Earth Observation: Viewing the World for a Sustainable Future

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John B. Lacson Foundation Maritime University

By Warlie Zambales Diaz
John B. Lacson Foundation Maritime University, Philippines

The bright azure sky turned gray and the wind started to blow pitilessly. The rain fell heavily as if casting all its strength in city streets and mountains. Soon, water started to rise at an unexpected rate and houses were submerged in the catastrophic flood. Murky strong water went gushing as people were trying their best toward what was before a highway. The depth rose to eight feet and some were swept away by the raging flood, a stampede of mud and water.

Some people gazed with grief toward their homes while clinging to a floating tree. The evening was so sad. Cries for help were everywhere but the water was more than 13-feet-deep and the current was even stronger. Exhausted, hungry and sleepless, everyone struggled to survive. It would have been an ordinary day, a rainy weather that could be enjoyed by everyone as it refreshed the earth. But it was different, the misery and tears that the catastrophe caused will always be remembered as a day to act responsibly and never let it happen again.

In many parts of the world, people are experiencing rapid challenges in the environment, an imminent reality we cannot escape.

Challenges toward Sustainable Development

The 20th century is marked by profound development. The chiliads of gazing and wondering at the vast skies ended as humans traveled into space and made every part of the globe accessible. It took less than 40 years for computers to evolve from large, room filling, standalone units to extremely powerful handheld devices with wireless connections to a worldwide network of other such devices. Technology bridged man to elicit himself to exceed what he has now, and to reach satisfaction for his interminable demand for a better life.

In our unrelenting quest for advancement, severe irreversible challenges to the very existence of life have also emerged. Pollution of the air, land and water is a critical issue everywhere. The glorious biodiversity of our planet has been diminished as thousands of species are being eliminated at an unprecedented rate. The climate has warmed significantly, causing the rapid loss of polar ice and ever-more-violent weather events.

The global population has reached as high as 7 billion, and will continue to increase, with most new births in devastatingly poor nations. At present, the United Nations estimates 1.2 billion people struggle, living on less than $1 per day. More than 800 million people are malnourished, and 500 million are experiencing water shortages around the world. With overpopulation, managing limited resources takes a heavy toll on the Earth’s ecological wealth. Impoverished people are usually forced to destroy their environment to uplift their quality of life. While some companies and individuals continue to exploit and cut corners in order to augment profits, all that results is pollution and reckless management of natural resources.

We can no longer turn a blind eye to urgent sustainable development to rise to these challenges. To secure our future and our posterity, we need to create a sustainable world in which human needs are met without compromising natural systems. At the crux of sustainable development is the responsible management of Earth’s resources through the promotion of quality education, informed consumption, conservation initiatives and employment of Earth Observation.

What is Earth Observation?

The term ‘Earth Observation’ (EO) refers to the application of in situ and remote sensing measuring technologies to study the Earth’s environment and the effects of human activities. This includes measuring technologies and platforms, owned and operated by a variety of entities, from research institutions to public authorities, to international organizations and private commercial interests.

For more than half a century, since the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, Earth Observation satellites have been monitoring our global environment, revealing its fascinating beauty while, at the same time, demonstrating its inherent fragility and exposure to rapidly growing human-induced stresses. Satellites enabled humans to explore the solar system and the rest of the universe, to clearly view many objects and phenomena that are better observed from a space perspective, and to use for human benefit the resources and attributes of the space environment. The unique view from space has given us an improved understanding of the Earth, which is essential to predict, adapt and mitigate the expected global challenges and their impacts on human civilization.

Significance of Earth Observation

The significance of Earth observations in various sectors worldwide is apparent. The data from EO satellites contribute to sustainable development by providing information, measurements and quantification of natural and artificial phenomena. The synoptic view provided by the satellite imagery offers technologically the most appropriate method for quick and reliable mapping and monitoring of Earth’s resources. Change detection through repetitive satellite remote sensing over various temporal and spatial scales provides the most economical means of assessing the environmental impact of the developmental processes, monitoring of bio-species diversity of an ecosystem, and evolution of appropriate plans for sustainable development.

Earth Observation data and derived information are essential inputs to improve human understanding on nature’s worth. EO contributes to sound policy decisions in international society by providing scientific information necessary for informed global environmental decision-making and for monitoring our progress on all geographical scales as we explore new development paths aimed at sustainable management of the planet.

