As a planetary scientist, I’ve been studying the impact of our Sun on the Earth and the other planets for many years. I use a combination of data from flagship NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) missions, in combination with networks of instruments here on the Earth’s surface, to understand the place our own fragile planet inhabits in our solar system. Without the context of small, rocky planets close to their star (like Mercury), gas giants with rings, and moons (like Saturn) or ice giants far from their parent star, we cannot put into context the thousands of exoplanets that we have already discovered orbiting other stars, both in our galaxy, and beyond, or understand how our solar system evolved over the billions of years of its existence. I will always be fascinated by how Mercury formed, why it has the highest uncompressed density of any planet in our solar system (spoiler alert, it has a giant metal core), and how the surface gets blasted by the solar wind coming from the Sun, however events on our own planet have turned my attention closer to home.
I started looking at Earth Observation Data when I was interested in writing code to identify all of the mountains in the world, to create unambiguous lists of peaks for mountaineers. I have a vested interest, as my climbing partner Max and I are on a mission to climb all of the mountains in the Andes over 6000 metres. In 2015 I used the supercomputer at my University, along with altitude data taken by satellites, to write code to identify mountains, and in doing so discovered many unclimbed, nameless peaks, which we now set off to climb every year (in parallel with our list of 104 mountains over 6000 metres). These unclimbed peaks are fascinating to me, as there is no known route to access the mountains, and until we arrive, we cannot decide which route we will take – we have to be prepared for every eventuality from discovering glaciers, to huge storms, rockfalls, pumas and river crossings, and it feels like genuine exploration.
The satellite data sets are so rich that there is much more that can be done than identify mountains. We are all familiar with the climate crisis that faces us, but many of us are left wondering what options remain open to us to prevent further warming, but also to manage the increasingly volatile weather patterns that have come to characterise seasons that in decades gone by would have been relatively stable. A year ago, I was introduced to a programme called Homeward Bound. It’s an international leadership programme designed to train and support 1000 women with a background in STEMM, who together will be the champions for a more sustainable future for our planet. It focuses on protecting and preserving our ‘global home’ and leaving a positive legacy for the future of our planet, through bringing together scientists and policy-makers who together may be able to come up with some solutions to the crisis we face, who will be visible as leaders in this fight, and who will be able to articulate the arguments, and put forward the strategies needed to safeguard our future on this planet. The structure of the programme is a year-long course, culminating in the opportunity to observe one of the most vulnerable regions of our planet through a three-week expedition to Antarctica.
In June I was honoured to be selected as one of the 80 women from all over the world who will be part of the Homeward Bound cohort of 2020, and the expertise that I will bring is the use of satellite data to monitor our changing climate, as a vital tool in managing our resources, and in disaster management. We can use data from satellites to monitor disasters such as wildfires, flooding and drought, to assess large-scale deforestation and crop health, and to monitor glacial thickness, sea-ice melting, and wave height in the oceans, to name but a few examples. Together with a huge range of colleagues from glaciologists to roboticists, engineers, medics, geneticists, geologists, and importantly policy-makers from across the globe, we aim to tackle the interface between scientists, governments, and the wider public, to find solutions through collaboration, but also to bring awareness of the changes we can all make in our lives to bring about a better tomorrow.
Dr Suzie Imber is an Associate Professor of planetary science at the University of Leicester and winner of BBC 2’s “Astronauts: Do You Have What it Takes?” To book her to speak at your event please contact JLA here.