Sarah Weatherbee| The Daily Star

BEIRUT: From the ground, it’s hard to envision how tiny, day-to-day changes add up to big impact. Viewing Earth from space can help broaden perspectives, completing the stories that quantitative data cannot. Further, images of Earth’s surface can be worth a thousand possibilities for progress. The recently released book, Space Atlas of Lebanon, a project of Lebanon’s National Council for Scientific Research, aims to show the public a big picture view of Lebanon, from above. Scientists and policy planners say that the images are particularly valuable for long-term planning, and to visualize changes to Lebanon’s natural resources over time.

Paired with existing data, the satellite images yield a wealth of information, boosting visibility and strengthening evidence of changes to urban development, water resources and vegetation through time.

“If you want to do a plan for five years, you need a current land use map. The only source for that is through satellite images,” said Ghaleb Faour, director of the CNRS Remote Sensing Center.

“For any project in development, you need updated data to implement your plan.”

He collaborated with Moueen Hamzeh, director general of CNRS, to assemble the satellite images for the 138-page book. The archive of images dating back 40 years offers a sweeping, historic view of Lebanon’s topography.

Using remote sensing mechanisms, the images have helped to accurately locate and quantify water loss and deforestation levels; enabling efficient response on the part of developmental project planners.

The book also contains photographs that track changes to the airport and the port of Beirut as far back as the 1940s. Satellite imagery began to be collected by CNRS in 1972, from a NASA-launched satellite. The satellite’s multispectral scanner captures images of the atmosphere, sea and land.

CNRS receives updated images each month. Originally the cost of obtaining the images was expensive, but that cost has decreased through time, thanks to Internet access.

At the same time, image resolution has improved.

“Ten years ago, we paid to get the images, now they are free,” Faour said. Only the processing fees remain.

The archive of data generated spanning over 40 years, has made it easier to detect changes in urban growth, deforestation and water availability. Also, it has helped estimate crop yields, when paired with climatic data.

The images also show how urban sprawl has proliferated in Lebanon throughout the late 20th century, and continues to spread.

“The most striking thing to see is land use change, especially in the greater Beirut area,” Faour said.

Population growth and urban sprawl in the Lebanese capital, accelerated during the latter half of the 20th century.

Today, around one third of the population resides in the metropolitan area.

CNRS has used the images to detect changes to human migration when used with Geographical Information System, a software program that helps integrate data in map format to display and enable richer analysis. GIS is often helpful in determining risk and the relationship between natural resources and on its proximity to human or plant life.

Hamzeh, CNRS director general, said that the high resolution images are good for picking up detail on urban spread in cities and infrared images are good at detecting the vegetation health and plant stress. The thermal sensing provided by the infrared images give indication of human activity.

A major aim of the book was to show the applications of the images, as a source of information for a myriad of development projects. For example, those working in agriculture can better detect water management in soil.

“You can indicate to the farmer the areas where there should be more irrigation,” Faour said.

Other information gleaned from the images includes the impact of groundwater pollution, and the diminished availability of fresh water resources.

Faour described 1992 images of Lake Qaraoun in the Bekaa valley, which showed the water cover as 11 kilometers square, in 2014, it had dropped to 5 square kilometers. Further, the atlas images revealed that the number of fresh water springs had been slashed in half in the past 40 years.

Faour said the images were of particular interest to the geographic affairs wing of the Lebanese Army, who used the images to develop a topographic map for military affairs.

Sami Feghali, head of land use planning at Lebanon’s Council for Development and Reconstruction, said that the satellite images from CNRS have helped in planning projects related to infrastructure, filling in the existing data gaps.

“We don’t have accurate data for demographics or buildings,” Feghali said.

Although the images have helped in project and planning, having more information doesn’t necessarily spur action. Lebanon has been slow to move on pressing threats, such as water loss and unchecked urban development.

“We are excellent at coming up with excuses,” said Nadim Farajalla, research director of the Climate Change and Environment in the Arab World Program at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute.

In terms of policymaking related to urban expansion and the protection of natural resources, he said that satellite images of CNRS’ remote sensing center are valuable in their reaffirmation of knowledge and the complementary effect they have with existing numbers.

“What this is doing is giving unbelievers visual proof,” he said.

He added that some ministries aren’t aware of the data resources they already have, and that those in power aren’t all of the notion of providing the public with free and accessible information.

He suggested the creation of a national research unit that would compile data, such as satellite photos, and make information available to the public and private sector.

“Ideally, we would have access to satellite imagery, to make policy on a national level,” he said.

Lebanon Space Atlas is available to the public at the CNRS center in Bir Hasan, 59, Zahia Salmane Street, Jnah. For more information, call 01-850-125.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 31, 2015, on page 2.