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Old satellites could be repurposed to monitor ocean carbon

A “robust network” of satellites that monitor the levels of carbon in the ocean should be set up to improve predictions about our future climate, according to researchers at the University of Exeter.

The oceans have helped to slow climate change as they are able to absorb and store a lot of the carbon dioxide produced by humans for thousands of years.

The researchers said that increased exploitation of existing satellites will enable us to fill “critical knowledge gaps” for monitoring our climate.

Satellites originally launched to study the wind also have the capability to observe how rain, wind, waves, foam and temperature all combine to control the movement of heat and carbon dioxide between the ocean and the atmosphere.

Additionally, satellites launched to monitor gas emissions over the land are also able to measure carbon dioxide emissions as they disperse over the ocean.

Future satellite missions could focus on giving us the ability to study the internal circulation of the oceans, while new constellations of commercial satellites - designed to monitor the weather and life on land - are also capable of helping to monitor ocean health.

“Monitoring carbon uptake by the oceans is now critical to understand our climate and for ensuring the future health of the animals that live there,” said Dr Jamie Shutler, lead author on the study.

“By monitoring the oceans, we can gather the necessary information to help protect ecosystems at risk and motivate societal shifts towards cutting carbon emissions.”

The researchers call for a “robust network” that can routinely observe the oceans.

This network would need to combine data from many different satellites with information from automated instruments on ships, autonomous vehicles and floats that can routinely measure surface water carbon dioxide.

Recent computing advancements, such as Google Earth Engine, which provides free access and computing for scientific analysis of satellite datasets, could also be used.

The study suggests that an international charter that makes satellite data freely available during major disasters should be expanded to include the “long-term man-made climate disaster”, enabling commercial satellite operators to easily contribute.

In 2016, China launched a satellite to monitor the flow and distribution of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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