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The Landsat program has long been a powerful partner in the effort to manage and reduce carbon emissions worldwide.

color thumbnail for Eyes on Earth Episode 61 - Landsat 9 Launch Part 2
Thumbnail for Eyes on Earth Episode 60 - Landsat 9 Part 2. Pictured, from top left, are Andres Espejo, Naikoa Aguilar-Amuchastegui, Ann Bray, and Marc Jocemich.

The launch of Landsat 9 and its extension of the program’s nearly 50-year record of Earth surface change will help ensure the stability of those efforts, according to officials working with developing nations to monitor deforestation and forest degradation.

Andres Espejo is a Senior Forest Carbon Specialist working for the World Bank’s Climate Change Group. His position involves the management of $1 billion in result-based financing to forest countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Payments to forest countries are dependent on measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) systems for emissions reductions. There are currently 18 countries participating across Africa, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific Region.

The Landsat program has been a critical partner for several reasons. First, monitoring deforestation across wide swaths of remote forests simply cannot be done without the help of Earth observation satellites. Second, Landsat data is available at no cost to the user, in multiple formats, for bulk users running near-real time monitoring algorithms and to individual researchers working in cloud environments or with desktop setups. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Landsat is the only Earth observation system with a record long enough to set the historical parameters by which long-term progress can be measured.

“It's really the cornerstone,” Espejo said in September just before the launch of Landsat 9. “You can establish forest inventories, you can conduct terrestrial inventories, but in many of these countries, you didn't have anything in the past, so you cannot establish a baseline. The only way to do that is with historical imagery, and the only systematic observation of the Earth that we have all the way (back) is Landsat.”

Espejo works closely with Naikoa Aguilar-Amuchastegui of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an organization with a presence in more than 100 countries. As the WWF’s Senior Director of Forest Carbon Science and MRV Lead, Aguilar-Amuchastegui works to educate research and technical teams in developing countries on how to use satellite data to track deforestation.

That’s not the first step, however. Before an MRV system can even begin to collect and return emissions reduction data in exchange for payments, Aguilar-Amuchastegui said, the countries need to agree to a historical benchmark. As Aguilar-Amuchastegui and his team work with local experts to explain what Landsat data say or don’t say about a nation’s carbon stocks and land change patterns, they’re working on what he calls “data-informed political statements.”

Hundreds of scientists, officials, international representatives, and others witnessed the launch of Landsat 9 on September 27, 2021, from a handful of viewing sites around Santa Barbara County, California. Their interests were as varied as their backgrounds, but the new satellite’s extension of the Landsat program’s invaluable 50-year record of Earth observations was top of mind for the international partners who help the USGS collect Landsat data and the scientists who rely on those data to monitor the health of the planet. In this episode of Eyes on Earth, we talk with guests from around the world about their role in the Landsat program, and the importance of the program to their work.

Once established, those statements act as an official designation of the benchmark of deforestation and degradation for a participating country. From there, agreements can be reached on compensation for downward deviations that reduce atmospheric carbon across the globe.

“It means okay, as a country, I claim that this is my benchmark, and I therefore expect that my performance will be assessed in one way or another based on that,” Aguilar-Amuchastegui said.

Landsat’s historical record makes it “the only sensor … that allows for an actual understanding of what is a historical pattern. What is natural dynamics versus man-made dynamics?  And then what is it that we are going to do about it?”

Questions of that nature also drive a wider-ranging program from the U.S. Geological Survey called the Land Use and Carbon Scenario Simulator (LUCAS), developed by research geographer Benjamin Sleeter of the Western Geographic Science Center. The depth of Landsat’s historical archive makes it possible for the LUCAS Model to analyze the interplay of land cover and carbon sequestration through scenario-based projections of landscape change within the conterminous United States.

Deforestation and forest degradation factor into LUCAS modeling, with Landsat’s deep archive serving as a foundational tool for defining historical patterns of change.

“Because of the temporal record, it’s able to build up land use histories. That’s a lot of what we do with LUCAS,” Sleeter said.

LUCAS models scenarios on forest changes from wildfires or forest harvest, but also looks at agriculture expansion and contraction and changes to wetlands, grasslands, or urban environments, all with an eye to how those changes might impact carbon stocks.

Forests hold the largest carbon stocks, which makes deforestation and degradation monitoring programs like those spearheaded by WWF and World Bank especially important for the mitigation of climate change. Not all disruptions are negative, of course—wildfires are natural forces that can help reset ecosystems for long-term survival, for example—but wide-scale, man-made changes to heavily forested areas can have out-sized impacts on the carbon cycle.

“Forests are the drivers of carbon storage,” Sleeter said. “There are other ecosystems that can sequester and store carbon, like coastal wetlands, which can sequester a lot of carbon into soils. But how much area do they cover? When you’re looking at large areas, forests are really the story.”

Other factors also explain Landsat 9’s value to deforestation mitigation programs in developing nations, which may lack the infrastructure and resources to lean on newer satellite data sources. Landsat 9’s launch signals a long-term commitment to the mission, Espejo said, and therefore to the availability and stability of the bedrock data source behind MRV systems.

Also important: Data gathered by Landsat 9’s Operational Land Imager-2 and Thermal Infrared Sensor-2 will be very similar to that gathered by Landsat 8’s sensors. That means MRV systems developed using Landsat 8 needn’t be overhauled to handle a markedly different data stream, and the technicians operating those systems and reporting back to the World Bank won’t contend with a steep learning curve.

“I'm glad, because (a different sensor) could bring more noise into the system and create some complexities,” Espejo said. “And this will basically strengthen the capabilities of Landsat 8.”