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SPRI Review 1999: Remote Sensing Group

Remote Sensing Group

Dr W.G. Rees

Professor P.J. Williams, Dr Y.H.R. Marchand
A.M. Steel, M. Williams, O.V. Toutoubalina,
J.S. Ash, M. Carlisle, S.M. Cashin

During the academic year 1998-99, four existing project areas of the Remote Sensing Group's research were continued, and a new one was added. The four continuing projects study the impact of airborne pollution (mainly sulphur dioxide and heavy metals) on Arctic ecology; the impact of terrestrial hydrocarbon pollution on high-latitude vegetation, and the interaction with soil microstructure; the investigation of temporary snow-cover using radar imagery; and the integration of remote sensing and indigenous knowledge in a study of landscape changes in a reindeer herding area. The new project, which concerns the assessment of environmental risk in the Arctic, extends some of the ideas that the Remote Sensing Group has been developing over the last few years into the areas of policy and management.

Olga Toutoubalina continued her PhD research on remote sensing of environmental degradation in the Russian north. This included assessment of a vegetation health map of the Noril'sk region (northern Siberia), based on 1995 Landsat TM imagery, and processing of MSU-SK and MSU-E images from the Russian Resurs satellites, collected in 1998. The Resurs imagery was collected by ScanER personal receiving stations within Russia. The MSU-SK image of 10 July 1998 was shown to be useful for regional pollution mapping, due to its unique synoptic coverage, comparatively low cost, and medium resolution. The high-resolution MSU-E image of 1 August 1998 was compared to the Landsat TM image of 9 July 1995, and showed interesting phenological changes. These are thought to be influenced by air pollution in the region.

The Scottish snow-monitoring project continued throughout the year. This is a collaboration between the Remote Sensing Group, the University of Dundee, and Anite Systems Ltd. The Remote Sensing Group's primary responsibility is for developing an algorithm to detect snow-cover in Scotland from spaceborne radar data. Two further sets of field data, from field trips in February and March 1999, were added to those collected last year, and nine ERS-2 radar images were analysed. The data have revealed some expected and some unexpected features. Generally, it appears that the detection of snow-cover in radar imagery from upland Scottish terrain requires that the surface topography and underlying ground-cover be known. Where the ground-cover is dominated by heather, a reasonably unambiguous 'snow signal' can be detected, although over rough grass and forest the detection of snow by radar is at best marginal. Fortunately, at least in the Glen Tilt test site, at least 50% of the upland terrain is dominated by heather. This work is now being prepared for publication, and discussions have taken place with the project partners to identify the best method of merging radar and other spaceborne image data into an operational snow-monitoring system. Alan Steel left the group at the end of September to take up a post at the University of Wales, Swansea.

Work on the interdisciplinary BASIS project progressed during the year. More Landsat satellite images were acquired, to provide a comprehensive coverage of the study area in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia, and Meredith Williams continued the painstaking task of analysing them for spatial variations in vegetation cover. In July 1999, Dr Rees and Williams undertook a field trip to the Nenets Okrug, accompanied by Dr Piers Vitebsky and other members of the Social Science Group, and by the botanist Dr Nikolai Karpov (Yakutsk University). (The field trip represented the first occasion on which the Remote Sensing Group has employed a poet. Prokopy Yavtysy accompanied the members into the field in order to facilitate access to the Nenets herders.) Permission to travel into the field was finally obtained after some negotiation with the Federal Security Service (the former KGB) in the administrative centre of Nar'yan Mar, and the project team was received hospitably by Brigade 5 of the Vyucheiskiy Territory and Brigade 5 of the Indigsky Territory. The remote sensing and botanical aspects of the field work involved collection and interpretation of detailed land-cover data for later comparison with the satellite imagery, measurement of the optical properties of plant material, and identification of the major changes that have occurred to the landscape. These were startlingly obvious. In the summer pasture areas, large areas of lichen have been transformed into areas dominated instead by green-leaved plants, primarily through grazing and trampling by reindeer. This finding is significant both ecologically and directly for the herders themselves, and will be explored further using the satellite imagery.

Professor Peter Williams continued his studies of the role of microstructural modifications of freezing soils by contaminants, especially hydrocarbons, and their significance for macroscopic properties and ground-surface interpretation. He also prepared, with the assistance of Isabella Warren (SPRI Library), the English-language version of the Geocryological map of Russia and the neighbouring republics (that is, the former USSR). This has now been published, and more information can be found at Following the successful beginning made in 1998, Professor Williams and Dr Rees also began preparations for the second International Conference on Contaminants in Freezing Ground, to be held in Cambridge in 2000. Details of this conference may be found at Dr Yvette Marchand continued her research on satellite remote sensing of contamination of frozen ground. She made a field trip to the Yamburg gas field (Russia) in August 1999, at the invitation of Gazprom and in company with Dr Ben Seligman (ex-Institute), to study pollution problems associated with extraction and transport of hydrocarbons. She also spent some time in Moscow, where she conducted negotiations about future collaboration with Gazprom and with the Geography Faculty of Moscow State University.

John Ash joined the group in October, to begin a PhD on the assessment of environmental risk in the Arctic. Ash is no stranger to the Institute, having successfully taken the MPhil in Polar Studies in 1993-94. His research programme represents a new departure for the Remote Sensing Group, although it builds on areas that have been developed during the last few years. A busy first year brought the characteristic mixture of draft papers, gloom, and networking, and it bears repeating that environmental-risk assessment as a discipline is not for the faint-hearted. The problems that beset the scholar of this eclectic subject are many in the temperate zones. In the polar regions, they multiply. Nonetheless, the project has now been refined in scope and geography to the development of oil and gas on the littoral of the western Arctic Ocean. There has been some interest shown in the work by industry, and now that preliminary research has been undertaken, the project should gather pace.

