Fighting climate change from space

Photo © European Space Agency

The European Space Agency is using space technology to combat the effects of global warming on Earth. 

Space has a surprising amount to do with climate change. In fact, space is the best vantage point for observing and analyzing climate change—that’s why, through the use of space technology, the European Space Agency has been helping to protect the planet from the ever-changing climate crisis. Since 1975, ESA member states have pushed the frontiers of science and technology to better humankind. Director of Earth’s observation programs, Josef Aschbacher, explains, “Understanding the Earth’s system and how human activity is changing the planet’s natural process is a complicated science.” Through the information collected by ESA, policymakers are informed and empowered to make practical decisions to elicit national and global change.

Climate change is a growing concern for mankind, and politicians and world leaders are coming to terms with its effects. Europe’s top space officials are urging other world leaders to use space exploration as a tool to inform the public, so there is a collective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. ESA’s director-general, Jan Wörner, explains, “Space missions can show people what might happen to Earth in the future.” Venus and Mars, our two closest planetary neighbors, are examples of what could eventually happen to our planet if we waste resources and don’t correct our current habits.

Being the leader in Earth observation, ESA is able to monitor the “pulse” of the planet. Offering the best vantage point, satellite images and data are used to provide key lines of scientific research. Observations of the same region, taken over time, are able to monitor the effects of climate change from space.

By providing different insights into Earth’s changing climate, satellites are a valuable and reliable tool to help the scientific community identify patterns and signs of change. Tom Slater, a climate researcher at the University of Leeds, explains, “Satellites are our only means of routinely monitoring vast and remote areas, so they are absolutely critical in providing measurements.” Policymakers are able to use the information to understand and detect climate change over time. With nearly 50 years of collective data, the scientific evidence of global climate change is irrefutable, and its consequences are far-reaching. Rising sea levels is one such effect.

Photo © European Space Agency

Nearly 1.9 billion people inhabit low-lying coastal regions around the world, meaning any change to sea levels has a direct impact on their lives. With a drastic impact on global socio-economic stability, policymakers must be well-informed on the effects of climate change in order to create a practical strategy. To maximize the information gathered, the Copernicus Sentinel-6 mission was launched in November of 2020; using altimeter radar technologies, it is able to measure the time it takes radar signals to travel to and from the satellite and will be able to measure the sea surface height until at least 2030.

Discoveries through satellite data concluded the “worst-case scenario” situations for the changing ice sheets and receding glaciers around the world. Slater continues, “Satellite observations not only tell us how much ice is being lost, but they also help us to identify and understand which parts of Antarctica and Greenland are losing ice and through what processes—both are key in helping us improve ice sheet models.” In nearly three decades, over 15 trillion tonnes of ice have melted, allowing sea levels to rise by several inches. With so much at risk, monitoring sea level height is more important than ever to understand the changes taking place, so that politicians are able to implement the proper regulations in order to protect the most vulnerable communities.

The future of combating climate change will be from space. At a UN summit in Madrid, via video link from the International Space Station, ESA astronaut from Italy, Luca Parmitano, urged world leaders to “pull their heads out of the sand” over climate change. Policies like the Paris Agreement can help the global effort of combating climate change. In a legally binding treaty on climate change, 196 countries all agreed to limit global warming as soon as possible. A true landmark in multilateral policymaking, the agreement was largely the result of the irrefutable evidence collected by ESA and similar agencies, “Climate change transcends borders and should therefore not be a political issue,” Wörner concludes, “from space, you don’t see borders.”

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