In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Remote Sensing

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Environmental Science Remote Sensing
Frank D. Eckardt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0018


This article on remote sensing or earth observation focuses on mapping and monitoring systems that produce global-scale data sets which are easily accessible to the wider public. It makes particular reference to low-earth-orbiting remote sensing platforms and sensors and associated image archives such as provided by the Landsat and Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) programs. It also draws attention to handheld space photography, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and the high-spatial-resolution capability obtained from the commercial remote sensing sector. This entry examines applications that are of global interest and are facilitated through image and data portals. Particular emphasis is placed on products such as the normalized difference vegetation index, real-time fire mapping, forest cover change, geomorphology, and global elevation data as well as actual true- and false-color imagery. All of these can be readily imported as shape or raster files into a Geographic Information System (GIS). Key papers dealing with the global monitoring of the biosphere, dynamic topography, and gravity are being cited. Special emphasis is placed on current capabilities in monitoring recent and ongoing changes in the tropics as well as Arctic and Antarctic environment. Numerous remote sensing systems capture the state and dynamics of rainforests, ice caps, glaciers, and shelf and sea ice, some of which are available in near-real-time trend analysis. Not all sensors produce images; some measure passive microwaves, send laser pulses, or detect small fluctuations in gravitational attraction. Nevertheless, all instruments measure changes in earth’s surface state, indicative of seasonal cycles and long-term trends as well as human impact. This article also makes reference to historic developments, social benefits, and ethical considerations in remote sensing as well as the modern role of aerial photography and airborne platforms. Most people will never get to see a satellite or its instruments, they might not even get to see the available data or imagery, but these systems are directly informing the masses or indirectly shaping the perception of a changing and dynamic world. Future revisions to this article will consider oceanographic and atmospheric remote sensing capabilities.

General Overviews

These are some of the essential introductory books and websites which are aimed at a wide range of users including the public, students, academics, and junior scientists. They cover the theoretical fundamentals, including the various types of remote sensing sensors, platforms, and products as well as image-processing techniques and make reference to case studies and applications. There is a fair amount of overlap between Campbell 2002; Lillesand, et al. 2004; and the The Remote Sensing Tutorial. The NASA (National Aeronautic and Space Administration) Earth Observatory and King, et al. 2007 showcase the role of remote sensing in earth system science and global monitoring of ocean, atmosphere, land, and ice. Schowengerdt 2006 is the most in-depth textbook dealing with digital image processing of satellite imagery. Dick 2007 examines the often-overlooked contribution of spaceflight and remote sensing to society.

  • Campbell, James B. 2002. Introduction to remote sensing. New York: Guilford.

    A very good introduction to the fundamentals of remote sensing principles, platforms, sensors, orbits, image acquisitions technology, data analysis, and applications. The text is aimed at undergraduate students in geography, sciences, and engineering, among others.

  • Dick, Steven J., ed. 2007. Societal impact of spaceflight. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

    Chapter 13 of this freely available online publication deals with the interesting and often-overlooked social and economic impact and benefits of earth observation technology.

  • The Earth Observatory.

    The Webby Award–winning NASA Goddard website features daily updates since 1998, in-depth articles, links to natural hazards, global maps and animations, and a portal to various blogs. Explore the related link to the Visible Earth catalog. If you follow only one remote sensing site online, this is the one.

  • King, Michael, Claire L. Parkinson, Kim C. Partington, and Robin G. Williams, eds. Our changing planet: The view from space. 2007. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This is a lavishly illustrated book, showcasing the earth’s major systems and processes. It features contributions from close to a hundred authors and is edited by project scientists from NASA Goddard’s Earth Observation Program. Plates are generally in color and are all available online as well.

  • Lillesand, Thomas M., Ralph W. Kiefer, and Jonathan W. Chipman. 2004. Remote sensing and image interpretation. 5th ed. New York: Wiley.

    This introductory text features more plates, many of them in color; it also covers remote sensing history, aerial photography, and photogrammetry and makes reference to the technical specifications of numerous common earth observation systems such as Landsat and SPOT (Satellite pour l’Observation de la Terre).

  • The Remote Sensing Tutorial.

    This website has not been updated since 2005 but it makes up for this by its incredible breadth and detail. It also features sections on planetary remote sensing and imaging the cosmos. The site is mirrored at a number of locations and received the 2003 NASA Goddard Outreach Award.

  • Schowengerdt, Robert A. 2006. Remote sensing: Models and methods for image processing. Burlington, MA: Academic Press.

    An updated classic book for anybody who wants to embark on digital image handling, processing, and analyses with in-depth, clear explanations on optics, sensors, calculations, and algorithms used in image correction and classification procedures.

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