information is useful to help determine the behavior of a wildfire.

Wildland fire science work at EROS helps fire and landscape managers before, during and after wildfires in the United States. Information builds on EROS’ land cover work by adding more detail about types of plants, the height of tree crowns, materials that could fuel a fire, disturbances that have happened in an area and much more. This information helps guide people figuring out where a fire might go next and how intense it might get, people dealing with the aftermath of a fire, people planning a prescribed burn and insurance companies determining risks. EROS works to map the extent of many fires and the varying severity of fire in the burned area to help evaluate immediate threats and inform recovery and planning efforts.

EROS has long provided satellite and other imagery of disaster areas, such as floods and hurricanes, to responding groups to help visualize the extent of change from before the event to afterward and the area’s long-term recovery. EROS has participated in the International Charter Space and Major Disasters for nearly 20 years, providing government and commercial imagery upon the request of countries worldwide. But occasionally, EROS employees have helped out even more in the aftermath of disasters, such as hosting and providing data support for a team from various state and federal agencies to study the 1993 flooding of the Missouri and Mississippi River regions or traveling to Central America after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 to set up access to and organize relevant data for recovering countries.

City and State Policies

As cities expand, and cities and states manage resources for growing populations in a changing world, the information generated by EROS, such as land cover and land change, becomes even more valuable.

data of snow cover in the Lake Tahoe Area of California. Whiter areas have more snow cover.
This is the fractional snow cover data for a February 2022 Landsat scene of Lake Tahoe, which straddles the California-Nevada state line. Pine, cedar and fir forests ensure year-round tree cover on the west side of the mountain range, and to the east sits Carson Desert. 

Snow cover measurements from EROS can indicate upcoming water supply issues and flooding risks for surrounding areas. An analysis system created at EROS can help cities understand where their urban heat islands, or areas of intense warmth, are and take steps to protect citizens at a higher risk of illness or death during heat waves. To help coastal cities and other entities plan for the effects of sea-level rise in the decades ahead, including flooding and storm surges, EROS provides the USGS Coastal National Elevation Database.

A land-use change model developed at EROS can peer back centuries and look decades ahead. This can help scientists and regional resource managers plan for climate change and urban growth, such as addressing water resources for the Delaware River Basin in a potential drought as one example.

Public—and Private—Land Management

Forests and rangelands make up substantial portions of the landscape of the United States. Federal land alone contains 190 million acres of forest. Rangeland can consist of grasslands, shrublands and even wetlands and is especially extensive across the West.

A variety of research by EROS scientists through the years has monitored the health and condition of forests and rangelands, identified changes in addition to wildfire that have happened and explored the reasons for changes. Rangeland managers want to monitor invasive grasses because they can diminish the suitability of rangelands for grazing and species habitat and increase the risk of wildfire. Forest managers want to monitor for disease and drought stress that can lead to a decline in some species; tracking deforestation is another concern for some organizations.

Scientist Neal Pastick
USGS EROS scientist Neal Pastick works on mapping permafrost.

EROS also has long been involved in carbon research, including modeling to quantify carbon storage change over several decades in the United States. One recent example of EROS carbon research is Alaska permafrost mapping, which helps identify where permafrost is thawing and releasing carbon. This helps people in research and in industries with an interest in carbon credits to model carbon and climate change.

Continuing the Science

In the long and strong history of science at USGS EROS, employees have taken the valuable land remote sensing data stored in the vast archive and turned it into useful research and tools that benefit a vulnerable world hungry for solutions—solutions to meeting our current basic needs and addressing the future challenges of a changing climate and expanding population.

“What makes EROS science relevant is how it’s used in the scientific and land management communities. The variety of uses are staggering, as is the impact on society,” said Terry Sohl, Acting Science Branch Chief at EROS.

Going forward, EROS scientists will continue to look for new ways and new research to help the world—as if their homes, communities and even lives depend on it.

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