Copernicus and Earth Observation’s Potential for the EU Environment

Illustration of the \Sentinel-3 satellite, developed by ESA for the Copernicus program. Image Credit: ESA.

The Sentinel-3 satellite is being developed by ESA for the Copernicus program. Image Credit: ESA.

“Environmental policy making depends on timely, accurate information about the state of our planet and predictions about its future.” With this sentence, the European Union’s Science for Environment Policy Future Brief sketches the vast importance of Earth observation programs like the EU-led initiative, Copernicus (previously known as Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, or GMES).

Copernicus aims to produce data to be used by national and local EU authorities for monitoring, modeling, forecasting and reporting while at the same time contributing to key EU-led initiatives like Resource-Efficient Europe, EU Environment Action Programme 2020, SEIS and INSPIRE. Copernicus is a joint effort with the European Space Agency (ESA), which is developing five new missions called Sentinels specifically for the operational needs of the Copernicus program. The Sentinel missions, to be launched this year, are based on a constellation of two satellites to fulfill revisit and coverage requirements, providing robust datasets for Copernicus Services. These missions carry a range of technologies, such as radar and multi-spectral imaging instruments for land, ocean and atmospheric monitoring.

Copernicus builds on a long history of efforts to advance Earth observation in Europe, dating back to 1998. Copernicus includes public and private sector partners and relies on them for data processing, conversion of observations to maps and provision of related services. This poses a challenge, since the long-term sustainability of many of those is not guaranteed. Other challenges include the integration of reliable ‘in situ’ data and linking to work carried out as part of the SEIS and INSPIRE initiatives. Copernicus focuses on Earth observation of the land, the oceans and the atmosphere.

Map showing spawning and feeding habitats of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean during the 2012-spawning season. The boxed (black) area represents proposed target areas for fishing; orange boxes represent spawning habitats. White areas indicate insufficient data. Image Credit: JRC.

Spawning and feeding habitats of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean during the 2012-spawning season. The boxed (black) area represents proposed target areas for fishing; orange boxes represent spawning habitats. White areas indicate insufficient data. Image Credit: JRC.

The GMES Initial Operation (GIO) provides the land-monitoring component, which addresses a wide range of environmental topics including soil, forests, ecosystems, biodiversity, water and waste. GIO Land ensures the continuity of CORINE Land Cover Data Series and will provide five new Pan-European land cover products with a spatial resolution of 20 meters and with a classification nomenclature that covers: artificial surfaces, forests, grasslands, wetlands and small bodies of water. In addition, a local component (like the Urban Atlas) will provide more detailed land cover information on specific areas of interest as well as a biodiversity component. One of the most important applications is the provision of land cover change information to be used in monitoring, planning, reporting and land-use modeling activities.

Observations of the oceans are carried out by the Marine Monitoring Service of Copernicus (operating under the MyOcean2 project). The service supports monitoring applications like toxic algal blooms, oil spills, eutrophication, sea ice thickness and conditions that determine habitats for marine species (that can provide input to sustainably manage fish stocks, identify areas for fish farming, protect species, etc.).

The Monitoring Atmospheric Composition and Climate Project is responsible for the atmospheric component of Copernicus. The project focuses on the combination of satellite sensor information with in-situ data (ground-level) in order to monitor air quality (atmospheric chemical composition, carbon dioxide, methane, etc.), greenhouse gas effects and forecast climate change. Applications based on this kind of information are already emerging (especially in the big cities and with the use of cutting-edge technologies).

Copernicus can greatly help to address issues related to the efficient handling of natural resources (such as raw materials, soil, biomass and ecosystems and even clean air) at a pan-European scale, according to the European Union’s Science for Environment Policy Future Brief. Given the plans and efforts related to Copernicus, a wealth of high-quality data sources is expected to emerge in the coming years. This will provide a basis for more applications for end users and more well-informed decisions by policymakers.

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