How do your professional career and/or your personal experience relate to space technologies and water?
My interest in water is deeply rooted in my personal life. I grew up on an island in the Philippines where a lot of people depend on water as a source of livelihood. From fishing in the open sea to fish breeding, water has always been a source of income at home. Aside from this, the small community where I grew up struggled with access to running water.
I remember the days when my family would bring a lot of empty gallons which they loaded on our small truck, to drive our way to a nearby spring and fetch water from there. I was lucky enough to have had the means to fetch water but in lesser privileged communities, it was hard to get access. I even led a small project through a girl scout program to install a mechanical pump on a well to help a small district in my town composed of twenty to fifty households get access to water.
I learned how access to potable water is critical to many living things at a young age, and in effect, after my bachelor’s degree, decided to pursue graduate studies in environmental engineering with a focus on water and wastewater treatment and management. It was also in this field that I was introduced to geographic information systems, remote sensing and earth observation.
While studying in this domain, I realized that aside from water resources, the water surrounding our planet must also be investigated and that there are many things I thought were normal which shouldn’t be normal. For example, as an amateur freediver, I have been to the coasts of many islands in my country, hopping from one island to another. I have seen inhabited islands that completely submerge under seawater when it is high tide. Residents on these islands continue to live their normal lives adapting to this situation. One could say that this resembles the setting of the movie, Waterworld where, in the show, every place on Earth is submerged under water. The main difference with the movie and in reality is that this is not (yet) the end of the world for those who live in these islands. For them, it’s something that normally happens. For me, it is something that should be alarming.
Global warming and increases in temperatures, shifts in precipitation patterns and stronger typhoons, have greatly affected my country. Last December 2021, just right before Christmas, a category 5-equivalent supertyphoon Rai with 260kph sustained winds per minute, wiped out numerous islands and affected thousands of families including my own. The typhoon left Filipinos without livelihood, food, drinking water and electricity.
Growing up, I have always thought that experiencing an average of 20 typhoons a year is normal but as time passed by, I realized stronger typhoons should not be normal. Today, I am investigating the potential of Sentinel-3 water products and using them to determine possible solutions to problems surrounding the issue of climate change.
Where do you see unharnessed potential of geospatial technologies for water resources management, ecosystem preservation and hydrology?
Geospatial technologies such as space satellites provide us with so much more information than we can possibly have on the ground, and of course that includes information on water. Through satellites, we get data on sea surface temperatures, ocean color, bathymetry, and so forth. We receive terabytes of data on a daily basis.
We need to tap these resources and use them not only to observe our waters but also, to create models, devise mechanisms and provide us with possible scenarios that may happen.
The breakthroughs in the field of geodata science, particularly in machine learning, have paved way in predicting outcomes and painting a better picture of what is about to come if we don’t take action in fields like water resources management. We need to learn how much groundwater we can extract without affecting soil subsidence too much; how water temperatures and ocean processes affect migration of fishes and entire ecosystems; or lastly, in hydrology, how climate change poses drastic effects on processes in which water moves from the ocean to land to atmosphere and back.
While these breakthroughs help us understand processes and determine future possible scenarios, what I think is not sufficiently harnessed is the value of research on which communities need application of such technology the most. We often have meaningful research, but do we really relay its outcomes and implement these in a manner that is felt by the ordinary person? I believe, if we do, potential and possibilities will be beyond our current imagination.
What do you think is missing in the current scientific debate about water?
This is a tough question because water has many uses, not only to mankind but also to all living and even non-living things. It is such a valuable resource that it should not only be discussed from a scientific perspective but also, in general, because without it, Earth would be a dead planet.
What is missing in our debate about water is awareness about the status quo. A lot of us still think that there is enough water, and that it can sustain its support to everything on Earth. For example, we think that there is enough when it rains hard because there is much water to fill our catchments and aquifers, but we use this resource water in extreme amounts, for drinking, for farming, industry, and so many more things.
We think that the vastness of the oceans could provide us with enough areas for carbon sinks that store carbon we produce yet we miss the point that as climate change increases, ocean water temperatures increase, and our oceans have the tendency to release the carbon back to the atmosphere.
