Using Physics to Measure a Warming Earth

January 31, 2020
By: WSU News

Data from thermal cameras in space can effectively measure the warming of the Earth, according to Assistant Professor of Earth, Environment, and Physics Nabin Malakar, Ph.D. Studying the underlying patterns and trends on these datasets can help raise awareness related to the health risks posed by the environmental factors.

“The thermal data lets us see the world with a new vision,” he said.

Malakar gave a presentation, “Eyes in the Sky: Observing Earth Using Physics Principles,” at the first Shared Scholarship event of the Spring 2020 semester on Thursday, Jan. 23.

His research focuses on the concept of looking at the temperature of the Earth using the physics of remote sensing and the electromagnetic spectrum. Remote sensing, i.e., using space-borne cameras that orbit the Earth, can give a broader picture of the environment. These thermal cameras exist in space, but atmospheric gases can interfere with the measurements. Physics-based principles help remove the artifacts of atmospheric effects, Malakar said.

In his talk, he used an illustration (a cartoon of a bunny) to show how a simple picture can relay the message of complicated interconnections in the natural world to demonstrate how equipped with physics knowledge can enable people to see the world differently. Physicists look at the “color of the universe—how it works,” he said.

The visible spectrum, which is how we see the light, is just a small part of the bigger picture, and we can “appreciate the beauty of the universe if we look at the broader picture,” Malakar said. Passing around a camera that senses the temperature of the objects it is focused on, he explained that the research he has been working on for three years that uses a similar concept on a larger scale.

This research can also be used for drought monitoring, because when we wait until we can see that plants need water, it may already be too late, he said.

Another application of this research is in urban heat island studies. Malakar has been working with a student to compare population data with temperature data. They are working on identifying the regions which can be vulnerable to heatwaves or cold snaps. These extreme events are tied to public health, which can lead to more hospital visits and casualties.

Written by Victoria Konicki

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