The scientific community lost a visionary on May 13, 2022. Thomas Loveland was the longtime Chief Scientist at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center and a globally recognized land change scientist whose work helped define the field of land remote sensing across a nearly 40-year career of public service.
Remote Sensing Community Says Goodbye to Longtime USGS EROS Chief Scientist Thomas Loveland
Loveland’s stewardship and unflinching support of the USGS Landsat Program as a tool for the study of the Earth and its natural resources helped propel land remote sensing from an emerging discipline to an indispensable tool for understanding the impacts and implications of the planet’s rapidly changing landscapes.
Loveland, who joined EROS in 1979, was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2018 and earned a Pecora Award the following year for outstanding contributions to remote sensing science. Recognized by the Institute for Scientific Information as a “Highly Cited Researcher,” in 2021, Loveland’s work has been referenced more than 30,500 times. His most recent co-authorship credit in a peer-reviewed publication came in February 2022.
Loveland served as a mentor and champion for generations of scientists. He served as co-chair of the Landsat Science Team after his retirement in 2018 and continued in that role until shortly before his death.
“At EROS, I found my niche. I found my passion,” Loveland said during his South Dakota Hall of Fame induction speech. “The inspiring mission and the amazing staff that I worked with changed my worldview, and it changed me from somebody focused on laziness to somebody that really was interested in becoming an overachiever. I spent the rest of my life conducting research trying to understand how our planet’s changing and how it affects people and the natural systems of our world.”
Loveland went on to attribute his success to his collaborators at EROS, a science center 18 miles from his hometown of Sioux Falls. EROS was his working home for most of his adult life, save a short stint working with Landsat images in Pierre, SD, in the mid-1970s and a mid-1990s sabbatical to earn a PhD at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
“My honor tonight is really their honor,” Loveland said. “What I’ve learned in my life is that while individuals can have an impact, teams have lasting societal impacts in this world.”
‘An Outsized Influence’
Jesslyn Brown keeps a plastic egg of Silly Putty on her desk. The egg was a gift from Loveland to the USGS EROS Research Geographer, who began her career in earnest in the early 1990s working alongside him to create the first satellite-based, wall-to-wall land cover map of the United States.
The egg is a reminder of friendship, mentorship, and guidance from a man whose will to excellence was matched by a sense of humor and an appreciation for life’s small joys.
“He always had Silly Putty on his desk,” Brown said. “So we’d be talking about all these big ideas, and he’d pull out this Silly Putty and just start playing with it. He appreciated the fun in life.”
The Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) served as the source for that first land cover map, and the project led Loveland, Brown, Brad Reed and Don Ohlen down a path towards global land cover mapping—another first for Loveland and his collaborators.
Loveland’s vision for global land cover, like many of his career-defining projects, was marked more by his passion for the idea’s potential than the parameters of the possible. Loveland would grow frustrated at times when technological barriers stood in the way of a project’s completion, Brown recalls, almost taking it personally when the time- and data-intensive work and the associated budget constraints involved with mapping landscapes from space stood between his long-term hopes and immediate reality.
That personality trait, Brown said, helps explain why scientists at EROS were able to expand the application and usefulness of remote sensing research—by reaching beyond their limits.
“Maybe part of being a visionary is really that stretching: We got to here, can we get to there?” Brown said. “How much further can we jump ahead? Tom was always proposing leaps ahead … He was always very good at explaining his vision and very passionate about what he did, so it was hard not to get caught up in it.”
Terry Sohl, the EROS Integrated Science and Applications Branch (ISAB) Chief, was among those who found themselves caught up in that sphere of influence.
“If you entered the science branch in the last 25 years, it was difficult not to come under Tom’s influence, because he was the dominant power for so long,” said Sohl, who joined the EROS workforce in 1994. “He was an outsized influence on any project he was a part of.”
Sohl collaborated with Loveland on the Land Cover Trends project, an outgrowth of previous satellite-based land cover work that sought to map and investigate the causes and drivers of land change across the U.S.
“That was one of the things that made Tom unique for EROS,” said Sohl. “He was a remote sensing visionary, but he was also a geography visionary. He knew we could do more than just map.”
For several summers in a row, teams from multiple USGS locations field-tripped across the U.S. for Land Cover Trends, documenting on-the-ground conditions at 2,500 sample blocks, each 10- to 20-square kilometers in size.