Water, even though we have basic knowledge on its processes – from physical to biological to chemical processes – is still a complex system and behaves as such. I want to note that there are tipping points in the dynamic system of the hydrological cycle of water, and we need to sustainably optimize the current capacity of the hydrological system we have today through scientific research. For example, how much carbon can our ocean take? And how much more carbon can our ecosystem take when oceans release carbon back to the atmosphere once temperatures have risen?
Lastly, we all need to change our mindset towards water: and by that I mean the thinking that we have enough of it or even an excess. It’s dangerous to think this way because we may abuse the thought that we can always have water.
What are your lessons learnt from having been a Project Leader in the ISDE12 Youth Forum and the moderation of a panel on indigenous communities?
I am not foreign to the plight of indigenous communities especially as I come from a country with more than a hundred indigenous communities composed of more than 14 million members. In academia we always talk about progress. I remember back in 2018 one of our tribesmen in the Philippines said, “For us indigenous people, we also want progress. But the progress you speak of is different from our idea of progress. Progress for us means taking care of our land and sea.”
When I was tasked to organize and moderate the ISDE12 Youth Forum, I had one goal– it had to be inclusive. Throughout the process of organising a successful event, I realized that there are so many unheard voices with issues not thoroughly discussed on a global level. The discussions we had were very critical for achieving the International Society on Digital Earth’s aim (ISDE) to create a Digital Earth. In my opinion, risks must be defined, and future consequences determined before any human-induced changes are made in real life.
Indigenous communities' conversations on panels of scientific platforms such as conferences provide guidance to scientists while it gives these communities a voice especially in the applications of geoinformatics and remote sensing. It truly makes a difference. I would like to replicate that in my home country and hope there will be more emphasis on the role of scientists to champion indigenous communities. Science can be used for the greater good.
I also think there is a need to take the discussion further and include, not only indigenous communities and scientists, but also leaders of local communities and the general public. I think there is a need for the public to realize that in order to have a sustainable and livable future, we need to listen, engage and work together.
What are the major challenges in science communication? Where do you see potential?
There is so much complexity and gap in terms of communicating science to the wider public. I think this is because the nature of science itself is challenging. More than just the jargon and difficult terms, there is a certain degree of uncertainty in science that science communicators continue to struggle with such as that most research can only address a specific situation, a specific group of people, it can be research that is still in progress or simply, that the science is still evolving. Science is not a stagnant body of knowledge. It’s an evolving field that acquires better understanding of everything over time through observation. This is what makes science challenging to communicate and it is also what makes it awesome and exciting.
If someone is or wants to be a science communicator, she does not need to be an expert in the sciences although having a background in science is a huge advantage. I think if one is inquisitive and has the passion to understand and delve deeper in the topic, science can be relayed properly to an audience. I believe this is also where the field of arts comes in, and where I truly think that the arts and sciences should work together on how to improve the way we convey knowledge. It should not be only STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), but rather, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics).
To ensure the appropriate conveying of scientific findings, it also helps to know the audience well. Science communicators can tailor their material to raise their target audience’s interest in the topic.
The internet has provided us with numerous channels to communicate. If we for instance leverage the use of social media, we can communicate science to a wide spectrum of audiences.
You are the host for the IEEE podcast Down to Earth. What are your lessons learnt? What were the most interesting contributions? Can you relate any to water?
First, I learned that I can actually host a podcast. When I was auditioning and applying for it, I never thought they would choose me for the role. I was surprised to receive the good news. My verbal and moderation skills have improved, and I am very thankful to my producer who has guided me on this journey.
With regards to the podcast, I learned a lot, not only from the experience but also from my interviewees. In Season 1, we featured women in the geosciences field and learned their struggles and triumphs while working on their career. For example, aside from economic boundaries in achieving one’s career, there were gender boundaries as well. Learning about gender boundaries, opened up realizations for me as a young female researcher venturing into the field. One of my interviewees fought for child-care support as a professor who needs to take care of her kids while away for a conference, and she successfully did so because the university she is working for is already implementing a grant.
