Articles

Killing Science, $1 at a time

Landsat Image - Garden City, Kansas

A Landsat image near Garden City, Kansas, depicting the view of irrigated agriculture using center pivots. Monitoring agricultural change and productivity is one of but many applications of Landsat data, providing scientific and economic benefits to the Nation. The latest move by the Department of Interior to potentially begin charging a fee for Landsat data would devastate Earth science activities around the globe. (click for a larger view).

Nature today published a story about a Department of Interior committee studying the possibility of charging fees for data from the Landsat satellite program, data that are currently available for free.  The first Landsat satellite was launched in 1972, with 6 additional satellites launched since then. The latest was Landsat 8, launched in 2013, while Landsat 9 is scheduled for launch in late 2020.  Landsat satellites have provided continuous Earth observations for the last 46 years (!!!!), an invaluable and unmatched record for recording changes on the Earth’s surface. The number of applications of Landsat data is astounding, including monitoring forestry activity (forest harvest and regrowth), agricultural productivity, monitoring urban sprawl, quantifying changes in surface water extent in response to flooding or drought, assessing the impacts of natural disasters, mapping geologic landforms, and a host of other uses. As the Nature article notes, a 2013 committee commissioned to assess the economic costs and benefits of the Landsat program found that while the program costs the US government approximately $80 million a year, economic benefits for the country are staggering…well over $2 billion per year.

Management of Landsat has changed over the years, but USGS and NASA are the two Federal agencies currently managing the program. Until 2008, the data came at a cost to the user...a cost that historically could be quite high.  A disastrous attempt to semi-privatize Landsat data distribution in the 1990s led to costs for each Landsat “scene” (an area approximately 115 x 115 miles) of up to $4,000!  While highly valuable data for a number of applications, the high cost was a major roadblock for usage of the data. In 2008, the USGS made the decision to begin distributing the data free of charge…and usage of Landsat data grew exponentially. Before the policy change, USGS distributed a mere ~50 scenes per day.  Once the data were made freely available, usage jumped more than 100-fold, with thousands of Landsat scenes downloaded per day.  Having freely available data from the world’s premiere long-term observation platform of the Earth’s surface has since transformed Earth science.  Applications once hindered by data costs were now free to tap into the entire Landsat database.

The Nature story notes that under the current administration, the committee is considering again re instituting a fee for access to Landsat. Given the other actions of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and other administration officials with roles overseeing environmental science, it’s easy to speculate as to the real purpose of the committee.  DOI, EPA, NOAA, and other scientific agencies and programs in the Federal government have been targeted for draconian reductions by the Trump industry.  Elimination of environmental science and privatization of traditional government activities has been a major focus of this administration.  My own personal interpretation…this is a move to 1) curtail the vast array of environmental monitoring and analysis that’s occurred since Landsat data were made freely available, 2) bow to the will of industry lobbyists who wish to continue the push towards privatization of Earth observations and increase corporate profits, and 3) eventually extricate the US government from running the Landsat program and other similar Earth observation systems.

Any truly unbiased analysis of the Landsat program would label the 2008 move to freely available data as a smashing success, both in terms of economics and the scientific benefits. Returning to the 1990s and charging high fees for Landsat data access would result in an immediate, sharp decline in environmental and economic applications that use the data.  Given that the one overarching theme of the Trump administration is “corporate profit above all else”, it’s impossible to view this potential move with anything other than a highly cynical eye.

 

Audubon artwork free for download!

Audubon Plate 186 - "Pinnated Grouse"

John J. Audubon’s “Pinnated Grouse” (Now called Greater Prairie Chicken). An example of the gorgeous artwork he created in the early 1800s.

John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” was originally printed between 1827 and 1838, and included 435 hand-illustrated pieces from Audubon, a representation of the knowledge of America’s bird life at the time. Audubon’s work is clearly iconic, both from the bird and birding perspective, and from an artistic perspective. He certainly had his own style, definitely not photo-realistic, yet nonetheless, incredibly beautiful and representative of each species.  What I find so cool about them isn’t just the birds, which by themselves are gorgeous, but the settings in which Audubon often placed the birds. The Birds of America pieces also often included representative habitat, represented in the same fluid style. Regardless of the content, they are timeless, gorgeous works of art that stand on their own.

Audubon’s work at the time was definitely considered unique, as he developed his own technique using watercolors and sometimes pencil, pen, or pastel crayons).  The work at the time was very difficult to reproduce. Copperplate etching was used to reproduce the prints, with watercolor added by hand. He sold his prints through a subscription process, with subscribers receiving 5 prints every month. Less than 200 of these original sets were ever produced. Other editions were issued through the mid-1800s, but no edition produced more than 1,200 copies.  Needless to say, these 1800s editions are extremely valuable today.  The Economist in 2010 published a list of the most expensive books ever sold at auction, adjusted for inflation.  They had to adjust their list to avoid repeats of the same title, because 5 of the top 10 most expensive book sales EVER were copies of Audubon’s Birds of America!

As I was wasting time on Twitter earlier today, I saw a little blurb about “free Audubon prints”. I clicked on the link, and found that the Audubon site does indeed have digital scans of all the John James Audubon artwork from his famed “Birds of America”. Given their date of production, they’re obviously past copyright and considered public domain. Here’s the link on the Audubon site.

John James Audubon’s Birds of America

This is so cool!  Not only can you view each of the plates, you can download your own digital copy!!  Best of all, they’re NOT small files with limited resolution, they are very incredibly detailed, very large digital scans of the Audubon print.  Downloading “Plate 77 – Belted Kingfisher”, for example, gives you a file that roughly 6,500 by 7,900 pixels, better than image resolution provided by the vast majority of digital cameras, and capable of supporting prints of up to 2 feet by 3 feet in size! The detail is amazing, with absolutely nothing lost.  Every brush stroke, every tiny bit of feather detail is provided in these free downloaded files. The detail is so amazing that  you can see some of the tiny “flaws”, such as where some of the water-coloring goes “outside-of-the-lines” of the underlying etchings.

Do you want your own copies of Audubon’s gorgeous artwork on your wall?  You can do so very cheaply!  Download the free digital files, then go to a site like mpix.com. If you upload your Audubon file download to mpix, for example, for a mere $20 you can have your very own 16″ x 20″ copy of an Audubon print.

After downloading a few, I have noticed there are some issues with the quality of the scans. For example, when downloading the “Black-winged Hawk” (what’s now called a White-tailed Kite), it appears that some of the details in the brighter white areas are “washed out”, as you would get if you overexpose a shot on your digital camera. That’s likely an issue with the way the images were scanned, but it appears in many of the plates where white or brighter areas are evident.  Overall the scans appear to be brighter (and thus washed out in some areas) than I’m sure the original images were.  My guess is this was done during efforts to correct for white balance, to ensure that the background of some images was a perfectly pure white color.  I actually prefer the plate at the top of this post, of the “Pinnated Grouse”, as it maintains the older yellowish, warm tones of the background (as you might expect from an older print).  I hope they keep working on the digital scans, working to make them as representative of the original colors and tones as possible, but overall the scans are really beautiful and wonderful to look at.

These are SO incredibly cool. It’s also so very cool to see the history in these prints, from the standpoint of what species were called back then.  I love seeing a “Foolish Guillemot” (now Common Murre), “Rathbone Warbler” (Yellow Warbler), or “Great Cinerous Owl” (Great Gray Owl).  Wonderful history, and wonderful pieces of art to enjoy.  THANK YOU AUDUBON!  It must have been an extraordinary bit of work to scan these, and clean them up to provide such gorgeous, flawless, massively sized digital files! Here are some more examples of Audubon’s work that you can download (these are just a fraction of the original image size).

Audubon's Plate 236 - Night Heron

Audubon's Plate 366 - "Iceland or Jer-Falcon"

Audubon's Plate 12 - Baltimore Oriole

Audubon's Plate 397 - Scarlet Ibis

2017 bird calendar done – Free, downloadable, printable

August 2017 Bird Calendar - Horned Puffin

The August representative on the free 2017 bird calendar. This is a Horned Puffin, taken off the coast of Seward Alaska at a place called “Fox Island”. He was obviously nesting and feeding young, diving down for fish, coming to the surface periodically, and repeating until it had a beak full of food. Here I captured him just after he surfaced from a dive.

As I do every year, I completed a free, downloadable and printable bird calendar for the upcoming year.  The calendar pages can be downloaded by month, and are set up for standard letter-sized paper, so they can easily be printed at home.  The calendar pages are available from here:

Free 2017 Bird Calendar

I changed things up a bit this year.  Given that I always offer the calendar through my South Dakota Birds and Birding website, in the past, I’ve always restricted myself to photos from South Dakota itself.  Not this year.  Any time I go on travel outside the state, be it for work, family vacation, or other reason, I bring my camera.  I have so, so many bird and wildlife photos from outside of South Dakota, none of which have been on my calendars before, so this year decided to use images from across the United States.  California, Alaska, Oregon, Minnesota, Florida, Maine, Arizona, Utah…several states are represented, with many birds that you’re just not going to ever see in South Dakota (or are there Horned Puffins in South Dakota?).  Below are the months, the bird that’s represented for each month, and where that photo was taken.  You can also click on the links below for direct access to the printable PDFs for each month.

Now available – Free 2016 Bird Calendar

Free 2016 Bird Calendar - South Dakota Birds and Birding

February 2016’s featured bird, the Northern Saw-whet Owl. Click the link to individually download printable calendar pages for the coming 2016 year.

As I always do about this time of year, I put together a free, downloadable and printable bird calendar for the coming year.  As a long-time South Dakota “tradition”, the calendar of course features the Great Kiskadee for the month of December (in honor of the one freakishly lost bird that is still around!). You can access the calendar here:

Free 2016 Bird Calendar

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