5 Ways Satellite Data Can be Used to Improve Global Health

The phrases “satellite data” and “improving worldwide healthcare” aren’t typically used in the same sentence. In fact, a vast majority of satellite data conversations are focused on a few narrow applications in the natural resource industries (i.e. mining, oil & gas, forestry, agriculture, energy, etc.). But satellite data, and more specifically earth-observation imagery, can be used for many causes outside this small scope. The healthcare industry is a great example. By looking for a variety of different clues within satellite imagery, we can learn a great deal about the health and health-risk of a population. Armed with this information, healthcare organizations can be more proactive and responsive in treating patients around the globe. The following are 5 ways satellite data can be used to improve global health.

5. Monitoring Water Levels and Water Evaporation

According to the United Nations, as of 2013, over 2.5 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. And this number is only increasing. Water management will become one of humanity’s most crucial tasks in the not-too-distant future. As populations continue to grow and climate change impacts our hydrosphere, access to clean water - even for nations which currently enjoy this luxury - may not come easily. Monitoring the water levels in rivers and lakes, the volume of evaporation, ground moisture content, and the proportion of pollutants in the air which can affect water quality (i.e. acid rain), is no longer just interesting. It is necessary for the survival of millions. This is where climate satellites can help. After they have been placed in orbit, satellites are a low-cost method of observing the Earth’s water cycle. The information they provide can be used to help ensure the health of as many populations by optimizing safe and clean water access around the planet.

4. Identifying Dangerous Mosquito Populations

Mosquitoes are known carriers of a wide range of deadly diseases like malaria, yellow fever, tuberculosis, and more. While these tiny killers themselves cannot be detected by commercial satellites, we can identify the environmental characteristics of their habitats. Appropriate breeding ground for mosquitoes vary by species and can be identified based on the combination of plant type, ground cover, air quality, and volume of water present in a specific area. Remote sensing specialists use both multispectral and hyperspectral satellites to identify the location of mosquito breeding, the inhabiting species, and the risk that these insects have come in contact this a deadly disease. This data allows healthcare professionals to more accurately estimate the extent of treatment required and the strategy behind a response. This technology directly impacts those in areas where healthcare is lacking and mosquito-borne diseases are prominent.

3. Measuring Air-Borne Particulate Levels

“Filtering particulates from air makes a significant [and] measurable diff[erence] to health.” This is a quote from Elon Musk, which he tweeted in May after announcing his electric vehicle company would be working to integrate an air filtration system into their latest model. While this is not a new or revolutionary idea, it highlights the fact that the business community is starting to invest in a cleaner world though their products. Removing solid pollutants from the world’s air must be a priority, and we can use satellite data to understand which citizens of our planet are at the greatest risk for particulate-related harm. Prior to 2010, it was nearly impossible to create a particulate distribution map, as individual satellites cannot distinguish particulate levels at different altitudes (and in this case, we only care about air quality levels near the Earth’s surface). But then, two scientists in Canada combined the datasets of multiple NASA satellites to create a vertical profile of the Earth air-borne particulate levels. With this information, health care experts can assess the impact of pollutant-heavy air on public health and, therefore, create targeted solutions for this health risk.

2. Projecting the Severity of Seasonal Allergy Symptoms

Chances are either you or someone you know is affected by seasonal allergies. In America alone, over 40 million adults are subject to itchy eyes and a runny nose come springtime. And unfortunately, these symptoms will only become more severe as levels of atmospheric CO2 continue to increase. The plants which cause these allergies - ragweed, ryegrass, mulberry bushes, etc. - grow very quickly and very large in carbon dioxide rich environments. Even compared to friendlier vegetation like corn, rice, and apple trees, these weeds grow faster in higher levels of when CO2. With more growth, comes more pollen and more severe symptoms for those who are allergic. This means that itchy eyes and a runny nose becomes chest tightness and breathing difficulties. Over-the-counter medication becomes visits to the emergency room. Healthcare professionals must be ready for an increase in patients; satellites can help doctors and nurses prepare for this fluctuation. Satellites like NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) can be used to detect areas with higher-than-usual levels of CO2. This information can help in predicting which regions of our globe will receive a higher number of allergy patients in their emergency rooms.    

1.   Identifying Large Carbon Emitters

Climate change. Two words that are terrifying to our planet’s next generation of inhabitants. While climate change doesn’t affect humans in the same straightforward way as ingesting air-borne particulates, a hotter Earth can indirectly impact the health of our population. Higher greenhouse gas levels in our atmosphere leads to an increase in tropical storms, wildfires, tornadoes, flooding of coastal cities, and other natural disasters. This means more people are displaced from their homes and “displaced populations have notoriously poor health statistics,” says Aaron Bernstein, Associate Director of the Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. Satellites, like NASA’s MOPITT and TES, are monitoring the global levels of greenhouse gasses in the troposphere. While current technology cannot yet identify individual carbon emitters, regional levels can be measured. International pressure can then be placed on the world’s greatest polluters to increase carbon regulation. And once technology has improved, crackdown on large, industrial carbon emitters will vastly decrease the volume of greenhouse gas we are pumping into our planet’s atmosphere. This, in turn, will allow more people the remain happy, and healthy, in their homes.

There are hundreds of satellites currently observing our Earth and hundreds more which will be launched into orbit in the coming years. These instruments allow us to develop a greater understanding of our planet and the effects of our actions on the world’s health. Let’s use this advantage to help improve healthcare around the globe.

If you know of any other ways satellite data can be used to improve healthcare, let us know down below. And if you liked this post, don’t forget to share!

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