Reducing loss of life and property from natural and human-induced disasters

Taking a global view of present conditions reveals mankind is facing serious problems that may threaten its existence. According to figures from the UN, natural hazards such as wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis, monsoons, landslides, floods and inundations, as well as human-induced disasters, killed some 500,000 people and caused as much as $985 billion in property damage during the 1990s. As human populations and infrastructures continue to grow and spread out, the possibility of more complex disasters increases.

With the potential to frame an entire city in a single image, EO is useful for town planners attempting to manage the growth of urban settlements and minimizing susceptibility to catastrophes. While no one believes disaster-related losses can be completely eliminated, Earth Observation improves our ability to forecast, monitor, and respond to disasters, therefore greatly reducing harm to people, property and ecosystems. When tragedy does strike, reliable and efficient humanitarian aid and security operations can be designed with the help of EO data.

Understanding environmental factors affecting human health and well-being

Continued improvements in quality of life and human longevity require an understanding of a complex array of environmental factors. Around the world, significant differences continue to exist in the health and well-being of peoples in various regions and countries. While one in five people still lack regular access to clean drinking water, a rapidly increasing population is creating new and unforeseen stresses with serious health implications.

EO contributes significantly to improving human health, linking a variety of tools and technologies to provide better and more complete data on exposure factors such as air and water contaminants, pathogens and ultraviolet radiation; nutritional factors such as availability and safety of food; extreme weather events; and population stress indicators, such as noise.

Improving management of energy resources

In every nation, energy is a keystone of economic and social policy. The energy sector encompasses a wide range of industrial activities including energy resources exploration, extraction and production, transportation, power production and distribution. The optimal management of this global, diverse sector, worth an estimated trillion euros, which includes non-renewable resources, such as coal and oil, as well as renewable resources, including wind and solar power, is of critical concern to all countries and governments. According to estimates, global primary energy demand is set to increase by about 60 percent over the next 30 years, with two-thirds of the increase occurring in the developing world, notably China and India.

In the energy sector, Earth Observation is used to detect new fossil fuel reserves, and as an aid in the environmentally responsible and equitable management of existing non-renewable and renewable energy resources. EO also supports better matching of energy supply and demand, reduction of risks to energy infrastructure, more accurate inventories of greenhouse gases and pollutants, and a better understanding of renewable energy potential.

Understanding, assessing, predicting, mitigating and adapting to climate variability and change

Studies by the World Health Organization have shown global warming is causing an estimated 154,000 deaths annually, with the rate expected to double by 2020. Societies and economies around the world depend on a predictable climate. Coping with the profound effects of climate variability and change requires a solid scientific understanding, based on accurate, reliable and adequate Earth Observation data.

The state of the climate is affected by a number of processes, including human activities. However, little is still known of the risks associated with the observed trend of global warming and the increasing occurrence of extreme weather events. By tracking the climate system and identifying causal factors, scientists can observe new trends, predict their effects, and define new adaptation and mitigation strategies. An enormous amount of human and technological capacity is now needed for the collection, management, quality control, exchange, archiving and utilization of observations from the atmosphere, oceans, and land and ice-covered regions. EO provides governments and the private sector with ready access to reliable data on past, present and future climate conditions, allowing informed decision-making on matters of socio-economic importance.

Improving water resource management through better understanding of the water cycle

According to the UN, at any given time, half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from diseases associated with lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. Each year, 3.575 million people die from water-related diseases. Reliable supplies of fresh water are an essential ingredient for human prosperity and health, and ecosystem functioning. In developing countries, water limitations are a major contributing factor to poverty and human misery. Food security, well-being and economic and political stability all depend on water supply.

Today, humans actively manage about 30 percent of the world’s run-off in the inhabited regions of the globe. Such wide-scale management of rivers and groundwater has resulted in profound ecological changes. Meanwhile, our ability to monitor the water cycle is inadequate, and is unable to elucidate long-term trends and important aspects of surface and groundwater quality.

The global water cycle – the transport and distribution of large amounts of water and its phase changes from liquid to solid to gaseous states – is one of the most important features of the Earth’s environmental system. EO provides an improved and more reactive water cycle monitoring system, making an inventory of and evaluating existing plans and data needs, developing action plans to address these needs, and facilitating the research and development of new applications for water quality and groundwater monitoring.

Improving weather information, forecasting and warning

Each year, thousands of lives are lost and billions of dollars in property damage is caused by hazardous weather as the result of an inability to forecast reliably and warn appropriate decision-makers and citizens.

