Iconic Fairbanks satellite dish helps map floods thousands of miles away, under trees, clouds and at night

a large building in the snow, brightened by the moonlight
The Elvey Building (right) on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus is home to the Geophysical Institute and Alaska Satellite Facility. The Akasofu Building (left), houses the International Arctic Research Center. (McKade Sorensen/Alaska Satellite Facility).

A German American scientist has flown from Fairbanks to present at a conference in Chicago about satellite research of the Himalayas, as well as Central and South America.

If that all sounds rather global, well, that’s exactly the kind of collaborative and far-reaching work happening at NASA’s Alaska Satellite Facility, based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Geophysical Institute.

Franz Meyer is a professor of remote sensing at UAF and the Satellite Facility’s chief scientist. Like many other researchers, he’s at the American Geophysical Union’s annual conference this week.

As Meyer explains, the work he’ll present is about the benefits of using satellites to map what’s happening on the ground in flood-prone areas, even if they’re covered by trees or clouds.


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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Franz Meyer: It has these capabilities to penetrate through clouds and observe during day and night. So the communities in, say, Central, South America and Hindu Kush Himalaya, they are very interested in using these datasets and using them mostly for disaster management, food security, and ecosystem stability monitoring. So, you know, there’s a local interest, of course, for local food security. These events affect the availability of food resources in the area, and also livelihoods. You know, how many people and what population is affected, etc. But on a global scale, one of our other partners in these projects, for instance, is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and specifically the Foreign Agricultural Service. They need to know impacts of weather events on agriculture to understand things like food availability, market prices for different crops, etc., for these bigger events, like the monsoon rains in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. It has global implications on prices and availability of certain resources.

Casey Grove: Tell me about why that particular type of satellite is valuable for the work that you’re doing.

FM: So radar remote sensing is useful because at microwave wavelength, signals can penetrate through the atmosphere, even during cloudy conditions. The 24/7 capabilities is great for Earth observation. So we put these radar systems on satellites and let them image and look at the surface. And we can use repeated observations to look for changes of the earth environment, both changes of the structure such as deforestation, agriculture growth, urban sprawl, etc. But we can also look very closely at surface displacement. If you think of, you know, volcanic eruption, or active volcanoes, or earthquakes or permafrost domes, the ground in these areas is going up and down and moving with the geophysical activity. And radar is just really good at measuring distances. And so by looking at and tracking distances over time, we can measure millimeter to centimeter scale surface displacements that relate to a lot of natural hazards and to a lot of the geophysical phenomena that we have here in Alaska.

CG: Gotcha, yeah. So now I’m going to ask you, why is someone based in Fairbanks doing this kind of work? And, I mean, maybe that gets to the technology and how the satellites work, and why the Alaska Satellite Facility is where it is. But why you? Why Fairbanks?

FM: part of this is because of the Alaska Satellite Facility. ASF was created originally as what’s called a ground station. So we operate a number of NASA-owned communication antennas to communicate with Earth observation satellites. And because these satellites are passing usually over the pole, the further north you are in latitudes, the more often you can see these satellites. So putting a ground station at high latitudes makes sense, because you have more contact, and you can download more data and an uplink more commands to the satellites and in lower latitudes. And so Fairbanks was picked at the time in the 1990s because it was the northernmost U.S. city that had stable power.

CG: Franz, I wanted to ask you just about the the blue dish on top of the Geophysical Institute. I know that the Satellite Facility uses other dishes and that’s not the only one. But that’s kind of an iconic thing at this point, right? When you look up at West Ridge at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and you see that, it’s just part of that skyline, right?

FM: Yeah, Casey, that’s a very good point. So, you know, a lot of people in Fairbanks and maybe in Alaska recognize the blue dish on the university campus on top of the GI building. It was put on the roof in the 1990s. We, overall, we operate currently four dishes, but this is the one that’s known to most people. It was actually replaced a few years ago, upgraded to have more broadband capabilities and be able to download more datasets. And one of the funny things we got from from the community here in Fairbanks is to make sure that the dish is blue again. It, sort of, was so iconic, that people didn’t want that to change. So that was one of the main input we got from Fairbanks itself was to make sure that the new dish that we put up there is blue. And of course it is again.

CG: Why was it blue to begin with?

FM: So I was not around at the time, but my understanding is that it was to have it blend in more with with the sky and be a little bit less visible. You know, people didn’t initially like the idea of having this dish on the building. And so that helped, a little bit, alleviate people’s concern. But I think now it’s just an established part of the skyline here in in Fairbanks.

CG: Yeah. Well, so, we’ve talked a little bit about the past for the Alaska Satellite Facility, and then what you’ve been working on here, you know, currently that you’re gonna go present at the AGU conference. What’s the future for ASF? What, you know, I guess in the near term, what are you looking forward to?

FM: Yeah, so, ASF, actually already over the last few years, we have been preparing ourselves for a very large upcoming mission that is being launched by NASA. There is a mission that’s called NISAR. So that mission is a collaboration between NASA and India. And it’s going to be launched in 2024. And it’s going to provide unprecedented data for monitoring dynamic signals on the planet. It’s going to provide unprecedented data volumes. The mission will provide about 50 petabytes of data per year. And so over three years, to give you sort of a scaler, this mission alone will provide more data than NASA currently holds in all of our archives combined. And we at ASF are the ones that will hold all these datasets. We’re also a downlink station for NISAR, so we’ll bring some data directly down through the dishes in Fairbanks into our archives.

a portrait of a man outside

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him atcgrove@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Caseyhere

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