Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Dedman College Research Earth Sciences Faculty News

SMU team helping NASA map the effects of natural and human impact on Earth’s water, ecosystem and land surface

SMU News – SMU geophysicist Zhong Lu is part of a team working on a new NASA program to make free satellite-based observations of Earth’s water, ecosystem and land surface available to anyone with an internet connection.

Scientists routinely rely on data-intensive analysis and visualization of satellite observations to track Earth’s ever-changing surface. The open-sourcing of the information from NASA’s Observational Products for End-Users from Remote Sensing Analysis (OPERA) project will help government agencies, disaster responders and the public find timely data about changes in the Earth driven by environmental and geological processes

For instance, OPERA will be able to show where flood waters are flowing after major storms and help identify changes in tree and plant cover after droughts, wildfires, deforestation, and mining. And “OPERA, for the first time, will produce North American land deformation maps and provide updates weekly, which will become critical observations  to study and monitor natural and anthropogenic hazards,” said Lu, Shuler-Foscue Chair at SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences.

The OPERA project – which will be merging data from multiple satellites – is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with partners from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the University of Maryland, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and SMU (Southern Methodist University). Scientists conceived OPERA in 2020 to address satellite data needs across different federal agencies and to enable better access to information on everything from water management to wildfire monitoring.

Lu and his team are helping the OPERA project process satellite images produced by interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) technology, which allows scientists to detect changes that aren’t visible to the naked eye.

InSAR technology can capture ground motion with a precision of sub-inches or better, at a spatial resolution of a few yards over thousands of miles.

Lu has used the InSAR technique to detect hundreds of previously unidentified landslides on the U.S. West Coast and to spot large sinkholes in West Texas, relying upon SMU’s high performance computing infrastructure for computational modeling and analysis.

Assisting Lu with the OPERA project are Jinwoo Kim, SAR/InSAR research scientist in the SMU Radar Laboratory and SMU PhD student Lang Liang.