Monitoring glaciers from space to mitigate the effects of climate change

Scaling up the global response to address the climate emergency through a just and equitable transition is now a priority on the agendas of governments around the world. The theme is at the center of the UN COP26 (Conference of the Parties), which brings together 197 nations in Glasgow (31 October – 12 November 2021) to assess the current state of climate change, in accordance with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of Agenda 2030. In the same spirit, our exploration of Leonardo’s satellite technology and its use continues through the Telespazio and e-GEOS2021 Love Planet Earth calendar which, during the month of October, focuses on monitoring glaciers, a crucial factor – linked to the fight against global warming – which is very relevant to the United Nations SDG 13 Agenda 2030: Climate action.

Svalbard, Norway. Sentinel-2 © ESA (2020). Processed by e-GEOS


Love Planet Earth Calendar – Plans associated with October 2021

The Svalbard Islands are in the Arctic Ocean. The satellite image provided by Sentinel-2 shows us an area northwest of the archipelago where we can see all the states of the hydrosphere: water, ice and clouds. The National Geographic photo shows an old water pipe near Ny-Ålesund on the Svalbard Islands, deformed by subsidence caused by melting permafrost that threatens its stability. Space technology makes a fundamental contribution to protecting the Arctic and the delicate balance on which it depends. Leonardo plays an important role in international programs dedicated to the region, through the manufacture of satellites alongside Thales Alenia Space, in data acquisition, services and applications with Telespazio and e-GEOS, and developing sensors – the “eyes” of satellites – many of which are created in Leonardo’s labs.

Developing the potential of space technologies to support sustainable development is one of the pillars of the Be Tomorrow – Leonardo 2030 Strategic Plan and the Leonardo Sustainable Development Plan.

We talked about it with Luca Pietranera, responsible for the development of innovative products and services at e-GEOS.

Luca Pietranera


What can satellites do to monitor melting glaciers and the cryosphere in general?

For several decades, satellites have enabled us not only to provide a continuous image of ice cover, but also to identify multi-year cycles and variation trends, separating them from seasonal variations. These are the Arctic and Antarctic, environments without limits that can be understood in detail thanks to the “eyes” of satellites capable of monitoring, in a total and impartial manner, areas difficult to access by. ground route. Many satellite systems have been monitoring the cryosphere since the 1970s, starting with microwave radiometers installed on various satellites that daily measure sea ice in the Arctic, signaling its drastic reduction (from a summer low of nearly 9 million square kilometers in the 1970s to around 6 million in recent years). Without forgetting the most sophisticated altimeters of the NASA-IceSAT and ESA-CryoSAT missions which – with different radar and laser technologies – measure the thickness of the sea ice (Arctic) and land ice caps (Antarctica and Greenland) on a monthly basis, allowing us to ” assess how melting ice has contributed to sea level rise.

What sets e-GEOS services apart?

Although climate change is a global phenomenon, its effects are distributed differently on the surface of our planet. In general, for arctic regions, we speak of Arctic amplification, including a greater sensitivity of the Arctic to major drivers of climate change (such as the concentration of greenhouse gases), which results in average temperature growth at a rate about double the global average . Likewise, some relatively small areas of the planet influence climate change globally. One example is the Fram Strait area, the passage between the Svalbard archipelago and Greenland. Through this area, only a few hundred kilometers wide, passes all the arctic ice that flows into the North Atlantic Ocean. The variations in this glacial flow have a dramatic influence on the global climate as they contribute to the rise in sea level and the decrease in the salinity of the oceans, with a significant impact on the delicate balance that regulates the world circulation. , like currents like the Gulf Stream. And this is where e-GEOS comes in, developing solutions for the in-depth and frequent monitoring of these critical areas, thanks to the use of the Italian constellation of COSMO-SkyMed satellites, owned by the Italian Space Agency and of the Ministry of Defense. For nearly five years, the Fram Strait has been observed twice a day, documenting variations over time and highlighting the close links between the different ecosystems (atmosphere and sea). Another effect is that associated with the National Geographic photo; melting permafrost – the permanently frozen layer of soil that is found no less than a few meters deep in the subsoil of various areas at high latitude or high altitude. Here, e-GEOS can map greenhouse gases (especially methane) released by thawing permafrost through the use of the European mission ESA Sentinel-5P. Likewise, COSMO-SkyMed radar satellites can measure ground movements to centimeters or even millimeters, providing a fundamental tool for monitoring infrastructure and urban areas (such as Yellowknife in northern Canada or many cities and factories in Siberia. ) that are subject to land subsidence and instability caused by thawing permafrost.

What else can this satellite data be used for?

As a consequence of global warming and the shrinking of the Arctic ice cap, the North Seas are becoming increasingly easier to navigate, hence the importance of providing satellite support to this new route, both in terms of safety and monitoring of environmental phenomena occurring there. .

e-GEOS recently supported an Italian Navy science mission sailing the arctic waters north of the Svalbard archipelago, while two years ago we provided similar support to an Italian sailor who sailed on the arctic route from Japan to Norway using our solutions. In these two examples, satellite data – acquired at very close intervals in areas where the boat was expected to arrive in the next 24/48 hours – were used to predict the environmental dynamics along the route, as well as the number of icebergs present, their movement and direction. All of this is done through the platforms and services offered by e-GEOS using satellite applications that can deliver this information in an accurate and timely manner.

As climate change is influenced by multiple factors, the more we develop long-term monitoring trends, the more possibilities we have to predict and extrapolate with precision what will happen in the future thanks to predictive and preventive logics. At the same time, technological developments offer us increasingly sophisticated and precise solutions. For example, the recently launched Sentinel-6 satellite will provide us with very precise measurements of sea level and its variations, not only in the open sea, but also near the coast, where the effect of global climate change interacts with the dynamics. (such as tides) whose impact ranges from general sea level rise to coastal erosion.

Finally, it is important to note that satellites can monitor any point on Earth, so the same solutions for monitoring arctic ice can help formulate predictive analyzes in several areas, such as agricultural crops. For countries like China, Japan and Thailand which base part of their economies on rice, this is crucial; satellite monitoring makes it possible to formulate increasingly precise predictive models of harvests, months before they occur, thanks to the use of images and data.

For more information on Earth observation technologies and solutions, read our other interviews.

Discover the Love Planet Earth 2021 calendar

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