Satellites: Is there anything they can’t do? From studying our climate to investigating archaeological mysteries, it feels like we’re learning as much about our planet from orbit as we are from the ground. The latest thing we’re better off doing in space? Tracking our global food supply.

Scientists at Stanford have devised a new method for predicting crop yields using satellites, by measuring the fluorescent light plants emit as they grow. As the team showed last year, plant give off fluorescence when they’re actively photosynthesizing. The amount of light they release turns out to be directly proportional to their growth rate.


Writing this week in the journal Global Change Biology, the team has found that they can use fluorescence-derived growth rates to predict crop yields over large areas. By collecting fluorescence data all over the planet in real time, we can start to zero in on the factors that lead to better or worse harvests. The ultimate goal is to predict how our food supply will fluctuate in the future; no easy task given all the climactic, meteorological and environmental variables that matter.

The faint fluorescent glow of plants tells us a lot about their health. Image via Stanford News / YouTube


The new method is made possible by a suite of satellites managed by NASA and the European space agency. None of these Earth-monitoring probes were built to measure fluorescence per se, and right now, they’re only set up to do so once per day.

“Now that we have demonstrated the concept, we hope to soon be orbiting some new satellites specifically designed to make fluorescence measurements with better spatial and temporal resolution,” study co-author Joe Berry said in a statement.

So while a human-tracking Skynet is still science fiction, plants better start getting used to round-the-clock surveillance. It’s for their own good.


[Read the full scientific paper at Global Change Biology h/t Stanford News]

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Top: Animation depicting photosynthetic fluroesence emissions across Europe in real time, via Stanford News