Using Earth observation data for climate

Susanne Mecklenburg was invited to speak for the first day of Impact Week, organized by BLUMORPHO. She is the head of European Space Agency (ESA) Climate Office located in the United Kingdom and she is especially responsible for promoting and increasing the use of Earth Observation data for the climate. She gave an inspiring and engaging keynote about “Data and technologies as enablers of understanding and facing climate change”.

What are the missions and activities of ESA Climate Office?

ESA Climate Office acts for a smarter and sustainable future by developing new specific programs that use Earth Observation data. As climate change is considered a main challenge today, ESA is generating data that can help all actors like individuals, companies or start-ups. They do those by giving these actors access to data to be able to use it to the benefit of the environment. The role of the office is to promote and accelerate the uptake of observation data, particularly through the use of long-term records which can be used to quantify climate change. 

ESA conducted a citizen’s survey in 2018 asking about their top five priorities regarding space. The top two answers made it clear that climate change is one of the topics which concern all European citizens:  ‘Identify the effect of climate change’ and ‘better understand what is happening on earth’. These answers provided ESA ample motivation to provide data to citizens.

“In the eyes of Europeans, the primary area of progression for space activities would be to foster a better understanding of what is happening on Earth particularly regarding the climate.”

Earth Observation techniques and partnerships

ESA promotes the use of an Earth Observation satellite database for climate science research and those who look to innovate in it. The agency provides specializations of observation, navigation, telecommunication, and observation programming and other tools. ESA is one of the largest organisations in terms of funding and staff resources and has over 50 years of experience in the space business, comprising 22 Member States with 8 sites in Europe. With over 2 300 staff, a budget of € 6,68 billion in 2020 and 80 satellites designed, tested and operated in flight, ESA is large enough to cater to every country and citizen of Europe. The main business of ESA observation project is the design and development of satellite data, where funding is directed.

From a scientific point of view, major projects that are implemented in the office are under ESA Climate Change Initiative programme. These projects generate long-term climate datasets that are useful for the achievement of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – the biggest organizer at political and policy level.

Outside of science, ESA works on different aspects both at a political level or applications level by promoting different agencies to work to limit global warming together. An example of such collaborations includes the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) working with the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT). ESA is an observer at UNFCCC and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) directive 2008/1/EC of the European Parliament and the Council of 15 January 2008.

How is ESA working to face climate change?

Within ESA Climate Change Initiative framework, ESA uses Essential Climate Variables, which are 54 indicators defined by the World Meteorological Organisation to quantify how our climate is changing and to describe particular aspects of our system (e.g: ocean salinity, rise of sea levels). 36 of these come from space observation and 21 are generated by ESA which is recognized for its long-term data records. ESA also runs industrial contracts outside their office particularly through contracts to address each variable. There is a need to gather relevant data and algorithms and fortunately there are complementary skills between all the agencies and companies which makes collaboration more valuable.

Moreover, ESA collaborates with all kinds of companies, mainly scientific organizations, institutes and universities. There are fewer opportunities to work with SMEs and start-ups but they are not excluded. As Susanne Mecklenburg explained, ESA is the Research & Development branch and needs organisations to make the transition into practical services of climate change and thus transfer into more operational environments. The role of ESA is to observe and predict the change through several approaches such as measuring tipping points for the future. ESA Climate Office is also a source for slightly more commercial applications. This is particularly interesting for ESA as it involves different types of partners and allows ESA to share their data more widely, informing citizens and potential collaborative partners about climate change. Anybody can receive from ESA and Susanne Mecklenburg would like to see the formation of a consortium to collaborate.

How can Earth Observation and generated data be used?

The acceleration of sea level rise is a relevant example to highlight the importance of long-term climate data. ESA has collected data in this area since the 1990s combining different scientific results. Their records have shown that between 1993 and 2018 the sea level has rose from 3,2 mm/year to 4,8 mm/year. These figures might predict the sea level rise in the future, the expansion of the oceans, and thus the populations at risk.

Another example is the Ice sheet Mass Balance Inter-Comparison Exercise (IMBIE), an international collaboration of polar scientists from ESA, NASA and IPCC provides improved estimates of the Ice sheet contribution to sea level rise. This measure includes a look into the mass balance of the Greenland Ice Sheet documented in a long term series that went from 1992 to -2018. It shows that an extra 40 million people may be at risk of coastal flooding by the end of the 21st century and it is an urgent issue to address.

According to ESA’s collected data, is it possible to overcome the situation and reverse the trend of climate change?

This was exactly the discussion at the Paris Agreement of 2015 which is part of the UNFCCC. The goal is to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius and for that, it is essential to limit emissions at national levels. It will be one of the first checkpoints of the global stock-take which will take place in 2023 to analyse the different national strategies and contributions, to bring them together and convene on a decision on global warming. Thanks to their data records, ESA plays a role in delivering concrete evidence of climate change for policymakers and it encourages the implementation of policies to limit the effect of climate change. This data can support national governments in the future to quantify climate change and guide them on what they can do to reverse the trend.

What is the European position on Earth Observation data?

The European Union is quite involved in Earth Observation data. From the observation point of view, there is the Copernicus programme which is managed by the European Commission and is a collaboration between ESA, the European Environment Agency and Member States. Its objective is to monitor the Earth data collection systems from Earth Observation satellites or in situ sensors. The programme has reached a budget of € 3.78 billion, addressing six areas: land, marine, atmosphere, climate change, emergency, management and security. It is indeed a “huge undertaking” says Susanne Mecklenburg and the programme will benefit all European citizens in the long-term while representing a form of European leadership based on long-term data obtained by Earth Observation.

The EU is also strong in data modelling. The Inter-Sectoral Impact Model Inter comparison Project, an international network of climate-impact modellers aiming to predict the impact of climate change across affected sectors and spatial scales. At the moment, ISIMIP comprises 38 different groups worldwide to look at the skills of climate models with 16 located in Europe. The EU is leading the observation base and through these observations provides protection for the future. Despite this position, ESA cannot adopt a position on the European Green Deal.

Lastly, the EU has opportunities for innovators. The PARSEC project is a business accelerator supporting the creation of Earth Observation based products and services and targeting SMEs, start-ups, entrepreneurs and researchers who want to have an impact on the emerging Food, Energy and Environment sectors.

About the speaker

Susanne Mecklenburg, Head of European Space Agency Climate Office

Susanne is responsible for promoting and increasing the use of satellite-based Earth Observation data in climate science. Her current focus is the delivery of ESA’s Climate Change Initiative programme and developing future programme activities with ESA Climate Office as the focal point for climate.

Susanne is the ESA representative to the Joint CEOS/CGMS Working Group on Climate (WGClimate) – the body responsible for responding to the UNFCCC and GCOS on the monitoring of climate from space. She is also a member of the WCRP Data Advisory Council.

She has a background in hydrology and use of ground-based radar to forecast rainfall for hydrological models. Susanne was previously the Mission Manager for SMOSSentinel 3 and FLEX.

Prior to joining ESA, she worked at the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, ran the Earth Observation Programme for the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council, and acted as the UK Space Agency’s delegate to ESA on technical and scientific issues.