GEO Symposium 2020 | Emerging Trends Across the Community
MRI News
article written by MRI
29.06.20 | 10:06

This year’s GEO Symposium was held virtually between the 15-19 June 2020, with many of the topics discussed having relevance for both the Global Network for Observations and Information in Mountain Environments (GEO-GNOME) and the mountain research community as a whole.

In this article, a brief overview of selected recent developments and emerging trends is given; video recordings of the full presentations can be viewed here (click on the “more details” button for each session).

An initial series of talks explored the influence of climate, and more specifically air temperature and humidity, on COVID-19 transmission and infection – a timely subject which, understandably given the relative novelty of the virus, remains imperfectly understood. Essentially, it was demonstrated that climatic conditions appear to act as modulators to the spread of the virus, with warm and humid conditions being somewhat less conducive to high infection rates compared with cool and dry ones. Whether the climate of mountain regions could make their inhabitant populations more or less susceptible than adjacent lowland populations (all other factors being equal), however, was not discussed, and could prove a fruitful topic for future research.

Another major theme was a strong shift in emphasis from merely “data” towards more comprehensive “information” and “knowledge” – after all, data alone is useless. The substantial “gap” between the vast quantity of Earth Observation (EO) data that is now available and the extent to which this data is currently used to inform policy decisions was repeatedly highlighted. The responses of the GEO community to this challenge can be grouped into several categories.

Firstly, efforts to make data available in “analysis ready” formats (so-called Analysis Ready Data; ARD) are continuing apace, thereby eliminating the need for users to possess an intimate technical knowledge of remote sensing and image processing science.

Related to this, “no download” data processing and computation workflows dealing with large spatial EO datasets are increasingly being developed for and able to run in the cloud, with related services such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services (AWS), and Google Earth Engine becoming more prominent. This removes a key barrier to the more widespread and consistent application of EO data in policy and environmental management decisions – namely the requirement for extensive physical IT infrastructure, which is expensive and at risk of being sub-optimally utilised. The GEONETCast Initiative was specifically established to enable users to access EO data in regions with limited internet connectivity.

Finally, plans are afoot to establish a GEO Knowledge Hub (GKH) and integrate it with the GEOSS Portal. The concept is that, for a number of specific case-study applications across the GEO Work Programme initially, comprehensive “knowledge packages” comprised not only of the relevant data but also documentation (e.g. scientific publications), code/software, results, and suchlike. By following closely the principles of Open Science (see www.osf.io) and inspired by Invenio system developed with CERN, the knowledge generated should be entirely reproducible, and similar applications expedited (e.g. repeated analysis in a different geographic region). Not least on account of its potential for education and capacity building, GEO-GNOME are strongly supportive of this endeavour, and hope to be amongst the early GEO Flagships and Initiatives to contribute an exemplar package. Capacity development is urgently needed in many mountainous regions. For example, a presentation was given on the SEVIR-HKH initiative of ICIMOD, which seeks to overcome a significant capacity cap in terms of trained professionals in EO and geospatial technologies in the Himalayan region.

Data Cubes – 3D arrays of images having a constant spatial extent and pixel size stacked through time – likewise offer enormous potential to reduce substantially the traditional complications associated with dealing with spatial raster datasets. Crucially, the constituents have been processed so as to be consistent with one another, and therefore suitable for time-series analyses, this being a major historic roadblock. As such, these developments further close the gap between the vast amount of data and the degree to which it is used to answer pressing societal and environmental challenges. To data, several developments have been on a national scale, for example the Swiss Data Cube. Perhaps in the not too distant future, Data Cubes will emerge covering entire mountain chains.

Essential Variables (EVs) have, of course, been a key focus of the GEO community for many years. Being not only important or meaningful indicators but also feasible and cost-effective to measure, EVs should represent observation priorities – only a subset of the variables that could conceivably be measured. That said, based on this definition, the number of EVs should increase through time along with improvements in observational technologies (as the measurement of a greater number of meaningful indicators actually becomes feasible).   

Interestingly, the “official list” of Essential Climate Variables (ECVs) curated by GCOS is not limited to purely climatic variables, but also includes those pertaining to the hydrosphere and cryosphere, for example. On this point, concerns were raised during the discussion that there could be a danger of too many overlapping frameworks being established amongst the various disciplinary communities, which would not necessarily be consistent with one another. One proposed way of addressing this would be to define an overarching framework of “Essential Earth System Variables” (or similar); after all, all components of the earth system are somewhat linked to one another via a series of interactions and feedback mechanisms.  However, doing so would seem to overlook the “essential” criterion, and in particular the fact that different communities often have contrasting “essential” monitoring needs. Indeed, GEO-GNOME has recently hosted workshops to define a standard set of Essential Climate Variables (ECVs) and Essential Biodiversity Variables (EBVs) specifically for mountainous areas.

The presentation from AmeriGEO highlighted that GEO-GNOME will be engaged in the high-mountain regions of the South American continent, with plans underway to engage in this region more concretely in 2021 and in other regions soon after.

Finally, we would like to draw the mountain research community to this call that was issued at the Symposium. Although the focus is specifically on climate change impacts on World Heritage Cities, only some of which are located in mountainous regions themselves, the scope could include any indirect impacts of climate change in mountain areas which impact on Heritage “mountain gateway” cities, for example in terms of water resources or the tourism industry. If you have any ideas and would like the support of the MRI coordination team / GEO-GNOME to develop them (find bid partners, etc.), do not hesitate to get in touch!