WMU News

New geosciences research capability gets off the ground

Nov. 17, 2004

KALAMAZOO--A major new research capability at Western Michigan University gained the high ground Wednesday, Nov. 3, when a data receiving station was lifted to the top of Everett Tower on the main Kalamazoo campus.

The station will allow WMU's recently created Earth Sciences Remote Sensing Facility known as ESRS, to capture and apply a wealth of environmental and geologic data from sensors on three Earth-orbiting satellite-systems, then share this information online with scientists around the world.

Once the station is fully operational Nov. 16, it will download images and data from China's FY-1C and FY-1D satellites and the United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Aeronautics and Space Administration satellites.

"We'll be downloading six to seven images a day from northern Canada all the way to Mexico and the Caribbean, with each image covering about half of the United States," says Dr. Mohamed I. Sultan, chairperson of WMU's Department of Geosciences and director of its ESRS Facility. "These images and the data that come with them will give us real-time access to information about the earth and its atmosphere that we can use to address issues related to everything from water quality to urbanization to forest fires."

A remote sensing specialist and environmental scientist, Sultan came to WMU this past August from the University at Buffalo in the State University of New York system, where he was a professor of geology. He used startup funds from WMU and equipment he brought with him to transform part of Wood Hall into the ESRS Facility, a state-of-the-art computation, remote sensing and geoinformatics center.

Sultan, who also brought numerous high-profile research projects with him, is helping WMU's Department of Geosciences become a leading player in remote sensing applications and in the emerging field of geospatial information research, or geoinformatics as it is commonly known.

"The earth is a complex system, and we now realize that to understand it, we need a lot more data as well as innovative and integrated approaches to grouping, analyzing and modeling data," Sultan says. "Geoinformatics gives us the means to answer complicated questions and solve difficult problems. It's bringing together geoscientists and computer scientists who are applying remote sensing, geographic information processing and other advanced information-gathering technologies on a global scale."

But Sultan says for greater headway to be made, researchers must develop and distribute new and expanded sets of environmental and geologic data for scientists to analyze and integrate.

"That's a key part of what we're doing in WMU's ESRS Facility," Sultan says. "And now we're installing a receiving station that will allow us to gather a larger amount of information so we can develop better and more sophisticated data sets and models."

In addition to using it for their own projects, Sultan and his research team will post the information on a Web page that can be accessed by scientists anywhere in the world.

Initially, the WMU team will focus on completing a three-year, 200,000 grant from NOAA that involves collaborators at two SUNY institutions, the University at Buffalo and the College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. The project aims to develop data sets and models that will broaden knowledge of U.S. coastal waters and monitor harmful algal blooms in the lower Great Lakes--Erie and Ontario--and Lake Champlain.

Knowing more about algal blooms is important for both public health and economic reasons, says Richard Becker, a doctoral student and principle research associate for the ESRS Facility.

"These blooms not only affect recreational and commercial use of the Great Lakes and its beaches, but also the region's supply of drinking water," Becker says. "Almost 20 million people get their drinking water from intake cribs in these lakes. It's expensive to shut the intakes down, so a lot of money would be saved if we could predict where and when algal blooms will reach them."

A good deal of research being done in the ESRS Facility pertains to the Great Lakes. But just as remote sensing and geoinformatics applications are global, so are Sultan's research interests.

Currently, he is working on an NSF-funded effort to help post-war Iraq renew its marshlands in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. The marshlands have diminished markedly since 1990 due to intentional draining and dam construction in Iraq, Iran and particularly Turkey.

"Getting data in these parts of the world is always challenging," says Sultan, who hopes to travel to Iraq when conditions there improve. "At the end of the day, the data you get dictates what you'll come up with, so we're taking it one step at time."

In addition, he is working on a variety of major projects that will not only have scientific benefits, but when applied, will also benefit countless thousands living in Egypt, Costa Rica, Saharan Africa, southern Europe, Southeast Asia and Arabia.

Sultan earned a bachelor's degree in geology and a master's degree in stratigraphy from Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt, and a doctoral degree in geochemistry from Washington University in St. Louis. He also has been a project manager in the Environmental Research Division of Argonne National Laboratory and a senior research scientist for NASA's Earth and Planetary Remote Sensing Facility at Washington University, where he has done post-doctoral work in remote sensing.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, 269 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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