User Profile: Lori Schultz

NASA near real-time data help Lori Schultz respond to agencies that reach out to NASA in the wake of natural disasters.

Lori Schultz, Research Physical Scientist and NASA Disasters Program Center Coordinator; NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

Lori Schultz is a research physical scientist and Disasters program area center coordinator at Marshall. Credit: Lori Schultz.

Research Interests: Finding novel ways to use satellite remote sensing data to answer scientific questions, developing decision-support systems that incorporate NASA Earth science data to meet the needs of users, and applying satellite data to disaster monitoring and mitigation, including the use of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data to detect and monitor flood and landslide risk.

Research Highlights: Without the international constellation of satellites that provide data and imagery of Earth every hour of every day, Lori Schultz, research physical scientist with NASA’s Applied Sciences Program and Center Coordinator of the Disasters program area at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, wouldn’t be able to do her job. Yet, if you talk with Schultz about her work in any detail, she’ll tell you she spends most of her time addressing more human-oriented, down-to-Earth concerns. 

“I spend a lot of time learning about everyone else’s job and then trying to understand where the data we have to offer fit, or don’t fit, such as the case may be,” said Schultz. “One of the things about working in the applied sciences is that everyone uses data in a slightly different way, so it’s about trying to understand how data are going to work for a particular group.”

Schultz describes her work as “finding ways to use satellite remote sensing data to answer science questions,” which is a characterization that supports the NASA  Applied Sciences Program's mission to use NASA's unique view from space to address real-world issues. 

The Applied Sciences Program, which is part of NASA's Earth Science Division, uses global observations from space, air, sea, and land to help people the world over better understand the planet’s interconnected systems. Through its eight program areas—agriculture, capacity building, climate resilience, disasters, ecological conservation, health and air quality, water resources, and wildland fire—the Applied Sciences Program provides funding and support to NASA’s partner organizations (at the state, regional, national, or international levels) who use these observations in response to some of the world’s toughest challenges.

As coordinator of the Disasters program area, Schultz and the Marshall team often act as satellite data interpreters who assist personnel from response agencies that reach out to NASA for information and observations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. In those moments, Schultz and her colleagues review the satellite data and imagery at their disposal to see how these resources might support recovery efforts and how her team can serve as liaisons to those leading response activities on the ground.

“If we’re working with [response personnel] during an event, they’ll ask a question and it’s our job to go find the data that answer that question,” said Schultz. “They don’t ask, do you have this? They say, 'I really need to know this.' It’s my job is to have enough knowledge of a lot of different remote sensing applications so, hopefully, we can give them the information they need.”

Schultz readily admits that no one dataset is ever going to have all the answers a user is looking for, which is why understanding the work these data users do and the questions they’re trying to answer is so vital to her work.

“It’s important to have a relationship with these users, because it helps to know what it is they know and what other data they’re using, and how data we provide could be exploited,” she said. “Sometimes you can’t directly see something, such as a particular area or feature, so a dataset might not give them the exact answer they want. But then we might be able to use four or five datasets to give them more confidence that they’re making the right decision.”

These before-and-after images show Hurricane Michael's impact on the Gulf Coast of Florida between October 9 and 11, 2019. If you follow along the hurricane’s northeasterly track, you can see that many nighttime lights disappeared after the storm (bottom image). Larger images are available on the Disasters Mapping Portal. Credit: NASA Applied Sciences Program.

To help users make those decisions, Schultz and her colleagues rely on a variety of NASA Earth science data, including near real-time (NRT) data from NASA’s Land, Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE). LANCE generates and distributes NRT data and imagery, the majority of which are available within three hours of satellite observation, to support users interested in monitoring a wide variety of natural and human-created phenomena.

“The speed with which LANCE distributes its datasets is absolutely spectacular,” said Schultz. “As soon as it becomes available in LANCE, our team here at the Marshall Space Flight Center can process it into products our stakeholders can use and distribute it to them. That’s an amazing thing. As the datasets are usually in science formats, there is some work for the Disasters program team to provide them through the Disasters portal in a user-ready format, but NASA DAACs [Distributed Active Archive Centers] and LANCE are moving in that direction more and more, as exemplified by the FIRMS [NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management] website. It is very encouraging to be part of expanding the use of NASA data to a broader audience."

In fact, in addition to her work with the Applied Sciences Program, Schultz serves as a member of the LANCE User Working Group (UWG), which provides recommendations concerning a broad range of topics related to LANCE systems, capabilities, and services. In this role, she has the opportunity to assist LANCE as it works to enhance and expand its NRT data offerings. 

Schultz regularly uses the NRT imagery available in NASA Worldview and FIRMS to give stakeholders a sense of both the information different NASA datasets provide and how data from multiple sources might be used together.

“I frequently use Worldview to demonstrate a particular dataset and let stakeholders see what it shows over a particular period of time so they can see if information it provides is useful or valuable to them,” Schultz said. “I’ve used the FIRMS webpage a lot because I love how it offers a variety of optical data, and I can use it to show how data from several sources can be layered.”

Among the datasets Schultz and her team in the Disasters program use most frequently are true-color imagery from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument aboard the joint NASA/NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft, and reflectance imagery from the Operational Land Imager (OLI) aboard the joint NASA/USGS Landsat 8 and Landsat 9 satellites and the Multi-Spectral Instrument (MSI) aboard the European Space Agency's (ESA) Sentinel-2A and Sentinel-2B satellites.

