EO Detective ID OX12-0903-SJD-IRHTC

What do you work on?

I currently work on pulling large volumes of data from the ESA Sentinel satellites and making it available to scientists and other workers on the CEDA JASMIN supercomputer. I also work on other datasets, such as ENVISAT, as well as web services and various aspects of how CEDA makes sure people know about and can get data.
This is important as it’s all very well having huge volumes of data on an archive but it is pointless if users can’t find it, don’t know you have it or can’t do anything with it! It’s also important to remember that the data we have now is a valuable resource for the future – whether it is using it help predict or monitor climate change or other uses we haven’t guessed at right now. We have to make sure the data is future-proof, maintained and documented – millions of pounds/euros/dollars are spent on making instruments, getting them into space and maintaining them there. By properly looking after the data we are ensuring this money and effort is not wasted.

How did you come to be an EO Detective?

I did all the usual things: GCSEs, A levels, university. I had always wanted to be a geography teacher and so I studied Earth Science. However, during the course, I moved away from the physical geography to concentrate on geology – a subject I grew, and continue, to love (my desk is covered with rocks). Geology is a fantastic subject as it covers many disciplines and is great for learning deductive reasoning – a very useful skill when you’re trying to fix broken data streams!
When I finished my degree, I was lucky enough to be given a NERC grant to do an MSc in Earth Observation Science in Leicester. There were chemists, physicists, computer scientists … but I was the only geologist. During my MSc I learnt all the physics and techniques behind remote sensing and, for my thesis, I used Landsat MSS imagery of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. I was struck by how old imagery like this let me make maps of tectonic activity – something that would take years to do on the ground!
After my MSc I worked in the oil industry for a year. However, an opportunity arose to do a PhD in remote sensing of volcanoes at the Open University – which meant that, in the middle of four years looking at satellite data, I got to spend one in Hawaii working on an active volcano!

What does the image show?

I made the picture of the Conwy estuary a few years ago. It shows the NERC ARSF multispectral data superimposed on a digital elevation model from the NEXTMap airborne radar. I created it to show how different types of data enhance each other when they are used together. In this case, the NEXTmap data was aligned to Ordnance Survey grid points so matching up the two data sets meant we had accurate location information for the ARSF imagery.

How is the data you use collected and used?

We pull in data that has been processed by the Satellite Ground Segment chain and released for scientists to use. We try to disseminate these huge volumes of data (>10Tb per day) and move it onto the archive whilst ensuring it is consistent and that the metadata describing it is properly updated. I work mainly with ESA, and we provide backup for its network of data hubs. In order to do this, we need really fast network connectivity as well as the supercomputer.

What’s the best thing about your job?

It is very interesting: we get to work with lots of different types of data – collected from platforms ranging from aeroplanes to satellites – and see how it is used. I enjoy the problem-solving aspects of the work as well as the opportunity to do something that is new, genuinely useful to people and that will have a legacy far into the future (I hope!).

Tell us about your favourite image of the Earth from space


My favourite EO picture is of Sarychev volcano on Matua island in the Kurils – caught erupting by an astronaut on the International Space Station. You can see the ash column, the steam condensing and the shockwave dissipating the clouds around the volcano, punching a hole through them. You can also see a pyroclastic flow running down the flanks of the volcano.

What do you do in your spare time?

I have three children and I seem to spend a lot of my time chasing them about! When I’m not doing that, I love to be outside walking or mountain biking. I also love astronomy and making sure my camper van is ready for the next family adventure to Scotland, Europe or wherever!

Once upon a time …

During my fieldwork for my PhD I was on Mount Etna with other volcanologists from the Open University. The summit craters began to erupt and we sat eating our sandwiches and watching the spectacle.  When the eruption picked up, we decided to make a hasty exit for safety’s sake. One of my colleagues took a picture of me running down to safety with the lava fire fountaining in the background (looking a lot closer than it actually was). Many years later I was looking at the British Geological Survey website and saw this picture of me – it turns out that Sam the photographer was now their webmaster and I was famous as the volcano runner (well at least in my office/house anyway!).

Catherine adds: That picture has now disappeared from the BGS website, but this is what that quick escape might have been like …