Environmental satellites

Innovation in action
Consultant, US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

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Satellites are not just about communications or defence, but can help us understand if not resolve some difficult environmental challenges, including climate change. They are investments in innovation whose benefits for humanity should speak for themselves.
Have jokes about weathermen and their bad forecasts been on the decline recently? If so, it may not be due to a conscious effort by comedians and cartoonists, but rather to a drying up of subject matter–fewer bum forecasts. The accuracy of weather forecasts has increased over the last few decades. Today’s 5-day forecasts are as accurate as 3-day forecasts were 25 years ago; 7-day forecasts are as accurate as 5-day forecasts were, and so on. Three reasons can be cited for this dramatic advance in prediction skill: improved computerised prediction models, more powerful computers, and better observations, combined with advanced methods for assimilating them into the forecast models.Moreover, there is a decreasing gap between forecasts for southern hemisphere regions and northern hemisphere locations. The southern hemisphere–largely covered by oceans–has been the object of far fewer conventional observations. Twenty-five years ago, computer models had little data to initialise the forecasts. But today southern hemisphere forecasts are as accurate as those for the northern hemisphere, thanks largely to the increasing amount and quality of data from NOAA’s environmental satellite observations, and supplemented by those of the Europeans and Japanese, which have filled the vast data void over the southern oceans. Such dramatic improvements in weather prediction translate into human and economic benefits. In the US alone, as much as $4 trillion of the nation’s $10 trillion economy is affected by weather and climate events each year.While weather prediction may be one of the most visible applications of NOAA’s environmental satellites, there are many other important ones. These include continuous measurements of the earth’s climate, oceans and land. Climate monitoring provides measurements of trends in atmospheric and sea surface temperatures, volumes of global ozone and the size of the Antarctic ozone hole. It measures cloudiness and snow cover, too.Ocean applications cover sea surface temperature maps, delineation of sea ice areas, tracking of hurricanes and typhoons, and identification of coral bleaching. Land applications consist of snow cover maps, detection of fires, observations of ash plumes from volcanic eruptions–a major danger to commercial aircraft–warnings of flash floods, and drought and vegetation condition monitoring.The products, applications and benefits of NOAA’s satellites are many, though here are a few pertinent examples. Consider climate change for a start. Operational environmental satellite observations, such as those of NOAA’s spacecraft, provide continuous, global measurements needed to establish where warming is occurring and, if so, at what rate. Accurate measurements of global climate change can also be used to check on the credibility of computer models that predict the future climate under various greenhouse gas emission scenarios. This information is needed by government leaders around the world to help them take decisions on prevention and mitigation of climate change.The map shows the global distribution of lower atmospheric temperature trends since 1979–in units of degrees Centigrade per decade–as observed by the Microwave Sounding Unit (MSU) on NOAA’s Polar Operational Environmental Satellites (POES). The reddish colours indicate that almost the entire atmosphere of the earth is warming. The snake-like graph to the right of the map sketches the average latitudinal variation of the heating. The observed rate–a few tenths of a degree Centigrade per decade–is consistent with climate model predictions.

Source: NOAA

Drought is another devastating environmentally-influenced phenomenon. Of the 2.8 billion people who suffered from weatherrelated disasters during the period 1967-1991, 50% were those affected by drought. Real-time monitoring of droughts provides governments and agricultural interests with data needed to mitigate their effects. NOAA uses the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) on its POES satellites to monitor areas of stressed vegetation conditions, which are indicative of drought. The NOAA provides images of vegetation health over a week, with reddish areas of stressed vegetation clearly evident.
Snow and ice cover influences ground, air and sea transportation, affects water supplies and weather patterns, and forms a vital part of the climatic record. Weather stations measure snow amounts, over the continents, but it is difficult to map the snow cover over broad regions because of the observation gaps between stations on the ground. This observational handicap worsens for lake and sea ice. NOAA has developed a snow/ice monitoring system that uses images from both polar and geostationary satellites. The map shows snow (white) and ice (yellow) over North America and adjacent seas for 19 February, 2006. Daily images such as this provide detailed tracking of areas of snowfall/sea ice formation and melting as they occur.There are other applications where NOAA’s environmental satellites have proven their worth, for instance, in monitoring the still-fragile ozone layer whose recovery we rely on as protection against ultra-violet rays, or in checking the bleaching and destruction of coral reefs, which are unique and rich ecosystems that support vast arrays of animal and plant species. Together with the operational environmental satellites of other space-faring countries, our satellites form the space component of the World Meteorological Organization’s World Weather Watch. They supplement the earth-observing research satellites, such as those of NASA and the European Space Agency. Together they contribute to a worldwide effort to build a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) over the next 10 years. The goals are several: reducing loss of life and property from natural and human-induced disasters; understanding environmental factors affecting human health and well-being; improving management of energy resources; understanding, assessing, predicting, mitigating and adapting to climate variability and change; improving water resource management through better understanding of the water cycle; improving weather information, forecasting and warning; improving the management and protection of terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems; supporting sustainable agriculture and combating desertification; and understanding, monitoring and conserving biodiversity.These are challenges the NOAA is committed to help resolve.
Note: NOAA was a participant in the OECD’s Futures Project “The Commercialisation of Space and The Development of Space Infrastructure: The Role of Public and Private Actors” (2003-2005). The policy recommendations were published in the spring of 2005 as the OECD publication, Space 2030: Tackling Society’s Challenges. It allows decision-makers to take stock of the opportunities (notably the identification of 14 promising applications*) and challenges facing the space sector, particularly civilian applications, with a view to reaching a better understanding of the issues at stake and the solutions that could be applied. In 2005, the participants suggested that the International Futures Programme of the OECD should host a new platform for international dialogue on the social and economic aspects of space infrastructure and space-based applications: the OECD Global Forum on Space Economics. This Space Forum complements the existing institutional architecture. NOAA, as well as other agencies involved in space-based applications, such as the European Space Agency (ESA), British National Space Centre (BNSC), Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), Italian Space Agency (ISA), the Norwegian Space Center (NSC), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) are founding members of the OECD Global Forum on Space Economics.*Potentially promising applications 1. Distance education; telemedicine.
2. E-commerce.
3. Entertainment.
4. Location-based consumer services.
5. Location-based services: traffic management.
6. Land use: precision farming.
7. Land use: urban planning.
8. Land use: exploration (e.g. oil).
9. Disaster prevention and management.
10. Environmental applications and meteorology.
11. Monitoring of the application of treaties, standards and policies.
12. Space tourism/adventure (suborbital and orbital).
13. In-orbit servicing.
14. Power relay satellites.Contact: Pierre-Alain Schieb, Head of Futures Projects, pierre-alain.schieb@oecd.org, or Anita Gibson, anita.gibson@oecd.org

  ©OECD Observer N°261 May 2007

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