• Kartik Verma

Monitoring climate change from Space!

Updated: May 26


A very happy new year to you all! Welcome back from the break! We are super excited to be on this journey with you in 2022 and want to share some plans for the year ahead and share stories on today’s theme - Space!


What to expect today:


2022 Roadmap for 'the planet optimist'

Image Source: Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

We started the newsletter in September last year and the response has been great so far! We are now a community of 330+ climate enthusiasts :) While the newsletter will remain as the primary means of sharing wonderful stories from around the world, we are planning to experiment with a few different things in the newsletter. These include:

  • New revamped design - as you might have noticed in this edition - tell us if you liked it here! (We are moving to a platform called ‘Revue’ to better track performance of the newsletter and now archives also sit online here)

  • Interviews - We are planning to interview sustainability experts working within companies to get their perspective on how they are tackling climate change in their companies (if you have any leads and can connect us to someone, please reach out to kartikv@umich.edu)

  • Community editors - in the past we’ve had readers reach out to contribute to this newsletter; starting this year, if there is any particular story that you want to contribute to the newsletter as an editor or otherwise, then please reach out here!)

  • A referral program - so that you can add your friends and get cool swag in return! (if all goes well then launching sometime in April)

  • Maybe an instagram page?

If you have any ideas on how to improve this newsletter then we would love to hear from you here! As always, if you like this initiative, please share it with your friends on LinkedIn here!


Monitoring climate change from space

Image: Carbon monoxide levels in the last 3 days collected by AQUA satellite Source: NASA

Today’s story is part of a three part series about monitoring climate change:

  • Part 1: Monitoring at a global scale (from space)

  • Part 2: Monitoring at an organization level

  • Part 3: Monitoring at an individual level


Tracking climate change from space


Over the past few decades, Earth observation satellites have given us an unprecedented view of our world and have become an essential tool for monitoring the changing climate. They are particularly useful for monitoring inaccessible areas such as the polar regions, where some of the changes to the climate are at their most extreme. These ‘remote sensors’ measure sea ice expanding and contracting, the slow melt of glaciers and the burn of wildfires, track clouds and aerosols as they move through the atmosphere, and nutrient and temperature patterns swirling through the oceans.


Determining forest cover


Forests are our best bets in tackling climate change and it's important that we not only monitor the size of forest cover but also the quality of forest cover. Forests help stabilize the climate worldwide by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. NASA’s ICEsat and LANDsat series of satellites have made it possible for scientists to develop maps showing the "quality" of tropical forests. Previous maps only focused on the size of a forest. These maps show forest quality as a single measurement, taking into account information like the height of trees, thickness of the forest canopy, and if logging, fire or a similar disturbance occurred. This information can help policy makers and conservationists take action on endangered forests to help protect our ecosystems.


How can climate satellites help businesses?


An example from Stuttgart, Germany: Stuttgart sits in a valley and on some days certain cars cannot drive through the area because the dust particles are too much for engines to handle if they’re not designed for it. This can prohibit some truck drivers from taking a route through Stuttgart.

Real-time data provided by ESA from its network of satellites can help inform decision making in the moment. Access to this data impacts logistics for supply chains and deliveries as well as the businesses on both ends of the transaction, not to mention the customers who may depend on having products such as N95 masks available.


Source: European Space Agency, Forbes, NASA


Eyes in the sky

Image: AQUA satellite Source: NASA

A brief history


Humans first started observing earth for climate change in 1960 with the successful launch of TIROS-1 by NASA; world’s first weather Satellite. (Side note - the first satellite ever though was launched by the Soviets; Sputnik - 1 in 1957). While the initial space era was dominated by military satellites (thanks to the cold war) but over time, the focus has shifted; today, there are around 162 satellites in space whose data is used in one form or the other in climate study.


Comparing countries


While there are 26 countries who have launched a combined of 162 climate satellites; the majority of them are dominated by 4 groups (which is not surprising as they are also the most active countries in terms of space launches):

  • NASA (USA): 30 satellites

  • ESA (Europe): 24 satellites

  • CNSA (China): 22 satellites

  • ISRO (India): 14 satellites

We would highly recommend you check out this cool interactive tool by NASA where you can actually visualize these satellites in orbit!


Deep-dive into AQUA


We were just curious to know exactly what each of these satellites measure and decided to dig deeper into one of them to see what sensors they have and the data they actually collect. For this we look at AQUA - a satellite by NASA launched on May 4, 2002 (did I select this based purely on the fact it was launched one day before my birthday? Maybe :P )

AQUA’s primary mission is to improve understanding of Earth’s water cycle by collecting information on ocean evaporation, atmospheric water vapor, clouds, rainfall, soil moisture and snow and ice cover. It has currently 5 (out of 6) operational instruments which have been collecting data for almost 20 years now:

  • AIRS - primarily measure temperature and humidity

  • AMSU - measure atmospheric temperature specifically

  • CERES - measures energy levels in the atmosphere and cloud properties

  • MODIS - Cloud properties, radiative energy and aerosol detection

  • AMSR - temperature, wind and ice and snow cover

You can check out all the datasets here.


Source:Carbon Brief, NASA, Wikipedia


Recommendations from the team

  • NASA - Check out interactive images of climate change

  • NASA - Check out the climate satellites currently observing earth (interactive webpage)

  • Netflix - Don’t Look Up - Satirical comedy movie using a comet as a metaphor for climate change (2hr 30min movie)




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