Using satellites to study plants and climate change from above by Sophie Ruehr

Sophie Ruehr

UC Berkeley | Dolores & Mike McMullen

Satellites orbiting the Earth provide critical information about how our planet is changing as humans emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. I use satellite data to understand how climate change-induced weather extremes (like droughts) affect ecosystems on land, from tropical rain forests to deserts, with the goal of improving our understanding of the carbon cycle.


The Earth is changing rapidly. Emitting greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide) has resulted in warmer temperatures, melting ice sheets, and increasingly extreme weather events, like hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts. Plants play a pivotal role in controlling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As they perform photosynthesis, they ‘eat’ carbon out of the air, sequestering it in their leaves and wood. In total, plants on the Earth’s surface sequester about one third of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions each year – a phenomenon called the terrestrial land sink – and have significantly slowed the rate of global warming. However, there is still much uncertainty about how human-induced global warming and consequent weather extremes will affect plants’ ability to mitigate climate change. For example, it is unclear how more intense and frequent drought will impact vegetation across different ecosystems around the globe. Using data from satellites, I study the links between the carbon and water cycles over space and time to better understand how the terrestrial land sink may respond to climate extremes in the future. My research has implications for both sustainable water management and predicting future climate change.


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