Professor Paul Curran, 54, one of the country's leading geographers, is a research scientist who specialises in the environmental use of remote sensing data. A prolific academic author whose career has encompassed positions ranging from researcher at NASA to vice chancellor of Bournemouth University, he talks to Olivia Edward about why some Vietnam veterans are interested in chlorophyll measurements and what it takes to transform an institution
I saw the first imagery from space from the first Earth observation satellites when I was at university. I suddenly realised that everything in which I had been interested up until that point-science, geography, the environment-was all there in one image. You could see the links between soil, geomorphology and vegetation and the way humans were using the land. All the interrelations that people had previously studied in piecemeal were suddenly there in one view. The potential was huge. Nobody was doing much with them at the time. They were just thinking about them like maps and trying to draw lines on them, but I thought they could offer a lot more.
During the mid-1970s, when I started my PhD in remote sensing at the University of Bristol, people had just started to use satellite images in a quantitative way. It was an important shift away from using them as aerial photographs and towards using them in a numerical way as a data source.
We knew Earth observation was going to be central to the study of climate change. During the 1980s, people began to realise that the only way to really understand the environmental changes taking place on a global scale was to study them on a global scale. And the only way you could do that was from space. As soon as those links were realised, Earth observation wasn't just of interest, it was essential.
The planet's population is currently running a big experiment: pumping lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We still don't know what the effect will be. Lots of environmental modelling needs to be done. You need to know season length to model climate change. And the only way you can do that is by monitoring when plants green up and when they die off. We've been doing this by monitoring the chlorophyll concentration of the planet using imaging spectrometry (recording the chemicals on the Earth's surface by bouncing sunlight off them and recording its spectrum). We've found the season length is increasing, so more [CO.sub.2] is being fixed on the Earth's surface. But it's a short-term stay of execution-within a few years, that carbon will break down and be released back into the environment.
There are lots of others uses of the MERIS Terrestrial Chlorophyll Index. For example, you can record where the largest concentrations of Agent Orange were dropped on Vietnam. …