Nov 24, 2014

The Role of Satellites in Saving the World from Global Warming

A hundred of the world’s leaders, including government, financial, business and civil society, convened at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City on Sept. 23 to tackle the problems posed by climate change. Heralding the five-day Climate Summit, more than 300,000 people from all walks of life marched in the streets of Manhattan to call for action in the People’s Climate March with demonstrators from across the world following suit.

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At the same time, the EUMETSAT Meteorological Satellite Conference took place in Geneva from Sept. 22-26 to discuss how to optimize satellite weather data. And in October, the Climate Symposium 2014 in Germany discussed the development of a space-based Earth observing system.

Like most other aspects of modern life, we take for granted our ability to switch on the news or open a newspaper and get a seven-day weather forecast for our region and other parts of the world. Rarely, if ever, does the “man on the street” think about the source of this (and a host of other) information. But that source is, in most cases, satellites.

It is fortuitous indeed that humanity has access to satellite technology that can monitor the Earth to a very detailed degree at a time when global climate change challenges it. A World Meteorological Organization (WMO) brochure titled “How the United Nations System Supports Ambitious Action On Climate Change” describes climate change as “warming the planet, altering weather patterns, increasing the severity of floods and droughts, raising sea levels, acidifying the ocean, melting sea and land ice, threatening plant and animal species, and affecting the spread of diseases. These emerging climate impacts are already aggravating other stresses on sustainable development, ranging from land degradation and resource depletion to land, air and water pollution.”

Furthermore, the WMO warns “the average global temperature must rise by no more than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial levels if climate change is to be avoided. This can be achieved if global emissions peak within the coming decade and then decline until there are no new net emissions as early as possible in the second half of the century. Ambitious action is needed and it is needed now.”

If we heed that warning, it means we have about 36 years counting from this year to do something before climate change is irreversible. If not, this would mean an intensification of chaotic weather changes, droughts, floods, hurricanes and other similar dramatic weather events. Most experts agree that we have arrived at the climate change tipping point.

Enter environmental satellites. In January 2009, Japan launched the Ibuki (meaning “breath” in Japanese) satellite, English for the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT). Though not the first Earth observational satellite (viz. NASA’s Landsat, formerly name Project EROS, whose first satellite was launched in 1972), Ibuki, a polar-orbiting satellite, is unique in that it is specifically designed to measure greenhouse gases and can do so at 56,000 locations around the world.

This year, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Sentinel 1A satellite, the first of six groups of dedicated missions comprising Europe’s Copernicus environmental monitoring network and whose images will be used to assist with “urban planning, monitoring agriculture, mapping deforestation and managing water resources,” according to an article titled “First images of Earth from ESA’s new environmental satellite” in www.thewatchers.com. Initial images captured in its pre-operational phase depict Brussels and its environs, flooding in the Zambesi River in Namibia, and Pine Island Glacier in Antartica, which is in a state of “irreversible retreat.”

Middle Eastern governments grasp the importance of using satellites to monitor the environment, especially in relation to oil spills in the Arabian Gulf and the Oman Sea. Dr. Merouane Temimi of Masdar Institute’s Coastal and Environmental Remote Sensing research group in the UAE, writes in his July 5 article “How satellites could help to contain oil spills in the Arabian Gulf” in www.thenational.ae that “over the past few years, there have been up to eight major oil spills a year in the region.” Preventing oil spills in bodies of water and onshore is essential in preserving the marine environment, the regional economy and tourism. This informs the increasing importance of satellites as an environmental monitoring tool, which in turn shapes governmental and regional environmental activity and policy development.

NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites prove the importance of satellites in monitoring changes in the environment. The agency reported in 2013 that, over seven years from 2003, an amount of stored freshwater almost the size of the Dead Sea (i.e. 117 million acre feet or 144 cubic kilometers) disappeared in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates. The data collected by GRACE is clearly of global importance.

In African countries such as Kenya and South Africa, where resources are limited, the political environment unstable and the area so vast, the satellite is the optimum tool for tracking large wilderness areas for disaster relief (e.g. in case of fire). Julia Kumari Drapkin reported in his April 29, 2008 article “Satellites and the environment” in www.pri.org that “making the data easily comprehensible is what the EU is trying to do, especially for affected areas in Africa. Researchers say the next step is to make satellite imagery available as text messages … to computers or even phone systems in parts of Africa.”

Satellites carrying sensors or with sensors have been used to monitor weather and the environment since the 1960s. Typically, governments were the guardians of such exercises and data was often tightly held due to paranoia about the Cold War, fear of espionage, violence and terrorism.

Climate change is a game-changer as it is an imminent and potentially indomitable enemy. Time is of the essence; the dynamic in the satellite industry is changing, opening the door for the commercialization of environmental satellites. With government satellites nearing end-of-life, the threat of gaps in worldwide satellite weather and climate data must be avoided. The importance of seamless, continuous, accessible and transparent data on a global basis has created the possibility to monetize and commercialize weather/environmental satellites. Space agencies in Canada, China, India, Japan, Russia, the United States and Europe as well as private companies around the world plan to fill that gap. In the past, such valuable data would have been considered a matter of national security. In the race to save the Earth from the global threat that is climate change, however, the dynamic between nations may well change and improve out of necessity, bringing about unexpected peace through collaboration to heal the Earth. VS

Sonya Shaykhoun is is a lawyer specializing in technology, media, telecommunications and sports law. She is based in Doha, where she works as senior legal counsel for Al Jazeera Media Network.

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