This week I will be attending the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco. The meeting is one of the largest gatherings of earth and space scientist in the world. Over 20,000 researchers attend this meeting. This year, I am presenting some of my recent research findings on detecting the growth of coastal forests (mangroves) as water along the coast eventually transitions from water to land.
I have been studying the processes of coastal wetland systems for about 10 years now. For me these areas are enchanting landscapes. The Mayans even named a region Sian Ka’an: the translation, “Where the sky is born”. Coastal wetlands provide so many tangible and intangible benefits that many people overlook, even people that live right next to them. They provide habitat and protection for major fisheries and migratory birds. They help to break up powerful waves during strong storms, limiting the storm’s impact on the surrounding communities. They provide timber for building materials and charcoal for fires. For many indigenous communities, mangroves are part of their culture.
On one of my field campaigns to Colombia was poetically summarized by a song written (and sung) by the community leader of a region in Choco, Colombia. He tells the story about how his community is supported by the mangrove forests; supplying the wood they need to build homes and supporting the fish and shrimp they need to eat.
So this brings me to the point of this week’s post: Communication. Communication can be difficult. In any relationship, communication is key. It helps to resolve misunderstanding and helps to bring forward new information. My audience during the AGU conference this week is a bunch of scientist like me. Scientists have their own language in the form of charts, graphs, numbers, and maps. We can communicate relatively easily across borders and languages, just by using graphs.
However, much like trying to understand another language, it can be difficult at first. Like asking “Donde está la biblioteca?” when you really need to use the restroom. Scientists also need to communicate their research to the public in a way that is much easier than charts and graphs or complicated jargon.
The complementary nature of science and art can help bridge this gap in communication. Though I won’t be playing any of my satellite music at this conference, I will be taking in lots of different forms of communication from thousands of scientists. Christina and I have had our own ideas of communicating through art. Whether it’s Christina’s “Dance Drawings” or my sonification of satellite data, both are exploring ways to communicate earth surface processes.
Christina and I have exchanged a lot of ideas back and forth about maps, dance, sound, music, and satellites. It has been fun exploring these ideas and it has provided me a new perspective on what I can incorporate into my music. For me, I think my next step is to revise my music code to be able to read a few different types of map imagery. I am really interested in creating a short music piece that brings together a lot of the concepts that Christina and I have been talking about. I also want to create a piece that Christina can really work with; something that is an experimental, but also something representative of the environment around us.
So this is what I am thinking for our piece. First, I will use information on river networks (see previous post) to direct the music “downhill” along the river. The stream information was derived from elevation data collected during the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission.
As the music program “moves downhill” it will translate each pixel into a note. In this case, I will use MODIS imagery instead of Landsat. One key difference between the sensors of these two satellites is that MODIS collects land surface information at a more coarse resolution. The larger pixel size lets us cover a larger land area with fewer pixels.
We see (and hear) nature landscapes as soft, and somber sounds. We can listen to each bird sing; the wind rustle through trees. Cities on the other hand tend to be loud and chaotic. A cacophony of horns and chatter. My plan is to use information about the “intensity of city lights” to determine how loud the music will be. Because the MODIS sensors pass over the Earth during the day and night, we can also measure the brightness of city lights that brighten the night. The larger the city, the brighter the lights, the louder the music.
Using some of the sound travel concepts I mentioned in a previous posts, the direction of the stream network will be used to determine where the rests or silence will be in the music. As the river moves away from the listener, that instrument will be not be played. I usually orient my maps with north up, so when the river moves northward, the music will be silent.
Lastly, the Digital Elevation Model (DEM) collected by SRTM, will determine how long to play each note. Faster notes will be played during steep descents, while longer notes will be played over flat landscapes.
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David Lagomasino is an award-winning research scientist in Biospheric Sciences at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and co-founder of EcoOrchestra.
Christina Catanese is a New Jersey-based environmental scientist, modern dancer, and director of Environmental Art at Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.