Worldwide, social and economic sectors, including agriculture, energy distribution, construction, transportation, aviation, finance, tourism, public health, ecosystems and biodiversity, are directly affected by temperature, precipitation, wind, and other weather parameters. Earth Observation data provides improved and timely weather forecasts to maximize productivity and reduce costs.

Improving the management and protection of terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems

Ecosystems are the basis of, and necessary condition, for all life on Earth. They are also the core of all natural resource industries including agriculture, forestry, pastoralism and wild-harvest fisheries. EO provides strong support for these industries, improving our understanding of resource production potentials and their limits.

People derive from ecosystems numerous benefits such as food, water, fiber and timber, energy, soil fertility and detoxification of waste. Ecosystems are essential for human existence, and their total economic value is difficult to assess. Today, the ability of ecosystems to support diverse and abundant life forms, and to supply ecosystem services, is under pressure. Various analyses have shown that even partial damage to the ecosystems could significantly affect the condition of hundreds of millions of people. EO data provides an accurate description and assessment of current conditions and trends in various ecosystems, including the pressures and impacts affecting them.

Supporting sustainable agriculture and combating desertification

Twenty five percent of Earth’s land is threatened by desertification, according to the UN. The livelihoods of more than one billion people in more than 100 countries are also jeopardized as farming and grazing land becomes less productive. Many people in the world are chronically exposed to hunger and malnutrition. Most of these people live in developing countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. One of the primary benefits of EO is its crucial role in the international fight against hunger and poverty.

Ensuring proper land use is crucial for the sustainable management of urban and rural areas. Today, land must be multifunctional to satisfy an ever-increasing variety of societal demands, including resource conservation, buffering, recreation and tourism, provision of employment opportunities, social welfare, and preservation of culture. EO provides a better understanding in the potential impacts of global change on agriculture, food systems and human well-being in order to combat future food crises.

Understanding, monitoring and conserving biodiversity

Biodiversity refers to the totality and variety of life on Earth. It is necessary for the sustained delivery of the goods and services essential for human well-being. More generally, it is significant for the maintenance of all life on Earth. As such, the true scale of the importance of biodiversity is difficult to express. Unfortunately, biodiversity is now being reduced across the globe at an unprecedented rate, mainly due to human activities. According to current estimates, more than 25,000 species are driven to extinction every year. Some recent studies suggest that 30 percent of all natural species will be extinct by 2050 if the current trend of biodiversity loss continues in the next few decades. Recognizing the threat, countries around the world have signed treaties and conventions aimed at protecting biodiversity.

Earth Observation provides a wide variety of instruments, methodologies and processing tools for collecting and disseminating biodiversity data. Collating all of these tools together unifies disparate biodiversity monitoring systems and creates a platform for integrating biodiversity data with other types of information, then making it accessible to the widest possible array of end-users.


Earth Observation satellites have revolutionized how we view and understand our home planet, have helped address fundamental scientific questions, and have enabled a plethora of applications with important societal benefits.

The commitment to Earth Observation by people, nations and a variety of entities helps us achieve prosperity, security and sustainability. The next decades will likely build on this momentum, bringing more remarkable discoveries and an increased capability to predict Earth processes, and ultimately better protecting human lives and property.

Days after the calamity, people started to rebuild their houses and continued on their ordinary lives despite the unforgettable experience. Understanding the harsh reality the catastrophe has brought, people were now ready to change their habits, which have contributed to the degradation of Earth, and responsibly fulfill their roles toward sustainability.

For better or for worse, we are bonded to our environment. We will always struggle with the reality that if we do not find a way to maintain a peaceful coexistence with nature, then we do not deserve this place. With our heartfelt intention to make a better world, and through the help of EO satellites watching our progress, we are trudging the right path toward a sustainable future.


European Commission. 2005. EU Research for Sustainable Earth Observation: Sustainable Development, Global Changes and Ecosystems. Brussels.

Barrell, S. 2008. Australian Bureau of Meteorology: Observing the Earth for a Sustainable Future. Australia.

Mathieu P.P.; Coulson S. 2011. Earth Observation for Development: Mainstreaming Satellite-based Information into Sustainable Development and Financing Practices.

Committee on Scientific Accomplishments of Earth Observations from Space, National Research Council 2007. Earth Observations from Space: The First 50 Years of Scientific Achievements.

United Nations. 2006. Human Development Report

World Health Organization. 2008. Safer Water, Better Health, Costs, Benefits and Sustainability of Interventions to Protect and Promote Health.