The Global Airborne Observatory lands at ASU


February 25, 2020

The Global Airborne Observatory, formerly the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, has a new home at Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, under the direction of Greg Asner.

High tech airborne mapping technology 

Developed by Asner and his team, the observatory is an airborne laboratory that houses the most advanced Earth-mapping technology. The original version of the airborne observatory was launched in 2006 and has since undergone enormous improvements in both the aircraft and its instrumentation and computing package, called AToMS, or Airborne Taxonomic Mapping System.  GAO Frame grabs from the new GAO WingCams while it maps reefs off Maui, Hawaii. Photo credit: Greg Asner, 2020

AToMS is now in its fourth generation, with advances in all sensors. AToMS has four integrated mapping technologies: high fidelity visible-shortwave infrared (VSWIR) imaging spectrometer; dual-laser, waveform light detection and ranging (wLiDAR) scanner; high-resolution visible-to-near infrared (VNIR) imaging spectrometer; and high-resolution digital imaging camera. The VSWIR and VNIR sensors measure the reflectance of the Earth’s surface in hundreds of spectral channels from the ultraviolet to the visible, near-infrared, and shortwave infrared to provide measurements of chemicals in the environment, such as in tree canopies and corals. The wLiDAR sensor fires two laser beams out of the bottom of the GAO that sweep back and forth during flight, imaging the 3D structure of vegetation including leaves and branches, and all the way to the ground.

AToMS collects data about the structural, taxonomic, and chemical makeup of ecosystems and is able to map features on the Earth’s surface in three dimensions, including all terrestrial ecosystems and human-built environments. AToMS can also image coral reefs and other aquatic habitats with spectral detail. 

The Global Airborne Observatory is also now carbon-neutral through Arizona State University’s Carbon Project, a program that helps the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science to acquire offsets equivalent to the observatory's airborne emissions, helping to reduce the aircraft’s carbon footprint.

Greg Asner and the GAO crew

Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science Director Greg Asner (far left) with the GAO crew (from left to right: Don Koopmans, Devon Woodward, Joseph Heckler and Sheldon DeCosse) in Hilo, Hawaii.

A pathfinder to new discoveries

The Global Airborne Observatory has been deployed to nearly every type of ecosystem — from coral reefs to savannas and deserts to rainforests —and in 11 countries. Maps and data from the observatory have been used to make numerous fundamental discoveries including the makeup and functioning of ecosystems, the effects of human activities on forest biodiversity and carbon stocks, and the impacts of climate change on land and ocean environments. 

Yet the Global Airborne Observatory program’s biggest impacts center on concrete decision-making at a range of scales, from local communities to international governing bodies. New protected areas on land and in the sea have been established based on observatory data, regulatory emissions planning and enforcement have been undertaken via observatory mapping, and a wide range of environmental interventions have been steered by observatory results. Asner describes the Global Airborne Observatory program as a “pathfinder at times, and an exposé machine at other times.”

Ambitious plans for 2020

The observatory's mission has recently expanded due to a new collaboration with the University of Arizona and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This mission will focus on mapping industrial and agricultural methane and carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. 

Observatory scientists are also working with Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources to map the health of reefs along more than 700 miles of shoreline in the main Hawaiian Islands following the 2019 coral reef bleaching event.

“Our airborne observatory has unique capabilities that allow us to see through seawater to a depth of 70 feet. What we want to see is where there’s live coral on the seafloor, where there’s dead coral, where there’s algae, the depth of the water, and 3D imaging of fish habitat,” Asner said.

The outcome of these airborne surveys will be used to inform the development of new marine management across the Hawaiian Islands.

Given the paucity of high-tech, direct-action remote sensing data available from other sources, the Global Airborne Observatory program is growing to include collaborators and clientele spanning any terrestrial or coastal ocean ecosystem worldwide.

Heather D'Angelo

Communications director, Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science

School of Community Resources and Development celebrates 15 years

The school was born from assembling several fields of study


February 25, 2020

In the 15 years since Arizona State University’s School of Community Resources and Development was created, it has blossomed from its origins as a recreation program into a fully sustainable community that equips students with the tools necessary to create meaningful community partnerships.

In 2004, a new school was approved to combine several disciplines including parks and recreation, tourism, and nonprofit leadership and management. Interim Director Christine Buzinde, 15th anniversary, ASU School of Community Resources and Development Interim School Director Christine Buzinde (left) greets a visitor to a recent luncheon celebrating the 15th anniversary of the ASU School of Community Resources and Development. Download Full Image

Originally, the name “School of Community Service and Development” was suggested, said Randy Virden, who was the school’s founding director.

