Only tears of sand remain Earth observation satellites such as the European Space Agency's Proba-V collect daily images that allow for the tracking of environmental changes over time. The images above - taken in April 2014, July 2015 and January 2016 (left to right) - offer crystal-clear insight into the gradual evaporation of Lake Poopo, once Bolivia's second largest lake - due at least in part to climate change.

Researchers have been slow to harness the power of big data from satellites in the fight against climate change. But a new partnership around the Copernicus program may change that...

The beast has awoken

No matter how long volcanoes sleep, they're always in a bad mood when they wake up. The International Space Station was passing overhead when the Sarychev volcano, located in the Kuril Islands of Russia, erupted in 2009. Astronauts were able to snap a picture through a hole in the clouds. From dense ash to clouds of condensed water, virtually all natural phenomena can be examined from outer space.

Don't play with fire

Every year, wildfires devastate the landscape - and ecology - in numerous countries around the world. Too often, these are caused by humans. This was also the case in Indonesia, where farmers burned peat rainforest areas for agriculture. On the island of Borneo and Sumatra, satellites detected fire hot spots in September 2015, and the plume of grey smoke that triggered air quality alerts.


German kids misbehaved

In Germany, parents warn their children that if they don't finish their meals, it's going to rain. And indeed, in 2013 it rained, so much that some of central Europe's major rivers overflowed their banks. As shown in this image from 2013, the Elbe burst its banks following unprecedented rainfall. In the photo, muddy water covers the area around Wittenberg, in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt.


At the eye of the hurricane

A strong storm can cause irreparable damage through intense winds and storm surges from the sea. Space-based information is crucial in following development of such storms: intensity, the direction it's moving, wind speed … in the eastern Pacific Ocean near Mexico, this satellite image helped determine how tropical storm Sandra reached winds of 160 kilometers per hour by November 25, 2015.



Melting away from under us

Satellites also play a key role in monitoring climate change and, inevitably, the process of melting ice. From space, scientists were able to document how several glaciers around the globe have receded - as well as the subsequent rise in sea level. This photograph, taken from the International Space Station, shows the retreat of the Upsala glacier in Argentine Patagonia from 2002 to 2013.


Hold your breath!

Dust often covers remote deserts - however in September 2015, satellites offered this impressive view of Middle East areas enveloped by a dust storm, or haboob, affecting large populated regions. What satellites can observe from space supports air quality sensors on the ground to understand patterns on how the storms start and develop. These findings can improve forecasting methods.

'Naked mountain'

These are the words NASA used to describe the lack of snow on California's Mount Shasta, a crucial source of water for the region. Images documenting drought over the past years have consistently been showing brown mountains that should be white, and bare earth where people seek water. As ice melts, drought grows. Author: Irene Banos Ruiz


Over the past decade, people have gotten used to using Google Earth's satellite map to satisfy their curiosity - whether that involves examining tree cover or peering into their neighbor's backyard.

Now, a new European Union initiative is attempting to harness that satellite data to fight climate change - and to document its effects.

On Tuesday (26.04.2016), the European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT) announced a new partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) to mine the "big data" satellites gather, to help local and national governments mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The program, unveiled at the EIT's annual conference in Budapest, is the first time satellite data has been mobilized at this scale.

Untapped potential

The ESA has been monitoring the Earth since 2008, when it set up the Copernicus program in partnership with the European Commission. Through a family of missions involving Sentinel satellites, Copernicus feeds vast amounts of data into a unified system.

Although it is the world's broadest Earth observation program, so far it has not gone into deep analysis of the effects of climate change. But it has been collecting the data.

Sentinel-2 above the Earth (Photo: ESA/ATG medialab)

Sentinel satellites can track changes on Earth's surface in high resolution

"If you knew just how much data was out there - sitting on 'shelves' in the digital world, with no one really accessing it - you would be amazed," said Mike Cherrett, director of operations for the climate change division of EIT. "It's a scandal it's not being used - and we need to turn that around."

Cherrett says the problem is that although Copernicus has collected much data, this isn't reaching end users, such as local governments or companies, who would be interested in and able to do something with it.

Such data can be used to analyze the effects of climate change, for example by tracking the erosion of coastlines or abnormalities in vegetation as a result of temperature changes.

It can also be used to track activities that contribute to climate change, such as deforestation or poor city planning. A city government could for example use the information to see how urban planning is affecting emissions.

'Living data'

Ian Short, CEO of the EIT's climate division, says that that while there is useful information to be gleaned from satellite data about where emissions are taking place, the most useful part could be looking at how climate change is already affecting the world.

With climate change, much focus has been placed on mitigation - that is, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Short pointed out. "But we're well past that point now," Short told DW.

"We're starting to see the impact of climate change - increasingly, we have to understand what that impact is," Short said. "We need to be able to predict where it's going to happen."

Image of the French riviera taken from a Sentinel satellite (Photo: Copernicus data/ESA)

An image of the French riviera taken from a Sentinel satellite

Initial results of the collaboration will be presented at this year's United Nations climate summit this November in Morocco. The data collected will be open-source, which also means it can be accessed by any member of the public.

Cherrett called it "living data."

"You can look at historical records to compare and contrast," Cherrett said. "It has huge potential to revolutionalize the way we plan city and rural areas. It has huge potential to inform citizens and generate business ideas."

"This will be one of those things we look back on in five, 10 years and say, 'why didn’t we use more of this big data earlier?'"

DW recommends

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