radio satellite dishes

Earth observation satellites key to tracking climate change

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Earth observation satellites are essential tools for tracking the progress of climate change in real time, scientists have said.

In a new policy briefing from the University of Bristol, the government has been urged to support more education and training to turn Earth Observation (EO) data into actionable information.

Ahead of the Cop26 conference in Glasgow in November, the academics also called for improved capacity in EO technology and international cooperation between space agencies.

The data captured by EO satellites is seen as “critical” to holding nations to account when monitoring their progress in meeting Paris Agreement goals to lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce global warming.

The technology is also important for informing emergency services about environmental disasters, ranging from floods to landslides, volcanic eruptions and wildfires, many of which are expected to become more frequent as the planet warms.

The University of Bristol’s Jonathan Bamber, lead author of the briefing, said: “EO satellites are our eyes on the planet. Without them we would be virtually blind to the magnitude and timing of climate change and to human interference with the fragile ecosystems that we all depend on.”

EO refers to global, or near-global, observations of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere by satellites. The near-instantaneous data generated are being used to monitor and assess the pace of climate change and its impacts across the land and seas of the whole planet.

Over the oceans, for instance, this includes measuring winds and waves; sea level change; surface temperature, and biological activity. On land surfaces, it encompasses crop health and yields; forest carbon stocks; soil moisture; urbanisation; snow and ice cover; water quality and quantity, and mass movements such as landslides and flooding.

Translating the vast and increasing volumes of EO data into actionable information poses a challenge that demands significant infrastructure and expertise to analyse, the briefing said.

It recommended that the UK should contribute to capacity building in EO technology, methodologies and skills in support of nations not yet positioned to exploit the technology effectively within the Paris Agreement process.

Co-lead author Paul Bates, who is leading Bristol University’s COP26 activities, said: “Free-to-use satellite data can transform the ability of countries around the world to manage the threat of climate change, but only if countries like the UK share their expertise and technology.”

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