Space data gives Earth insights

With the support of a Fulbright-EQC Scholarship, PhD student Jesse Kearse from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Geography, Environment, and Earth Sciences plans to head to the United States to study satellite data with world-leading experts at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Jesse Kearse
Jesse Kearse

Jesse will use the satellite data to better understand New Zealand tectonics and identify which areas of New Zealand could be at most risk from sea level rise.

“New Zealand’s land is constantly in motion. Even without an earthquake, the land is continuously adjusting to the collision of the two tectonic plates we sit on, and that includes vertical movement. Depending on where you are, you could be sinking towards the sea, or lifting up out of the waves, generally at a rate of millimetres per year,” Jesse says.

“Understanding how the land is moving is critical not just for earthquake science but also for understanding the effects of climate change at a local scale. If you have an area that is already sinking with tectonic movement, any sea level rise is going affect that area much faster than an area that is rising due to tectonic movement.”

Jesse will be able to use the INSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar) technology, which was developed at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to track these millimetres of movement via satellite imagery. He will also learn new data analysis techniques during his nine months at the NASA laboratory.

“We’ll be using data from the Sentinel-1 satellites which use radar beams to image Earth’s surface continuously as they orbit the planet,” Jesse says.

“There’s an almost unimaginable amount of data pouring back from the satellites as they map the entire world every 12 days. I’ll be learning from the world experts how to make sense of that data and bring it into practical use.”

Jesse says as well as looking forward to learning himself, he’s also keen to bring back what he has learned and share it with other students wanting to use satellite data and INSAR technology.

“The satellite data is free, and a fantastic resource for many scientific applications if you know how to turn that raw data into analysis you can use,” he says.

EQC’s Dr Jo Horrocks, Head of Resilience Strategy and Research, says INSAR is a relatively new technology with advances in techniques happening all the time.

“We’re very pleased to support Jesse to spend time at the heart of INSAR development. It will become an increasingly used and useful technology to understand a tectonically active environment like ours here in New Zealand.”

University alumna Milena Petrovic and Elyjana Roach will also travel to the United States to further their studies with the help of Fulbright grants. Milena, an international relations and public policy graduate, will undertake a PhD in Political Development at Tulane University in New Orleans and Elyjana, an architecture graduate, will complete a Master in Architecture in Urban Design at Harvard Graduate School of Design.

“As it has with people everywhere, COVID-19 has posed difficulties for the Fulbright Programme, and we have had to flex with the current global situation,” says Penelope Borland, Executive Director of Fulbright New Zealand.

“Watching the resilience, flexibility and level headedness of our current cohort has been nothing short of inspiring. I am reminded that these are some of the indelible qualities that make a Fulbrighter. Despite the challenges of this year, we are thrilled to honour our 2020 grantees at the Fulbright New Zealand Awards,” says Ms Borland.