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Posted on December 6th, 2016

Our Changing Landscape – Mischief Reef

Click on the image above to see an animation of 5-meter natural color RapidEye imagery collected over Mischief Reef on March 18, 2011, January 3, 2015, March 19, 2015, September 17, 2015 and April 13, 2016. In these images, you can see that the reef was unchanged up to January 3, 2015 but then construction on the site progressed very quickly. By September 17, 2015, the reef was transformed into more of a crescent shaped island and the infrastructure on its surface followed quickly as well. One interesting finding of this article is that work to fill in land around Mischief Reef started in March 2015 (or earlier) according to the RapidEye images presented here. Oh and apologies for the few clouds in these images as islands can be hard places to image! (Images Courtesy: Planet)

In this monthly feature, we span the globe to examine Our Changing Landscape with time series of medium resolution RapidEye satellite imagery. The RapidEye archive dates back to late 2008 and already contains more than 8 billion square kilometers of data. Last month, we focused on the expansion of a Canadian airport, and for December we move to a geo-political hotspot with a look at the Chinese expansion into the South China Sea, specifically at Mischief Reef.

The RapidEye Constellation

RapidEye is a constellation of five 5-meter medium resolution satellites each offering five spectral bands of information. The RapidEye constellation offers daily revisits to every location on the planet with a huge footprint that is 77-km wide. The data is priced competitively with a starting cost of $1.28 per square kilometer for all five spectral bands – academics do receive discounts. RapidEye adds a fifth band, the red edge, to the ‘traditional’ multispectral set of blue, green, red and near-infrared (NIR). The additional spectral data in the red edge band allows users to extract more useful land ‘information’ than can be from traditional 4-band imagery sources. When RapidEye imagery is ordered as a Level 3A Orthorectified product, images from multiple dates are extremely well registered, making it the ideal data source for Our Changing Landscape.

Mischief Reef

Upon initial investigation, one might think that Mischief Reef is an insignificant atoll in the South China Sea. A part of the Spratly Islands, the rocky reef is some 5.6 miles across with very little land mass surrounding a central lagoon. At one time, the rocks were only exposed during low tide, however China’s increasing interest in the South China Sea has resulted in significant physical changes to Mischief Reef.

Since 1995, China has occupied Mischief Reef. This action has been ruled illegal by some organizations such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. It is not the point of this article to debate whether this action is illegal or to figure out why China is expanding into the South China Sea as many publications have covered this topic, such as this one from the University of Indiana. Rather, it is our point to set the geo-political stage for this story as well as introduce our readers to the island’s history.

Work to fill in land around the central lagoon of Mischief Reef started in late 2015 according to most research. Since that time, China has been aggressively building out infrastructure on the recovered land mass perhaps in an effort to convert the reef into a fully functional naval base, as seems to be apparent not only from the building on land, but also from the dredging of the central lagoon. According to the high resolution imagery featured in these articles, China has already built an airstrip, docking bays and even housing. So now it is time to turn to the 5-meter RapidEye imagery record to see how construction has progressed on Mischief Reef since March 2011.

If you would like to find out more about using RapidEye for your academic studies, engineering projects or any landscape analysis, let us know at or (303) 993-3863.

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