If you traveled with Loveland, Sohl said, you always rode in a passenger seat, and you were sure to sample some of the music aficionado’s eclectic tastes.
“On every field trip with Tom, Tom drove,” Sohl said. “It was just a given.”
That was just fine with Kristi Sayler, the current ISAB supervisor at EROS. She preferred riding and didn’t mind expanding her musical horizons (“the driver picks the music, right?”).
“I was usually his navigator if I was on a trip with him, and neither of us got killed,” Sayler recalls with a laugh. “There were a couple of close calls, but we never had an accident.”
Sayler began at EROS in 1991. Initially, she worked with land cover mapping, then later joined Land Cover Trends. The slides from the largely analog photographic record of those trips remain on site at EROS, though all the images have been digitized and made available to the public through EarthExplorer.
Some sample plots were more challenging to study than others, of course. In the mid-summer heat of Florida’s Everglades, Sayler said, Loveland’s penchant for leaving his door open as he snapped pictures got him chewed out more than once.
“The mosquitos were so bad that the minute he’d open the door to take a picture, they would just swarm into the car,” Sayler said. “Everyone would be yelling, ‘Tom, close your door!’”
After the trends research wrapped, Sayler worked to prototype land cover models with Sohl in the mid-2000s. Those efforts would grow into Sohl’s Forecasting Scenarios of Landscape Change (FORE-SCE)—yet another outgrowth of efforts to map land cover that predicts the potential consequences of various climate- and land-use decisions.
Long-Term Influence, Vision
In announcing the news of Loveland’s death via email, EROS Acting Center Director Pete Doucette wrote that “Tom’s remarkable impact on the fields of Remote Sensing and Land Change Science were demonstrated by career accolades,” including the Pecora Award, the South Dakota Hall of Fame induction, as well as a DOI Distinguished Service Award.
USGS National Land Imaging Program Director Timothy Newman followed up by noting that Loveland’s loss came in a particularly difficult year that also saw the deaths of former ISAB Chief John Dwyer and longtime EROS collaborator Brad Reed: “The three were true giants of Earth science and we miss them dearly.”
“I was remembering this morning a Pecora Conference from many years ago,” Newman wrote on May 13, 2022. “When I entered the hotel lobby, John, Tom and Brad were all standing together in a corner, engaged in some light-hearted conversation. I was still fairly new to USGS, but when I walked by they greeted me warmly, and I came to recognize over many years that these weren’t just world-class scientists, but very genuine, warm and caring human beings.”
The losses have been especially difficult for the EROS staff who worked alongside the trio for so many years, Brown said. The three laid the groundwork for many the Center’s most notable accomplishments, and they influenced the career trajectories of many of the scientists who worked to hit those marks. From the initial land cover work in the early 1990s to the pixel-by-pixel science products built today by the USGS Land Change Monitoring, Assessment, and Projection (LCMAP) initiative, the three scientists’ work helped bring the field of remote sensing into the modern era.
“My career, when I look at it, I’ve just been honored and blessed to work with some amazing people. It’s really hard to know at this point that all three of them have passed away in the past year,” Brown said.
That Loveland never quite reached his dream of EROS science consistently tying land cover change to its root causes, Sohl said, doesn’t blunt the impact or value of the work. Indeed, that ambitious reaching positioned the remote sensing community to produce ever more refined and detailed land change products and release them to the world at large.
Landsat’s open data policy, the availability of decades of Landsat-based science products and datasets, as well as advances in cloud computing and artificial intelligence analysis have combined to make it possible for geographers and scientists in and outside the USGS to perform analyses that improve our understanding of the Earth system in ways that seemed impossible decades before.
Ultimately, the sharing of ideas and data has sparked innovations worldwide that can have a positive impact on our day-to-day lives. On Monday, May 16, for example, the Washington Post ran a story on its front page about a wildfire risk tool for homes across the U.S., built using remotely sensed data and a variety of other sources. The outlet also released an interactive online version. The New York Times, NPR, and several other media outlets offered similar coverage.
Among the data sources used to build the tool? LANDFIRE, a Landsat-based dataset produced by the EROS Center.
“For not just the scientific community, but for the press, to pick up on these data and see how valuable they are and turn it into a front page story? I think Tom would just be thrilled to see that,” Sohl said.