During the year, the Remote Sensing Group continued one major project, and began another, in the area of background research support. The first of these was reported briefly in last year's SPRI Review. It is a collaboration with the Moscow-based company R&D Centre ScanEx, to create a mirror of the Centre's website, including the catalogue of Resurs satellite imagery, collected by the network of personal low-cost receiving stations manufactured and distributed by the Centre. In the course of 1999, the server for the ScanEx Cambridge website was installed at the Institute, and the relevant software and on-line image catalogues were transferred to and tested at Cambridge. It is hoped that by the end of 1999 ScanEx Cambridge will be able to offer fast online browsing of Resurs image catalogue to the Western public, as well as sales of low-cost Resurs imagery (with a range of discounts, particularly for academic and educational users).

The second research support project is a new regional academic partnership (REAP) between Cambridge and Moscow universities, proposed by Professor Andrei Kapitsa. The REAP scheme is sponsored by the Know How Fund and administered by the British Council. The aim of this project is to create a new Masters course in Geographical Information Systems and Remote Sensing at Moscow University, on the basis of existing resources and experience shared by Cambridge University, which has run a similar course since 1994. Dr Rees and Olga Toutoubalina assisted in organising exchange visits of Moscow colleagues in February-March 1999 and participated in workshops and discussions. Pilot teaching of the new course in Moscow will begin in October 1999.

Meredith Williams continued his PhD research, and should be in a position to submit his dissertation (to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth) towards the middle of 2000. Sean Cashin and Margaret Carlisle joined the group as MPhil students (GIS and Remote Sensing) in January. Cashin submitted a dissertation entitled 'The integration of high-resolution imagery and geographical information systems in cadastral mapping within the republic of Moldova,' and Miss Carlisle submitted a dissertation entitled 'Pipelines, pollution and permafrost - the objectives, design and development of a GIS for the environmental management of hydrocarbon pipelines in Siberia.' Both were awarded the MPhil degree. Miss Carlisle's work builds on the oil pipeline research of Dr Marchand. During the 1998-99 academic year, Ms Toutoubalina also read for the Diploma in French at the University of Cambridge, which she was awarded in summer 1999. She was also awarded a Special Senior Rouse Ball Studentship by Trinity College, tenable for the academic year 1999-2000.

Dr Rees attended the annual meeting of ISIRA (the International Science Initiative for the Russian Arctic), as the British representative, in St Petersburg in October 1998; the first annual meeting of the EU BASIS project in Münster, Germany, in January 1999; and he gave an invited presentation at the International Mining and Metallurgical Forum in London in May 1999. This meeting was also attended by Dr Marchand, Ms Toutoubalina, and Ash. Professor Williams visited Iqaluit, Nunavut Territory, Canada, in August 1999, to discuss the expansion of internet facilities and the development of research and technology exchanges between the newly formed territory of Nunavut and the outside world. He was also a member of the scientific committee of, and contributor to, the International Institute of Refrigeration's conference on 'Pergelisol et actions du froid naturel ou artificiel' at Orsay, France (October 1998). Dr Marchand also attended this conference, where she presented a paper co-authored with Dr Rees, entitled 'Applications of remote sensing to oil contamination of frozen terrain.' She also attended the 5th International Conference on Northeast Asian Natural Gas Pipelines in Yakutsk (Sakha Republic, Russian Federation) in August 1999, and the conference on Cold regions engineering: putting research into practice, at Lincoln, New Hampshire, in August 1999, where she presented a paper (co-authored with Dr Rees) on 'Remote Sensing and GIS for application to oil contamination of frozen terrain.' While in New England, she also took the opportunity to visit the US Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), particularly its centre for Remote Sensing and GIS. Ms Toutoubalina attended the international symposium 'Ecology of post-mining landscapes' in Cottbus, Germany, on 15-19 March 1999, where she presented a joint paper with Dr Rees, 'Remote sensing of landscape degradation around the Noril'sk factories in Northern Siberia.' She also attended the one-day BMVA and Photogrammetric Society Technical meeting 'Do many cameras make light work? Machine vision in photogrammetry' on 26 May 99 in London; the 6th Circumpolar Universities Cooperation conference in Aberdeen, Scotland, on 24-27 June 1999, where she gave a talk on 'Environmental degradation of the Noril'sk industrial region: monitoring from space'; and 'RSS '99: Earth observation - from data to information,' the annual conference and exhibition of the Remote Sensing Society in Cardiff, Wales, on 8-10 September 1999. Ms Toutoubalina also made two visits to Moscow State University, in December 1998-January 1999, and in late September 1999. Discussions of current and future research projects took place, specifically about continuing the Moscow-Cambridge collaborative study of environmental degradation in the Russian Arctic and a planned INTAS project on Earth observation. In December 1999 she also started to organise the Remote Sensing Group's collaboration with N.N. Khrenov of the Ekotekh company and the Research Institute of Oil and Gas Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences. This activity led directly to Dr Marchand's visits to Yamburg and Moscow. Meredith Williams attended a meeting of the BASIS project group, and the ArcView training course, at Münster, Germany, in October 1998.