At a cursory glance, it might look like any other satellite image: a generic zoomed-out photograph of Brussels and its surrounding area. Such images are pretty unexceptional these days, something anyone can find with Google Earth. The first image from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1A satellite, however, is part of a much bigger initiative that could have a major impact on our understanding of the environment.

Formerly known as GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security), the European Earth observation programme Copernicus is aiming to give a clearer picture of environmental change and the role human activity is playing in it. Overseen by the European Commission, a network of satellites and Earth based sensors will monitor a huge range of factors to give an unprecedented data set.

Brussels from Sentinel 1A - Credits: ESA

Brussels from Sentinel 1A – Image credits: ESA

The key areas Copernicus hopes to glean data on are:

  1. Land
  2. Marine
  3. Atmosphere
  4. Climate change
  5. Emergency and natural disaster management
  6. Security

Initial images and the potential for the project

Sentinel-1A was launched on April 3rd and began to send information back to Earth on the 12th. Despite not being fully operational yet, the initial set of images gives an insight into the potential of Copernicus.

  • Firstly was the image of Brussels and the surrounding area. The photo captures the dense urban environment of the city as well as the trees and vegetation in the surrounding countryside, giving a detailed overview of land usage in the area.
  • Next in the initial batch of images was a detailed view of the flooding of the Zambezi River in Namibia. Within less than an hour the satellite was able to provide detailed mapping of the progress of the flood, despite thick cloud cover over the region.
  • Finally the satellite photographed Pine Island in Antarctica, a glacier in an irreversible state of retreat. The images give a clear view of the current state of the glacier.

The key to this project is its ability to capture change over both the short and long term, locally and globally. A second Sentinel satellite, 1B, will be launched in 2015. Once both satellites are operational and synchronised, they will be able to map the entire planet in just six days. If applied to the initial batches of images, we can begin to see the full potential. For Pine Island, it will be possible to get radar imagery on the rate and nature of the melting ice. This could then be compared to other glaciers around the globe.

In a disaster such as the floods in Namibia, it will be possible to track the progress of the flood and the damage caused. In Brussels the effects of urbanisation on surrounding wildlife could be measured.

Unique environmental data that Copernicus can provide

The first Sentinel series is focused on radar imagery, but this is just scratching the surface of what the project can provide when completed. Another four satellite groups are scheduled to be launched later this year. Each is specifically designed to record a unique set of data.

  • The Sentinel 2 is designed to provide high resolution imagery. This will allow detailed analysis of vegetation, and soil and water cover.
  • Sentinel 3 will be able to record variables such as ocean topography, sea and land surface temperature and ocean and land colour.
  • Sentinel’s 4 and 5 have been designed to monitor the atmosphere, gathering data on things such as air pollution levels and the atmosphere’s chemical composition.

The five Sentinels combined with the in situ sensors will allow the constant and thorough monitoring of the environment. On land, the extent and density of forest cover can be tracked, highlighting areas at danger of deforestation. Sites that are part of the EU’s Natura 2000 initiative can be constantly monitored. Biodiversity can be sustained by recording the stability of important habitats.

Antarctica Peninsula from Sentinel-1A - Image credits: ESA

Antarctica Peninsula from Sentinel-1A – Image credits: ESA

In the seas, oceans and lakes, depths and levels will be constantly recorded. If there is an oil slick, the satellites can track the movement of the oil, or catch those dumping into the ocean. Coastal erosion can be tracked as well as land usage in vulnerable areas. The movement and extent of ice can be captured as well as the salinity and temperatures of the ocean.

The constant monitoring of the atmosphere provides key information on the amounts and balance of greenhouse gases, reactive gases, ozone and aerosols. This will allow predictions to be made on the level of air pollution and its environmental impact. The satellite will also monitor UV levels in the atmosphere, allowing accurate 4-day forecasts.

Access to such a broad range of information will allow scientists to track climate change in greater detail than has previously been possible. As mentioned, anything from rising ocean temperatures to air pollution can be tracked and analysed in great detail. Hopefully the evidence generated will be used to address issues such as climate change, shrinking habitats and pollution.

Who has access to this information?

Perhaps the most remarkable feature about Copernicus is that the information will be in the public domain. Policy makers and public authorities at both regional and national level, alongside the European Commission itself, will have access to the data and can use it to formulate environmental legislation. The satellites will be crucial for predicting, tackling, and managing environmental and humanitarian crises. Authorities will also be able to track those who break environmental laws, for example by dumping waste or illegal deforestation.

On top of this, the data can be used for scientific and commercial use and be accessed by the general public. This should facilitate greater research into climate change, biodiversity, human impact on the environment and a great deal more. Allowing public access will hopefully lead to greater appreciation of the current state of the environment. One hopes it will allow citizens to hold governments and corporations to account on the extent of climate change.

Not just about the environment…

The focus here has been on the environmental benefits of the Copernicus project, but it’s a multifaceted scheme that takes in a range of functions. One can imagine, for instance, that the civil liberties issues raised by its Maritime and Border surveillance capabilities will be controversial and discussed at length elsewhere. It is an ambitious project that cannot be fully analysed until it is fully operational next year.

The potential it has to develop our understanding of climate change and the environment, however, is a cause for excitement and optimism. The website claims, “Monitoring the environment in order to support its protection and sustainable use is the main ‘raison d’être’ of Copernicus.” Hopefully the multi-billion Euro project will stick to this noble aim and realise its enormous potential.

About The Author: Daryl Worthington


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