What Declassified Spy Images Are Teaching Us About Climate Change

Using early military satellite imagery, scientists are pushing back the timeline on scientific Earth observation.

Published October 27, 2015

On May 1, 1960, Soviet surface-to-air missiles shot down an American plane after it had flown deep into Soviet airspace. While the United States initially claimed the aircraft was built for weather research, it was later revealed to be a U-2 spy plane tasked with taking reconnaissance images of suspected intercontinental ballistic missile launch pads and plutonium processing centers. The U-2 incident would go down as one of the major pot-stirrers of the Cold War.

More than 50 years later, scientists are finding new uses for these sorts of images—data obtained in the interest of national security. And unlike President Eisenhower’s bluff in the 1960s, this time it really is about weather patterns—climate change, to be precise.

“Remotely sensed data, information that we get from aerial photographs or other imagery from aircraft or satellites, is absolutely crucial for environmental research,” says Howard Epstein, an ecologist at the University of Virginia.   

Epstein explains that as early as the 1950s, governments became interested in developing satellite platforms that could be used to gather intelligence-related imagery. And thanks to huge amounts of funding, the military was able to create high-resolution imagery about a decade before anyone in the private sector could do the same.

Unfortunately, all of this data was considered classified, which meant it probably occupied a crate next to the Ark of the Covenant until the government started the declassification process in the mid-90s. And that’s where things get interesting.

By tapping into these old images, “[w]e can effectively see what certain aspects of the Earth’s surface looked like in the 1960s, and compare this with current imagery,” says Epstein. These images “have allowed us to quantify vegetation and sea ice changes over a 50 year period.”

In one study, Gerald Frost, a PhD candidate working with Epstein, used the now-declassified images to show that trees and tall shrubs have increased their foothold in northern Siberia by up to 26 percent since the 1960s, an increase that seems to be correlated with increasing annual precipitation. 

This study was the first to document an enormous ecological shift occurring across Siberia. Scientists had seen similar growth spurts among trees and shrubs in Canada, Scandinavia, and Alaska, but it took the declassification of military intel for them to know what was happening behind the Iron Curtain. The recon photos helped prove that the observed changes were not isolated incidents, but instead were part of a circumpolar phenomenon—one scientists suspect is closely tied to climate change.

Of course, these old photos are far from the only belated gift the intelligence community has given to science. Back in 2012, the US National Reconnaissance Office donated a couple of Hubble-class telescopes to NASA that were theoretically powerful enough to see a dime on top of the Washington Monument—from space. Just imagine what other fun toys and tech they’ve got squirreled away.