Specialists from various Earth system science disciplines recently gathered to address a major question: what will our environment look like in the future?
Of course, possible answers to this question raise even more questions. For instance, if changing climatic conditions were to alter local vegetation, how would this new landscape react to future climatic trends? Answering these questions with certainty would allow us to manage better our natural resources by defining appropriate planning and mitigation actions.
To be able to identify and analyse long-term climatic trends and changes, it is important to have access to near-continuous data of our planet over long periods of time, which is made possible by Earth-observation (EO) satellites.
These data are being increasingly incorporated in various disciplines as tools to evaluate the current situation and to observe changes that have occurred over the last 30 years, since the mainstreaming of EO data. However, in order to provide better model simulations of our climate and the consequences of human behaviour for climate, the various communities in this field – modellers, ecologists, Earth-observation specialists and researchers – need to collaborate and merge their research and findings.
The Terrestrial Biosphere in the Earth System (TERRABITES) research network was created to provide a context that facilitates this interdisciplinary cooperation. TERRABITES is funded by the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) programme, financed by the EC and supported by ESA.
Dr Christian Reick, chair of TERRABITES, described the activity as “a cross-disciplinary assessment of our current understanding of the terrestrial biosphere from an Earth system perspective to improve the reliability of future Earth system projections in coupled climate-biosphere simulations.”
The first TERRABITES symposium was held last month at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, where more than 160 participants from different disciplines met to discuss the current research on the land biosphere and to identify knowledge gaps and perspectives for future research.
The TERRABITES activity is very timely as a greater understanding of the Earth system and the effect of climate change will strongly depend on achieving mutual understanding between these communities. Data providers, for instance, need to understand better the requirements of the modelling community, and the modelling community needs to understand better the information content provided by remote-sensing systems.
Today, more remote sensing data is being acquired, developed and delivered to the global modelling community than at any other time in our history. As a consequence, more and more data are being incorporated into climate models. ESA’s Climate Change Initiative, for example, is generating, preserving and providing access to long-term EO data sets of ‘Essential Climate Variables’ and making them freely available to climate research and modelling communities worldwide.
Moreover, archived ESA satellite data will be combined with data from new missions to produce information on a wide range of climate variables. The initiative will provide the international scientific community with a powerful tool to monitor and understand better the state of the climate system and help to predict the effects a changing climate may bring.
ESA is also developing five dedicated satellites, called the Sentinels, to avoid gaps in EO data by providing continuity with current satellite missions. This fleet of satellites, being developed within the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) initiative of the EU, offers improved observational capabilities and a long-term operational commitment. Furthermore, the Sentinels offer a range of synergies with ESA’s Earth Explorer missions, selected and developed in close cooperation with the scientific community, to produce new scientific products to challenge and improve Earth system models.
The TERRABITES network will continue to organise symposia and workshops for the next four years to provide a platform for diverse, international communities to come together easily.