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Why Spies Should Team Up With Environmental Scientists

From 1992 until 2001, a special group of scientists collaborated with the U.S. intelligence community to use reconnaissance satellite imagery to study environmental change around the planet. Known as Medea, Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis, the project came to an abrupt end at the beginning of the Bush administration. The detailed pictures snapped by spy satellites are powerful tools for researchers studying the impacts of climate change, including accelerations in polar ice melt. Fortunately, the Obama administration has quietly revived the project and The New York Times reports that a gang of 60 scientists with secret clearances are working with the National Academy of Sciences to analyze the new information, some of which is unavailable through any other source.

The restoration of the program is an apt example of the scientific and intelligence communities working together. Not only can the tools for satellite reconnaissance support critical scientific Earth observations, officials recognize that climate change and national security are interrelated policy issues. As Dr. Christopher Tucker argued here at Science Progress, an effective Earth observation strategy is crucial to confronting issues in both arenas:

A comprehensive approach to developing, deploying, and utilizing our eyes in the sky can ensure more effective and efficient use of precious intellectual and financial resources as we struggle to address traditional national security challenges, the array of transnational threats that plague us, as well as the complex, looming menace posed by global climate change. But this will require significant attention paid to national security reform, the governance of Earth science, a fundamental rethinking of the programming and budgeting process, and—not least of all—leadership.

Reviving the Medea program is a low-cost step in the right direction, as it merely re-purposes images already gathered for intelligence purposes. The pictures are degraded before they are released in order to mask the capabilities of the satellites.

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