Insight - The Critical Role of Space Data in Addressing Climate Change

Thursday, November 4, 2021

On October 31, world leaders met in Glasgow, United Kingdom for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 26), billed by scientists and world leaders as one of the last chances for humanity to take the needed steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avert the more drastic potential effects of climate change. The scientific evidence for a changing climate and how it can and will affect water resources, food production, sea levels, extreme weather, and many other aspects of human life is irrefutable. The two-week-long event sought to bring key parties together to drive action on implementing the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and also come to new global agreements on additional ways to tackle climate change. 

Our ability to make better decisions on climate change depends on understanding what is happening, including the magnitude of those changes, the rate at which they occur, and our ability to predict and mitigate them.  In her opening speech at the 2018 COP in Katowice, Poland, UN General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés emphasized, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” 

Observations of the Earth from space have played a crucial role in measuring and documenting the effects of climate change from the moment when humanity began to realize how our actions were affecting the health of the planet. In 1987, NASA satellite data confirmed the presence of a growing hole in the ozone layer over the south pole and helped the public conceptualize and demand action, leading to Montreal Protocol, one of the first international agreements that attempted to address the problem of climate change. Now, more than ever, space-based data enables scientists to better understand the impact of various activities on the climate and helps policymakers determine the best strategies for responding to those impacts. 

In remarks at Secure World Foundation’s 2021 Summit for Space Sustainability, Waleed Abdalati, the Director of Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at University of Colorado Boulder (CIRES) and former NASA Chief Scientist, explained in detail why satellite data is so valuable. He stressed that satellites are able to provide foundational knowledge because they can provide information on large-scale behaviors in inaccessible places, because they allow for analysis of signals across the full electromagnetic spectrum, and because they provide large-scale perspective of global processes and the interactions among the elements of the Earth system. In his words: 

When we observe and understand, we get better at predicting. Taking these data, and understanding the processes at work, and improving our models accordingly allows us to better predict the future, better understand what we're in for, better prepare for what's coming, and better mitigate the changes that will happen. Ultimately and ideally, this information through the direct observations or how we inform our models informs policy, informs our choices. 

Using satellites, we've measured sea level rise reliably since the early 1990s and can now estimate future rises not only globally, but location by location. Groups use satellite data to better track and respond to wildfires. Resources, such as the Global Forest Watch, are available that make it possible to monitor what is happening to distant tropical forests almost in real time through satellite imagery. For example, right now, onegroup  is working to produce high-quality, actionable data on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry with a view to providing this data free of charge across the globe. The set of examples discussed here could obviously be much longer: everything from monitoring freshwater algae blooms to improving weather data to tracking wildlife migrations could be enhanced via space data collection.  

But the importance of space to combating climate change means we also need to consider the challenges associated with creating and disseminating this important data. We need continued investments in space-based assets to ensure continuity in data and better access to data, training and systems. Further, we need to ensure that policymakers understand the critical importance of space data for addressing climate change, and other global challenges, and that they take steps to ensure space sustainability. 

Without strong action now and in the future, climate change will drive unthinkable changes in human health, economic livelihood, and overall well-being. We cannot take the correct actions without good data and we can’t continue to get good data unless we protect the space environment. 

Last updated on November 4, 2021