But it didn’t go very far, said Virden, now an emeritus professor who attended a Feb. 6 luncheon celebrating the school’s anniversary. Eventually, the school’s present name won out.

School’s origins trace back more than four decades

The school's roots lie in ASU’s recreation program, which was originally located in the Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Virden said in 1979 the program was invited to join the then-new College of Public Programs and became the Department of Leisure Studies.

By the 1980s, both the tourism and nonprofit management academic areas were added to the department’s traditional parks and recreation emphasis. In 1994, Virden said, the department was renamed the Department of Recreation Management and Tourism, which is what it was known for until the school was created 10 years later.

Emeritus Professor Tim Tyrrell, 2007 alumnus Ted Martens, former School Director Randy Virden, ASU School of Community Resources and Development, 15th anniversary

Emeritus Professor Tim Tyrrell (left) joins 2007 alumnus Ted Martens, center, and former school Director Randy Virden (right) in celebrating the School of Community Resources and Development's 15th anniversary at a Feb. 5 luncheon.

Original ideas to locate the school at either ASU’s West or Polytechnic campuses were dropped when the School of Community Resources and Development was approved to move from the Tempe campus, Virden said. In 2008, it relocated to the Downtown Phoenix campus as part of the College of Public Programs, now the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

First tries weren’t confined to only the name of the school. Another emeritus professor who attended the luncheon, Tim Tyrrell, said he originally headed what was called the “Megapolitan Tourism Research Center.” The cumbersome first word was later dropped, said Tyrrell, who helped set up the school’s PhD program.

Virden said over the years the fields taught by the school’s faculty have changed significantly, particularly in the use of technology. The school itself has changed as well, he said, in that it is a fully sustainable community, with core classes even more aligned to the skills students need.

More interdisciplinary approaches

School Interim Director Christine Buzinde said one of the most noticeable changes in the school over the years is its transformation toward a more interdisciplinary approach that equips students with multidimensional tools necessary in creating meaningful community partnerships, which facilitate the co-creation of effective solutions. 

"If you want a career through which you can make a difference in society, SCRD is the place to be."

— School Interim Director Christine Buzinde

Students from parks and recreation management, tourism development, nonprofit leadership and management, community sports management and recreation therapy take core courses familiarizing themselves with the fields. Students studying parks and recreation, for example, are discovering better ways to help citizens learn how to use their parks to lead healthier lives, and recreation therapy students are learning how to use recreation to rehabilitate individuals with disabilities.

Community sports management students are learning about the role of sports in, for example, youth development while those whose emphasis is in tourism are finding out how tourism can contribute to the sustainable development of communities. The nonprofit leadership and management students are oriented to the dynamics of working with nonprofits to champion community initiatives.

The school is accepting more socially and environmentally conscious students who not only want a good-paying job upon graduation, but one that effectively helps others.

“If you want a career through which you can make a difference in society, SCRD is the place to be,” Buzinde said.

’07 grad today promotes ‘conservation travel’

The featured speaker at the Feb. 6 luncheon was 2007 school graduate Ted Martens, vice president for marketing and sustainability at Boulder, Colorado-based Natural Habitat Adventures (NHA), where he promotes his company as a leader in what it calls “conservation travel.”

While at ASU earning his master’s degree in tourism development, Martens researched ecotourism development in Central America. Before joining NHA in 2011, he was outreach and development director for Sustainable Tourism International, a nonprofit dedicated to applying sustainability solutions to the tourism industry.

15th anniversary logo, Arizona State University, School of Community Resources and Development 

In an interview after his talk, Martens said during his time at ASU he was able to combine his own travel history into research that opened up the field to him.

He said that since he graduated, the idea of sustainable tourism has been growing and merging into the larger travel industry.

“Today there is a lot more pressure as the industry has evolved for purveyors and curators of these types of experiences to have some meaning and teeth behind those experiences,” he said. He said NHA has focused on providing a positive impact on the communities where they lead tours.

Students contemplating careers in tourism should foster the passion for travel they’ve gained from their own experiences, Martens said.

People who deeply love travel dominate the tourism industry, he said. “If you care about the planet, you’ll want to go see it.”

Martens said he and his fellow NHA employees fit that mold, combining their individual passions to create unforgettable experiences for their customers.

“You should have a passion for the planet, the environment, for sustainability,” he said. “It’s an amazing combination.”

Sustainable tourism is still a small part of the overall travel industry, so there is room for it to continue to grow, Martens said.  “So, you have to set yourself apart. Get a degree in sustainable tourism, that really helps. Put the time in and work your way up even after you get your degree.”

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions

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