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Satellites Provide Tools to Address Climate Change

[Satellite TODAY 06-28-13] As global climate change continues to spark international concern, satellite technology is providing experts with additional tools to better analyze and combat its effects.

“The quality of the imagery has certainly increased,” said Tim Farrar, president, TMF Associates. Farrar said that new satellite sensors, different frequency bands and a decrease in the distance between sampling points are among the reasons for the improved imaging results.

Dan Stohr, president of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) said he welcomes the new satellite technology and its benefits. “Improved technology and imagery is critical,” he said, noting that “the cutting edge research helps serve a need to better understand climate and severe weather. It’s a question of public safety and a greater knowledge of the environment,” he said.

Although climate change is a hotly contested political issue in the United States, it is recognized and accepted in Europe and throughout much the world, according to Farrar. “In Europe, climate change tends to be more of an accepted science, but in the United States it tends to be more political.”

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), satellites have demonstrated their power in providing far greater precision mapping of the northern hemisphere’s biomass of forests and in assisting with the process of analyzing the Earth’s future climate.

The biomass of the northern hemisphere’s forests has been mapped with greater precision than ever before thanks to satellites, improving the understanding of the carbon cycle and our prediction of Earth’s future climate.
Image credit: ESA
This was part of a statement made by the ESA on climate change, a major focus for the organization.

However, funding for satellite climate change imagery and monitoring systems remains a challenge just about everywhere, noted Farrar. “Satellites are not immune from budget pressure, [they are] just like other government programs,” he said.
Climate change discussions have long been a controversial subject in U.S. politics, typically with Democrats who have traditionally been supportive of additional climate change funding, and use of advanced of satellite technology, according to Trey Hood, professor of political science at the University of Georgia. He said it would not be surprising that the Democratic Obama administration would be supportive of such efforts in the wake of the White House’s recent climate change announcement.

“The carbon pollution that causes climate change isn’t a distant threat, the risk to public health isn’t a hypothetical, and it’s clear we have a moral obligation to act,” David Simas, deputy senior advisor to the White House said in a written statement on June 25.

In response, Republicans have already began organizing U.S. television advertisement campaigns arguing that consumer electric rates will increase as a result of the White House proposal, CNN reported. “The Obama war on coal is killing jobs and raising costs,” a GOP website said.

But according to Simas, the 12 hottest years in the United States on record have all come in the last 15 years. “2012 was the hottest one we’ve ever recorded. When carbon pollutes the air, the risk of asthma attacks increases. When the Earth’s atmosphere fundamentally changes, we see more heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods,” Simas said.

Last year, the United States alone saw nearly a dozen significant weather storm systems, each of which cost the country more than $1 billion in damages, according to Simas. As a result, President Obama’s administration has issued a climate change plan based on using satellite technology. Through a series of executive actions, the plan is expected to reduce carbon pollution and prepare the country for the impact of climate change and lead international efforts to address global climate change, all with the help of satellite technology.

On the European front on the war against climate change, European scientists have developed a new method of evaluating data from the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) to create more accurate pan-boreal maps, according to Astrium. ASAR is an imaging radar instrument which uses microwave radiation to image the surface of the Earth and the oceans.

“The Biomass satellite will deliver, for the first time from space, radar measurements at a wavelength of around 70 cm to delve below the treetops,” an ESA statement said.

In May of 2013, BBC news reported that the Biomass satellite, slated to be launched in 2020 will be able to calcluate the amount of carbon stored in the earth’s forests. And ESA’s Envisat satellite has already given scientists a rare look at map of the entire northern hemisphere’s forest biomass in higher resolution than ever before – each pixel represents 1 km on the ground, according to the agency. “Single Envisat radar images taken at a wavelength of approximately 5 cm cannot provide the sensitivity needed to map the composition of forests with high density,” said Maurizio Santoro a researcher with Gamma Remote Sensing.

Using a new, “hyper-temporal” approach, 70,000 Envisat radar images from October 2009 to February 2011 were used to create a pan-boreal map. “This is the first radar-derived output on biomass for the whole northern zone using a single approach – and it is just one of the products from the Biomasar-II project,” Santoro said.

According to Santoro, combining a large number of radar datasets yields a greater sensitivity and gives more accurate information on what’s below the forest canopy, providing scientists with an insider’s view and additional data to analyze.

The dedicated Biomass satellite was recently selected to become ESA’s seventh Earth Explorer mission. The mission is set to provide an easier and more accurate way to monitor precious resources more regularly. The Biomass satellite will complement the Biomasar’s project results, including tropical regions and will penetrate dense multi-story canopies of rainforests using the Sentinel 1 satellite.

In 2009, an amendment to the Global Monitoring Environment and Security (GMES) agreement authorized the completion of the five initial satellites for the program, and, paved the way to ordering the second units of the Sentinel 1.