Seeing the Planet

MODIS21From satellites, balloons, high-altitude surveillance planes and even a two-seater Cessna, Oregon State scientists have been gathering data on the planet for nearly a half century. Their work has helped manage crops, detect threats to Western forests, track activity in Cascade volcanoes and reveal new details about ocean currents and how they interact with the atmosphere to affect global climate.

Researchers have a term for such long-distance observation: “remote sensing.” With funding from NASA, Professor Charles Poulton established OSU’s first center, the Environmental Remote Sensing Applications Laboratory (ERSAL), in 1972.

By repeatedly capturing images of forested and agricultural landscapes, scientists detect trends in plant stress, disease and forest composition, says Barry Schrumpf, former director of ERSAL.

“OSU was a pioneer partly because Oregon has such a wide range of terrain in a small area: rainforests, high desert, mountains, agricultural valleys,” says Chuck Rosenfeld, geoscientist and professor emeritus. Rosenfeld flew his Cessna to take thermal infrared and visible light photos of the Oregon coast and Cascade volcanoes, including Mount St. Helens after it erupted. Professors Bill Ripple and Michael Wing in the College of Forestry continue to manage ERSAL.

Scientists in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS) have helped to shape the global remote sensing enterprise. Since the early 1980s, they have designed satellite sensors and developed analytical techniques for interpreting ocean data. Their precise measurements of surface waters have identified currents that set the stage for fisheries, marine mammals and other aspects of near-shore ecosystems.

CEOAS is also home to one of only two non-commercial direct-broadcast satellite stations on the West Coast. It serves fishermen, the U.S. Coast Guard, search-and-rescue teams and other agencies by downloading data directly from satellite color sensors and providing regional ocean, land and atmospheric information in near-real time.


See A History of Satellite Remote Sensing Research at Oregon State University about the satellite remote sensing accomplishments of OSU oceanographers.

Researchers in the colleges of Forestry, Agricultural Sciences, Engineering and Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences are experimenting with unmanned aerial systems. See On a Wing and a Dare.