Case Studies: How Landsat Helps Us

In 1972, Stewart Udall—a former Secretary of the Interior and an original Landsat visionary—said, “I thought an Earth applications program was a perfect means of bringing the benefits of space back to Earth.” Udall was one of the first people to realize that Earth observation—turning space-based cameras and sensors back towards us—provided a way to better protect and provide for Earth’s inhabitants.

When the first Landsat launched in 1972, the world population was 3.8 billion and space policy experts of the time considered improving environmental management in order to protect humankind a top-priority for the U.S. They were in favor of “those applications of space technology which produce direct tangible benefits for society in general.” Landsat did just that.

By the time the latest Landsat, Landsat 8, launched in 2013, world population was over 7 billion. By amassing information about changes to Earth’s land surface for more than 40 years, the Landsat program has provided decision makers tasked with managing Earth’s resources for the planet’s burgeoning population with integral information about the world’s food, forests, water, and how these and other land resources are being used. The case studies featured here highlight some of these tangible benefits of Landsat.

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Forest fire image


At 8 p.m. on Thursday, May 4th, 2000, after months of planning, fire boss Mike Powell ignited a routine prescribed fire at the Bandelier National Monument just outside of Los Alamos, New Mexico. The burn was intended to reduce hazardous fuel (like dead trees and accumulated brush) in the Upper Frijoles Creek drainage area on the eastern rim of the Jemez Mountains. Initially it went as expected, but…
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Waterfalls on Wolf Creek in Banning State Park, Minnesota

Land Use and Land Cover Change

Pam Anderson and her colleagues at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Lakes and Streams Monitoring Unit have an unusually big job. Popularly known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes and home to more than 12,000 of them, Minnesota has vast water resources, and Anderson and her colleagues are responsible for monitoring, managing, and protecting all of them. It would be an impossible task if not for satellite data.
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Farm image


Dean Stevenson has farmed the plains of south-central Idaho most of his forty-seven years. Like all farmers, he worries about things like the price of sugar beets and malt barley or the cost of gasoline, but most of all, he worries about water.
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Landscape with straw bales against sunset


From George Washington to Abraham Lincoln, early U.S. presidents struggled to determine the value and extent of U.S. agriculture—then the country’s primary economic engine. Despite Washington’s best efforts, the U.S. did not have an annual agricultural survey until Abraham Lincoln established the Department of Agriculture in 1862.
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Pine Beatle damaged forest


Standing at the foot of a mountain inside Sheepshead Recreation Area just outside of Butte, Montana, Sue Cummings remembers the day she married her husband 25 years ago. She recalls her casual off-white dress and the deep green of the forest. The smell of pines still brings her back to that day.
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Young woman walking on green asphalt road in forest


How many trees are there in the world? It’s more than a trivia question, and one that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been striving to answer every 5 to 10 years since 1946.
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Photo of Mt Etna eruption


Year after year, somewhere on Earth, natural or manmade disasters cause loss of life and widespread destruction, frequently spawning refugee situations. Though the risk of a disaster is low in any one particular place, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, fires, landslides, oil spills, and hurricanes—when considered together on a global scale—regularly menace people, property, and natural resources.
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Falseness AK Isanotski strait east


Uncharted shoals have sunk many ships. In the late 1960s, research groups began to experiment with remote bathymetry using multispectral airborne data in an effort to make measurements over large tracts of coastal waters in search of navigational hazards and shifting bathymetry. With the launch of Landsat 1 in 1972, these newly developed methods could be used with data collected by the satellite’s Multispectral Scanner System and its 100 nm-wide images—satellite derived bathymetry was born.
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