Sentinel – a new chapter in climate observation

Earth Observation (EO) satellites take millions of observations every day, supplying a global snapshot that is vital for weather forecasting. This week, the EO community is eagerly anticipating the launch of a new satellite, and the potential for a new era in EO itself – the first of the new Sentinel series of climate missions, part of the joint European Commission and ESA Copernicus programme.

Although we have been launching meteorological instruments into space since the middle of the 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that a large impact was seen on weather forecasting. This was when missions started to become operational, meaning that there was a commitment to flying the same instruments – and hence delivering consistent, continuous observations – on and on into the future. This led to a step change in the success of weather forecasts, and a multi-million pound industry in supplying weather information to the world.

We are about to see the same transformation happen for climate, writes Dr Debbie Clifford of the National Centre for Earth Observation, Department of Meteorology. Putting together climate records from satellites has been a challenge, not least because the instruments designed for understanding climate variables (in particular the land surface) have been flown on research missions with a limited life-span. That is about to change, with the launch of a new, ‘operational’ series of satellites called Sentinels. Due for launch on 3 April, Sentinel 1 is a radar mission designed to monitor key climate variables such as forests, soils and sea ice, and also provide support to emergency mapping following natural disasters, forecast of ice conditions and the mapping of oil spills.

This first Sentinel will be followed by a whole series of climate-observing missions: a mixture of polar-orbiting and geostationary platforms, with instruments for high-resolution mapping and large-scale monitoring of the land surface, atmosphere and oceans. As well as supporting our science, it is expected that the promise of consistent, reliable climate observations will encourage industry to develop new products and services to help society monitor and adapt to our changing climate. This is an exciting time for EO – fingers crossed for a successful launch!

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