Eyes on Earth Episode 1 - Intro to EROS
A rundown of the history of the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center, the Landsat program, and the Center's role in the observation and study of landscape change worldwide.
LOVELAND: By the way I do have the ability to appear unprepared at any point in time. (Laughs.)
YOUNG: Hello everyone and welcome to our inaugural episode of Eyes on Earth, a biweekly podcast series focused on our ever-changing planet and on the remote sensing work that real life scientists, geographers, engineers and others are either doing for, or affiliated with, here at the USGS EROS Center near Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Today our guest is Dr. Tom Loveland, the retired Chief Scientist at EROS who worked at the center for 39 years before retiring in the Spring of 2018. Dr. Loveland is regarded as the world's leading expert on land cover and land cover mapping and monitoring in the United States. Welcome Tom.
LOVELAND: Good to be here.
YOUNG: So today we want to talk about this place on the South Dakota prairie called the Earth Resources Observation and Science Center, or EROS. You know there's been more than one tourist out here for a visit who questioned whether we were some top secret government facility looking for aliens or some such thing. What's the truth about what they do out there at EROS?
LOVELAND: Our primary mission is to be the central archive and distribution center for civilian images of the Earth. That was why we were envisioned in the 1960s and why we ultimately had a building put out here and established to start providing the intelligence needed to understand the condition of the Earth's natural resources.
YOUNG: So no aliens?
LOVELAND: You know on any given day I could point to a few colleagues that I think should be investigated, but as far as I know, nothing confirmed.
YOUNG: Oh good, alright. (Laughing.) Why is EROS tucked out there among the corn and soybeans on these rolling farmhills north of Sioux Falls, and how did we end up out here?
LOVELAND: Well it's kind of a two part answer. In the broadest of senses, when the idea to have a fleet of earth-observing satellites orbiting the Earth was first proposed, there was a need to have a location in the center of the United States that could track those satellites as they passed across the land surface of the United States, and so that essentially meant a corridor between about Grand Forks, North Dakota down to Kansas City, somewhere along that line would put us in a position to see coast to coast, so that's why we were in a location that was a potential site. The exact reason why we're here is because of both politics, the influence of Senator Karl Mundt, a close friend of then President Nixon, and as well the very aggressive efforts of the Sioux Falls Development Foundation to identify a parcel of land that met the government's needs and to offer that land and a building to be the home of this new satellite record.
YOUNG: One of the things that's interesting about EROS is, it originally was the EROS Data Center, and so it had the distinction of possessing the largest civilian archive of remotely sensed images in the world. What exactly does that mean and where do all those images come from?
LOVELAND: They have come from a wide range of sources. The United States for Department of Agriculture's purposes, the Department of Interior's for mapping, Tennessee Valley Authority, NASA. All kinds of federal agencies were acquiring aerial photography going back to the 1930s, and so there had to be a home for that. We are that home, and we have a lower level of our building that is wall-to-wall film cans containing this incredibly rich historical record. However, the big thing that was envisioned for EROS is that we would be the location for the archive of Landsat images that were being collected by this new generation of civilian Earth-observing satellites that had been speculated as being useful in the late 60s and in reality became the reason why the EROS Data Center was built.
YOUNG: So we're here in part to house all the imagery and data collected from Landsat. Is EROS connected to Landsat beyond simply a library for all the images?
LOVELAND: In many, many ways. Over time our responsibilities with Landsat have grown. Originally we were the archive and distribution center but we weren't involved in acquisitions. We added to that archive and distribution, a science capability that was focused on developing ways in which this new technology could be used to address critical natural resources problems. Over time we've grown in our role to the point now where we operate the satellites, we manage the downloading of imagery, and processing and distribution of users worldwide. In fact on a daily basis, hundreds of thousands of images now are electronically distributed around the world.
YOUNG: And we do all that here at EROS out in this cornfield?
LOVELAND: We do most of that around EROS. We also have a satellite facility at NASA Goddard in Maryland where we have the space segment operations team that actually makes sure the satellites are orbiting and safe and sound and functioning as we need them to.
YOUNG: Go a little deeper if you would with this Landsat, the imagery and what the scientists here at EROS do with that imagery and any other remotely sensed images.
LOVELAND: You know our primary focus is to use the archive of Landsat imagery but other kinds as well to understand how the Earth is changing. We spend a lot of time focusing on changes and how the land is used and what the extent of forests and urban areas and grasslands and croplands are, and how they do change over time. We're also looking at the more realtime changes that are the result of excessive rainfall or drought or other variables that alter the condition of the Earth. So we're really looking at what's covering the Earth, how it's being used, and what its condition is over time. Now ultimately that's information needed to start understanding the health of the planet. Is the habitat needed to protect biodiversity and wildlife healthy and intact? Are we altering the land surface in a way that creates interactions with weather and climate and causes variability and change, how are we affecting the hydrologic processes of runoffs for example are all some of the things we contribute to.
YOUNG: Would it be fair to say that the scientists, geographers here at EROS are having a significant impact on our understanding of what's going on in the world at large?
LOVELAND: Yes, I think safe to say that. One of the activities that we're involved in that has a huge international impact for example is our work in monitoring food security around the world and while it's not particularly visible in the region, internationally it's an important part of the US foreign aid program in order to make sure that we're providing assistance and intelligence needed to deal with some of the real acute problems that some corners of the world are facing. On the homefront, wild fires, drought management, dealing with water balance and water use issues are all things we are very active in.
YOUNG: So, the last question I've got is, it's been said that EROS is an incredible asset to the state that most people don't know about. Why is that?
LOVELAND: I guess because we quietly do our work out here in the prairie and keep our nose to the grindstone.
YOUNG: We've been talking to Dr. Tom Loveland about the history and the work of this place called EROS where he again worked for 39 years. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Loveland.
LOVELAND: It was my pleasure.
YOUNG: We hope you come back for the next episode of Eyes on Earth. Thanks for joining us. This is a podcast that is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior.