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Satellites Provide Clues on Environmental Change

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Whether operated by commercial entities or governments, remote sensing and Earth observation satellites are now essential to understanding our environment and providing a global perspective on changes. With their wide field of view and their ability to pass over the same area many times, satellites are also essential for monitoring natural resources and environmental changes, allowing for advanced planning and management.

The Space Foundation’s The Space Report 2012: The Authoritative Guide to Global Space Activity has a wealth of information about both the uses and the economic impact of commercial satellites. Here’s a look at just a few ways in which satellites are helping us understand our Earth.

Aqua Satellite Helps Explain Unprecedented Heat Wave

Much of the United States experienced a record-breaking heat wave in July 2011. In addition to monitoring the temperature with sensors on the ground, satellites were also used. The Aqua satellite, which carries instruments able to capture highly accurate data about the lower atmosphere, showed that average July temperatures in Texas and Oklahoma were about 20 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius) warmer than those recorded in the past eight years. The Aqua satellite also helped to identify the atmospheric conditions that led to the heatwave, including abnormally strong domes of high atmospheric surface pressure over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and a pattern of winds that drove hot and humid air from the tropics up into the continental United States. The improved understanding of the characteristics and causes of extreme weather events can increase the ability to better predict and prepare for these events.

CryoSat Looks at Ice

Although some areas of the globe may experience extreme heat, ice still covers about 10 percent of the Earth, and satellites are greatly improving our understanding of it. In June 2011, ESA’s CryoSat mission delivered the best view yet of sea-ice thickness across the entire Arctic Ocean basin. Unique instruments aboard CryoSat allow scientists to measure ice volume, not just the surface area, which is essential for understanding the true status of this element of nature, a key indicator of the extent of climate change. In addition, CryoSat’s orbit allows it to monitor within two degrees of the poles, so it is able to see more of these areas than previous ice observing satellites. CryoSat will measure multiyear changes in ice volume in the Arctic and Antarctic. Its mission is currently scheduled to end in 2013, but scientists are hoping to extend the mission until 2017 and incorporate similar instruments on operational satellites in the future.

ISRO Studies Vanishing Lagoons

In September 2011, scientists in India announced that satellite images had shown a nearly 30 percent reduction in the backwaters of the state of Kerala. These picturesque lagoons near the Arabian Sea are an important tourist attraction. Scientists plan to continue using satellites to investigate the cause of this reduction. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans to launch at least seven new remote sensing satellites in the next 10 years, which will improve its ability to monitor this and other natural resources.

Learn More: Buy The Space Report Now

Valuable to space professionals, students, policymakers, researchers and the media, The Space Report includes highlights from all space sectors – from defense to exploration – and illustrates how space activity affects people around the world. The book, which is available in hard copy, PDF and CD versions, provides a wealth of information on global space budgets, revenues and industry performance tracked by the Space Foundation Indexes. Content includes:

  • Discussion of the impact of budget austerity on the global space economy and space programs around the world
  • Information on global launch capabilities, successes and failures in 2011
  • Demographic information for the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)
  • Outlook for human spaceflight and global positioning systems in major spacefaring countries
  • New figures for jobs created and revenue generated by commercialization of NASA spinoffs
  • First-time data on South Korea’s space workforce

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This article is part of Space Watch: August 2012 (Volume: 11, Issue: 8).