What Sentinel-7 can do for our climate’s future

Photo from: NASA https://sealevel.nasa.gov/internal_resources/276

Data is the foundation upon which good strategy is based. It is data that allows us to diagnose a problem, to build a solution, and then to monitor how effective that solution is. This is true in everything from engineering projects, to new government policies, and it is self-evident that time and resources are most efficiently utilised when we receive quick and detailed feedback from the front line. In most cases, this data can be acquired fairly simply; simple devices such as voltmeters and opinion polls give us clear results which can easily be interpreted. But as the world becomes more complex, and we begin to tackle problems at the global level, the need for the next generation of data gathering is becoming increasingly apparent. This is why the European Union’s Copernicus Earth observation programme is so vitally important and the plans for its expansion are so wonderfully exciting. 

Beginning life in 1998 as the far less memorable “Global Monitoring for Environmental Security”, the Copernicus Programme is the self-described “European Programme for the establishment of a European capacity for Earth Observation”. In short, it exists to monitor and provide data on the wellbeing of the Earth and its denizens, with the aim of improving the quality of life of European citizens in particular. Perhaps the most eye-catching parts of Copernicus are the aptly named “Sentinel Missions”. Each mission consists of two satellites tasked with observing one specific facet of life on Planet Earth. There are currently 6 Sentinel Missions either already in operation or with scheduled launch dates, and between them they will provide data on atmospheric composition, sea-level changes, and land coverage.

But it is Sentinel-7 that is most likely to make the headlines in the coming years. The German manufacturer, OHB-System, has just signed a £400 million contract to begin its construction. Sentinel-7 will measure not only the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but will also go a long way to provide data that will allow us to assess how much of that carbon dioxide has been emitted as a result of human activity (anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions). The sensitivity of the instruments is frankly astonishing and, once both satellites are up and running, they will be able to provide a picture of CO2 emissions from the Earth’s surface at a resolution of 2km x 2km, with the data for every spot on Earth updated every 5 days.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this project, particularly given the timings involved. With an (optimistic) aim to launch in 2025, we might have 3 years of high-quality data ready for the 2028 global stocktake report mandated by the Paris Climate Accords. Climate change is one of the gravest threats’ humanity has ever faced – it is complex, it is global, and will require a great deal of self-reflection, particularly in wealthier nations. If the discourse is to be honest and productive, we shall need all the data we can gather. We should therefore be hopeful, thankful and (with UK funding not yet decided) vocal for our Sentinels.

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