“MODIS and VIIRS are workhorses for big-picture looks, barring any cloud cover,” Schultz said. “Sentinel-2A and Sentinel-2B and Landsat 8 and 9 are also right up there, as we get to take advantage of their 30-meter resolution, despite the tradeoff of not getting a look every day.”

Schultz and Disasters program staff also regularly use MODIS Global Flood Products, which provide daily global flood maps based on MODIS imagery; VIIRS Day/Night band imagery, which is ultra-sensitive in low-light conditions and enables observations of nighttime lights—information that is useful for gauging the impact of and recovery from severe weather; Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) datasets from MODIS and VIIRS, which provide information on vegetation health that farmers and resource managers can use to monitor the health and development of crops and fields during growing seasons; and SAR data from Sentinel-1 and other space-based and airborne sources. Unlike optical data from instruments like MODIS and VIIRS, SAR uses the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum, so it can penetrate cloud cover and "see” in the dark and through inclement weather conditions, thereby enabling observations of flood inundation, land cover changes, and modifications of Earth's surface from earthquakes and landslides. 

As part of her work, Schultz frequently trains personnel from first response teams on integrating Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) data products into their workflow. Credit: Lori Schultz.

In 2021, Schultz and her Disaster’s program colleagues worked with personnel from public health and safety agencies in North Carolina to demonstrate how datasets like these can help the state respond to and even prepare for disasters during North Carolina’s annual hurricane exercise.

It was not the first time the Disasters program worked with North Carolina’s emergency response teams. A year earlier, in November 2020, the state’s emergency managers reached out to the Disasters program to better understand how NASA satellite data could help determine floodwater extent in the aftermath of Hurricane Eta, which flooded roads, damaged infrastructure, and led to the deaths of at least four people. In response, Schultz and her team developed false-color maps of the region that enabled officials to pinpoint the buildings and roads most at risk in the days before flood levels reached their peak.

Having worked with the state's emergency teams before, Schultz and her colleagues knew the state had extensive flood monitoring capabilities. So, during the hurricane exercise, Schultz and her team focused their efforts on showing state employees how NASA satellite data could help them more quickly and accurately assess the amount and location of flooding.

“The public safety agencies are the experts in emergency response, but they can’t be expected to be experts in all of our satellite data,” Schultz noted in an article on the Applied Sciences website about the Disaster program area’s participation in the exercise. “We learned they have tremendous modeling and remote sensing capabilities, but could use NASA’s help to use satellite data to find flooding. So, we built a flood mapping portal for them to use during the exercise to demonstrate what’s possible.”

Providing such insights before severe weather occurs is important, for when disaster strikes there’s no time to wonder what type of information might be helpful to those directing first responders in the field.

Further, as climate change continues to increase the frequency and severity of storms, North Carolina and other states in the Southeastern United States can expect to experience more floods in the coming years. So, too, can places in other flood-prone regions of the world, such as the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region of India, where hydro-climatic disasters in the form of seasonal, riverine, and flash floods occur frequently along the rivers and tributaries during monsoon season.

Every year, destructive floods result in the loss of lives and livelihoods and cause severe damage to infrastructure and property, but because the region’s floods cannot be totally controlled, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has directed its response efforts toward reducing flood vulnerability and mitigating flood impacts through improved flood risk management and end-to-end flood forecasting and warning services.

To assist ICIMOD in meeting these goals, Schultz worked with members of a SERVIR Applied Sciences Team led by Dr. Franz Meyer, Chief Scientist at the Alaska Satellite Facility, on a three-year project to develop a flood inundation portal. Using SAR data from the Sentinel-1 satellite, the portal documents the location and extent of floods caused by the latest monsoons—timely and accurate information local agencies can use to inform their flood relief activities. (Note: The SERVIR Applied Sciences Team is part of the larger SERVIR network, which is a joint development initiative of the United States Agency for International Development and NASA.)

“We used SAR data in the Hindu-Kush-Himalayan region because there are so many clouds and they really can’t use the standard optical data to see how the water in their region is changing,” said Schultz.

This image from the ICIMOD Flood Inundation Mapping portal shows the extent of flooding during monsoon season in the HKH region. Dark blue colors indicate perennial water bodies; light blue colors indicate areas of flooding. Credit: SERVIR.

“Now the team at ICIMOD is beginning to use these data to validate forecast models that were developed before the project began, track how the water is moving through the area during monsoon season, and identify areas that are more at risk," Schultz said.

While such results are certainly good news for the people of the HKH region, the SERVIR project’s success in applying SAR data to flooding applications appears to be benefitting emergency response efforts in the U.S. as well.

“We applied the same algorithms that we used in the HKH region to detect floods after hurricanes that hit the East Coast,” said Schultz. “I’ve made maps of flooding from Hurricane Ian and Nicole with SAR data using these same techniques, and I was able to get them to [the] Federal Emergency Management Agency within three hours of getting the data.”

As these advances suggest, the free and open Earth science data available through NASA’s LANCE and the DAACs are essential for not only providing disaster response organizations with the information they need to safeguard human life and critical infrastructure, they are key inputs in the development of new technologies and techniques that scientists like Schultz, humanitarian organizations, and government agencies will use to improve the detection, response, and mitigation of natural disasters the world over.

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