New report highlights satellite observation as vital to tackling climate change

Published: 14 May 2021

Professor Marian Scott of the School of Mathematics and Statistics is one of the co-authors of a new briefing paper from the COP26 Universities Network.

Professor Marian Scott of the School of Mathematics and Statistics is one of the co-authors of a new briefing paper from the COP26 Universities Network.
Although the UK is at the forefront of developing and harnessing technology to turn Earth Observation (EO) data into actionable information, more education and training is needed to maximise its potential and help the world to meet challenging climate targets.   
The University of Bristol-led briefing paper, titled ‘The role of space-based Earth observations in achieving climate security’, sets out the opportunities and areas for improvement with EO ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, which will be hosted for the first time by the UK in Glasgow in November.
The briefing identifies EO satellites as a critical tool to monitor the causes and effects of climate change. The data they capture will help hold nations to account in meeting goals to lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce global warming, as brokered in The Paris Agreement in 2015, which 190 countries have ratified and which the US recently rejoined. The technology is also important for informing emergency services to environmental disasters, ranging from floods to landslides, volcanic eruptions, and wildfires.
Professor Scott, of the School of Mathematics and Statistics, drew on her  experience in studying changes in global water quality through earth observation to to inform the report.    
Professor Scott said: “Earth observation, when combined with in-situ and sensor data, is extremely powerful, allowing us observe environmental changes over space and time in unprecedented detail even in remote parts of the globe. Archives of historical satellite data are powerful resources when combined with advanced analytics to help us understand what is changing in our natural environment, and how quickly. 
“The NERC funded Globolakes project, for example, set out to understand changes in water quality in a thousand lakes around the world. Historical satellite images of the lakes helped us to build a time-lapse series of images of the lakes taken at monthly intervals without sending teams of scientists to often hard-to-reach locations. Identifying lakes which behave similarly over time will help us identify the rates and drivers of change, including climate and global warming.
“Another project, part of the UKRI-NERC  Digital Environment initiative, is using satellite data from European and Japanese space agency satellites to better understand soil moisture and water resources. Those data can help farmers make more informed decisions on when to withdraw water from rivers to irrigate their crops.
“In both these projects, we have developed data fusion methodology to combine the different data streams and improve our intelligence about spatial and temporal variability in the environment.  Both projects also indicate the importance of access to satellite data and that such data are truly international.  Another very important aspect of these projects is their collaborative and multi-disciplinary nature - working together with local communities and other scientists brings huge benefits to the science and the impacts achieved.”
Lead author of the briefing Jonathan Bamber, Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Bristol’s School of Geographical Sciences and its Cabot Institute for the Environment, said: “Earth Observation 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.”
Earth Observation 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 technical and societal challenge demanding Big Data infrastructure and expertise, analytics, corresponding visualisations, and international cooperation and coordination. Despite major progress in satellite technology and data analysis, the robust operational monitoring and analysis systems that can produce quality-assessed EO products in a form that can be used by non-specialists are not always available.
The report identifies three key focus areas to ensure EO is fit for purpose and optimised, as follows:

  • Capacity building is essential. As an environmental science leader, the UK can, and should, contribute to capacity building in EO technology, methodologies and skills in support of nations not yet positioned to exploit EO effectively within the Paris Agreement process. This should include expanded provision of education and training in EO science and climate nationally and internationally via, for example, Official Development Assistance (ODA) programmes.
  • International cooperation and coordination are needed between the space agencies, national funding bodies, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and entities such as the Group on Earth Observation and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to achieve full and appropriate use of EO data and ensure the resources are free to use and tailored to stakeholder needs. 
  • Trans-national funding. A mechanism to fund such cooperation at an international level does not exist, but this will be critical in maximising the full potential of EO data and technology.

Co-lead author Paul Bates FRS, Professor of Hydrology at the University of Bristol and Associate Director of the Cabot Institute for the Environment, who is leading the 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.”

Established in 2020, the COP26 Universities Network aims to improve access to evidence and academic expertise for the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow for the UK Government, NGOs and the international community, working together to help deliver ambitious climate change outcomes.

First published: 14 May 2021

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