How can observations from space help tackle climate change?

9 February 2017


Reported by Anna Fee, NERC-funded CSaP Policy Intern (January-April 2017)

Our 2017 climate seminar series continued with a talk by Professor Stephen Briggs, a Senior Adviser in the European Space Agency, who discussed the role that space agencies are making in monitoring climate change from space, and the potential applications of their work for future mitigation.

There are 56 Essential Climate Variables (ECVs), outlined by the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), which are used to characterise observations and provide a clear message on historical and future climate change. These variables include atmospheric, terrestrial and ocean observations and 50% of them are only visible from space. There are specific requirements for each ECV which all satellite, environmental and other monitoring agencies are adhering to worldwide. The existence of this list of variables is a big step in more well organised and profound observations of climate.

‘This new era is reflecting the fact that the community is trying to respond to a wider variety of drivers for climate observations than in the past.’

Speaking at Christ's College, Cambridge, Professor Briggs reported that 75% of the articles highlighted in the Paris Agreement could have been better informed by space observations. Satellite observations are used to monitor many climate indicators from atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to thermal expansion of the oceans and thus, a rise in sea levels. Satellite measurements have also seen a significant reduction in ice mass in the Antarctic over the last 20 years.

Climate modelling is essential for climate adaptation and satellite data provides high resolution observations to improve global circulation model predictions. These observations are also useful for mitigation, for example, allowing countries to estimate their national contribution to emissions from imported fossil fuels and transport. Land use significantly affects a country’s carbon emissions and space agencies can monitor global land use change from space.

Professor Alan O’Neill, Emeritus Professor of Meteorology, University of Reading, noted that most modelling and observation work has focussed on physical systems in the atmosphere and oceans but a big challenge is knowing what measurements are required to predict how the biosphere is going to react to climate change. He also pointed out that the vast amount of data available needs to be presented in a format to engage the public in monitoring their own impact on climate change rather than confusing them.

A podcast of the seminar is available via the link below.

(Banner Image: Stuart Rankin via Flickr)

Professor Stephen Briggs

Global Climate Observing System

Professor Alan O'Neill

Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge