As suggested, national and international organizations are placing greater emphasis on the benefits achievable from applications of Earth observations. The determination of specific societal and economic impacts, especially quantitatively, can be challenging, yet these determinations are critical to the value proposition of Earth observations and to induce greater use.
NASA Earth Science and its Applied Sciences Program have supported numerous studies to assess and document the benefits of Earth observations for decision-making. NASA has and continues to advance analytic techniques and quantitative methodologies for determining socioeconomic impacts across a range of themes.
Some of the socioeconomic studies that the Applied Sciences Program has sponsored include
Disasters: Volcanic ash and aviation safety;
Water: Improving water quality management;
Health: Malaria early warning using Earth observations;
Drought: Value of information for the U.S. Drought Monitor;
Ecosystems: Fisheries management and pelagic habitats;
Air Quality: Enhancements to the BlueSky emissions assessment system;
Wildfires: Benefits of BlueSky for smoke management and air quality; and,
Air Quality: Earth observations and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) AIRNow system.
The following are summaries of two project-impact studies that the Applied Sciences Program has sponsored; the information is paraphrased from the authors’ reports and also appeared on the program’s website.
4.1 Earth Observations and Air Quality
Air pollutants can cause significant short-term- and long-term effects to human health. The U.S. EPA operates the AIRNow air quality system, which health officials use to alert the public about hazardous pollution.
A NASA-sponsored project pursued the use of Aura, Aqua, and Terra data within the EPA AIRNow air quality system. By incorporating the Earth observations into AIRNow, EPA could expand the system’s coverage to reach millions of people not currently covered by the network of ground-based air quality monitors.
In the project’s economic impact report, the analysis involved two approaches: face-to-face interviews in three case study locations (Denver, Colorado; Atlanta, Georgia; and Kansas City, Missouri) to assess the public value or community-level benefits and analysis of cost savings from the use of satellite data instead of installing new monitors to provide air quality information for public health decisions to populations in currently unmonitored locations.
The study found that the addition of satellite data could provide daily particulate matter information to 82% of people living in currently unmonitored locations (approximately 15 million people); the study estimated that the capability represents a value of about USD 26 million.
The three case studies also identified nonmonetary value and benefits. Interviewees reported reduced adverse health impacts on sensitive populations resulting from more accurate air pollution warnings and health alerts, and increased public viewing and understanding of air quality maps on AIRNow because of greatly increased spatial coverage. They also reported increased media use of AIRNow air quality maps resulting from expanded geographic coverage; more comprehensive air quality stories available to the media because of improved geographical representation of pollutant transport resulting from unusual events; and better communication with the public about the spatial distribution of air pollution, especially in sparsely monitored areas, resulting in better public understanding of these issues.
4.2 Volcanic Ash, Earth Observations, and Aviation Safety
Large volcanic eruptions can eject ash to heights at which commercial aircraft normally fly. Volcanic ash can cause damage to engines and fuselages, making it necessary to reroute, delay, or cancel flights to protect aircraft and ensure passenger safety. The international aviation community uses information and warnings from nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers (VAAC) on the location of volcanic ash.
In 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, sending volcanic ash into European airspace and canceling flights. European VAACs had not used Aura data, and a NASA-sponsored project team developed and delivered data products within days of the eruption. European officials used the Aura products in their determinations of which airspace to open.
An impact analysis analyzed the benefits of the project and VAAC’s use of Aura data. One part focused on the benefits from use following the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, and one part focused on a global estimate of average annual benefits.
The analysis team used data on flight cancelations and revenue losses due to Eyjafjallajökull, historical frequencies of aircraft damage from volcanic ash, and aircraft repair costs. The team estimated how much the Aura data would reduce the uncertainty about the level of ash threat, determining a risk-adjusted value of the observations. Overall, the analysis found that the satellite data reduced the probability of an aircraft experiencing a volcanic ash incident by approximately 12%.
The team estimated that use of the data following the Eyjafjallajökull eruption saved USD 25–72 million in avoided revenue losses due to unnecessary delays and avoided aircraft damage costs. If the data had been used from the beginning of the incident, an estimated additional USD 132 million in losses and costs might have been avoided.
The team extrapolated the risk-adjusted results globally to estimate the potential annual impact from the use of Earth observations by VAACs. Accounting for annual frequency and magnitude of volcanic eruptions, the team estimated an expected value of up to USD 10 million annually.