Another shared her story where she was bullied for being a woman excelling in a field normally dominated by men. The podcast also featured how the IEEE GRSS is pushing boundaries to create a healthy environment for women through mentorship. I think hearing the stories of these amazing women taught me that there are still many boundaries we need to tear down for women to grow in the STEM field, and that we have to continue these discussions.
And of course, there are women who used space technologies to address the problems we are all facing in terms of water, including developing methods to track and map flooding in Tunisia; forecasting harmful algal blooms in Guatemala; and the detection and estimation of offshore oil seepage. I highly encourage everyone to listen to this podcast. I think everyone can learn a lot by just listening through it, especially those who want to delve into this field of research.
In your thesis for your degree in Environmental Engineering, you researched the removal of copper and lead ions from aqueous solutions by adsorbents derived from groundwater treatment sludge. Do you see any potential of space technologies applied to water monitoring before treatment that has not been exploited? If so, please expand. Could you imagine a monitoring of groundwater resources from space that goes beyond changes in mass, if so, what do we need to focus on?
There are specific missions for monitoring groundwater called GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) and was a joint mission of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. The aim of this mission which was launched in 2002 was to detect global changes of water, ice sheets and the planet as a whole by using the changes of the Earth’s gravity. Today there is also the GRACE Follow Up (GRACE-FO) mission. You see, there is a change of gravity on our planet depending on what’s on the surface. The changes of mass on the surface affect the gravitational pulls acting on the satellites measuring them. So, with various processes involved including inversion, scientists can observe our Earth’s water storage.
Aside from this kind of technique, detecting groundwater sources involve a combination of remote sensing, geographic information system and geophysical expertise. I think if we learn how to systematically fuse all the available data that we have now (which is a lot), we can use it to our advantage in detecting groundwater.
One way would most probably be analyzing maps particularly vegetation indicating presence of water which could be done by satellite imagery, either multi-spectral or synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery. Geological outlines and fractures can be inferred from these images. Soil properties and conductivity can also be checked through these images but in order to see through the ground and provide a better estimate of the presence of groundwater and its aquifer size, a combination of geophysical methods techniques and in-situ measurements will now be needed.
What I mean by this is that with the plethora of data that we have today, we need to learn how to combine and fuse all the data to utilize their attributes and come to a better understanding and discrimination of target areas of interest, such as groundwater aquifers and sources. If we have a single view of all data altogether, there is a better picture of the environment, there is more robust information, and it will have more reliable information with likely less uncertainty.
You have started your PhD at Technical University of Munich, what are you going to research?
My research will focus on modeling dynamic processes that occur within the Earth system and develop new methodology and software for prediction, anomaly detection and uncertainty quantification. It will involve a lot of remote sensing expertise such as using diverse satellite data sources, in-situ data, and data-driven techniques and using them as input for machine learning models such as deep feed-forward neural networks, and spatio-temporal attention-based architectures.
There are three application areas that I need to investigate, namely the lithosphere, atmosphere and of course, the hydrosphere. At present, I am looking into the capabilities of Sentinel-3 water products and using it to determine properties and processes in the ocean.
The research will be in collaboration with the Department of Mathematics at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom where I will also spend time doing my research.
What do you need to innovate?
I have always believed that it takes a community to raise a person, so I think what I truly need to innovate is to be surrounded by intelligent, driven, enthusiastic and optimistic people who trust and believe that my capabilities can be taken further with proper guidance, teaching and of course, an apt resource of equipment to work on (in terms of my research work).
While it’s true that a big component must come from me - my self-motivation, drive, and curiosity to bring something new to the table or to improve current ideas, I think as a human and when all of me fails, the people around me will help me push further. I always think that being surrounded by such people is a blessing and it’s an opportunity for me to learn.
What is your favourite aggregate state of water?
My favourite aggregate state of water is liquid. I have always thought of myself as like a river. Like a river, I can change my path or shape over time, and definitely, I carry some things that bring life to those that come my way. I flow on and on, sometimes calmly, sometimes rapidly not only bringing force and power but also my strength and perseverance to cut through boundaries of forests and boulders and throw myself in the vastness of the ocean full of possibilities.