Photo credit  |  Modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2016), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

History of Earth Observation in the UK – with plenty more cutting-edge climate science in the pipeline!

06 October, 2021  |  Reading time: 8 minutes

As the UK plays a leading role in three new Earth observation climate missions in space, we look at our pioneering record in space-enabled technological advancements.

UK pioneers have led the way in building a global community that holds the key to protecting our environment throughout the surprisingly long history of the science of Earth Observation (EO).

From designing and building satellites to taking the most accurate measurements of our environment ever gathered, to piecing together 100-year-old weather records rescued from dusty archives, UK science and technology are underpinning climate data to help the world.

Earth observation (EO) – the collection and analysis of information collected by instruments looking at the Earth, most recently from space – is crucial to measuring, monitoring and addressing climate change. Space4Climate brings together the UK’s thriving climate data from space community.

Leading the way in climate science

UK climate scientists, leading research institutions and UK-based industries are currently working on three exciting new satellites that are due to be launched over the next five years:

MicroCarb – a French-UK climate data mission and the first European satellite dedicated to measuring Carbon Dioxide (CO2) – the main greenhouse gas (GHG) caused by human activity and a key contributor to climate change.

Biomass – a UK and European Space Agency partnership that will be the first satellite to study the world’s forests in 3-dimensions, providing exceptionally accurate maps of tropical, temperate and boreal forest biomass.

TRUTHS – the first UK Space Agency-led mission, the first calibration laboratory in space, that will upgrade the performance of the whole Earth Observation (EO) system.

Yet UK innovation is not just at the cutting-edge of climate science, it was the foundation as well, when in 1854 Rear Admiral Robert FitzRoy founded the Met Office. There have been many key milestones on the way, such as 1990 when world-renowned climate scientist Sir John Houghton was lead editor of the first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

International collaboration is key

What FitzRoy and Houghton both realised was that no one country could collect all the data necessary – whether at sea in the 1850s or in space in the 1990s.

Prof John Remedios is Director of the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) and a member of the Space4Climate Board. He says: “Earth observation has to be a global effort, it goes beyond political borders. The UK provided key leadership roles but we realised we were all in it together and had to collaborate.

“The main uses of the data are for weather forecasting, environmental science and climate services – the Met Office and NCEO are still at the forefront of that science and knowledge exchange.”

Dramatic increase in satellites collecting climate data

One of the earliest Earth observation satellite missions was NASA’s Landsat, which since 1972 has been continuously providing images of the Earth’s land surface. Now there are well over 700 EO satellites in orbit supplying information for weather forecasters, wildlife conservation, forestry, agriculture, natural disasters, humanitarian projects as well as climate science. The latest – Landsat 9 – was launched in September 2021.

In 1991 the first of the UK’s ATSR (Along Track Scanning Radiometer) instruments, inspired by Sir John Houghton, was launched on board the ESA European Remote Sensing satellite (ERS-1), recording digital infrared images of the Earth. It was tasked with providing consistent and accurate records of temperature from space, first for the sea and later for land. An enhanced version, ATSR-2 four years later, was also able to monitor vegetation from space and in 2002 the AATSR (Advanced Along Track Scanning Radiometer) was successfully launched. Today, the Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer (SLSTR) instruments on Sentinel satellites deliver the ATSR design operationally.

The ERS-1 satellite made 45,000 orbits between 1991 and 2000, digitally mapping the Earth’s surface in 3D, including remote regions that it would otherwise have been impossible to map. This led directly to the start of monitoring the thickness of polar ice and changes in the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica through the UK-led CryoSat mission, that celebrated 10 years in orbit in April 2020. This combination provides the longest unbroken record of this kind of ice sheet data.

In 1992 the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) was established, with the influential Science and Technology Committee, chaired by Sir John Houghton. To meet the need for the systematic observing and recording of climate, it developed the concept of Essential Climate Variables (ECVs) – physical, chemical or biological variables that critically contribute to the characterisation of the Earth’s climate. These provide us with a long-term picture of climate change at a global scale.

Dr Zofia Stott, former Programme & Impacts Manager at NCEO, who has worked in the EO industry since 1982, explains: “The ATSR instrumentation was way ahead of its time because it recognised the importance of satellite data for climate science. It was designed to be the best, the most accurate instrument ever. Sir John Houghton recognised that if you had these long time series of consistent data you could see how the climate was changing. That, ultimately, led to the ESA Climate Change Initiative and the European Copernicus Climate Change Service.”

UK shares data to help the world in addressing climate change

In the 2000s, UK scientists received significant boosts to funding from NERC, Defra and BEIS (then known as the Department of Energy & Climate Change) to establish high quality data sets. In 2008, NCEO was formed bringing together some of the UK’s top scientists in a new national capability to tackle the challenge of climate data through strategic research. International collaboration became an essential component.

ESA’s Climate Change Initiative (CCI) was established in 2009 to realise the full potential of the long-term global EO data that it and its member states have gathered over the past 40 years. ESA’s Climate Office is based in the UK, at the Harwell Space Cluster in Oxfordshire.

Of the 23 CCI datasets the UK has a major role in 16, sharing our climate data expertise with the world for the benefit of climate science and to support climate services.

We lead on producing six datasets: Sea Surface Temperature, Ice Sheets – Antarctica, Ocean Colour, Water Vapour, Biomass, Land Surface Temperature.

The UK provides a major contribution to a further 10: Aerosol, Cloud, Fire, Greenhouse Gases, Glaciers, Ice Sheets – Greenland, Lakes, Sea Ice, Sea Surface temperatures, Salinity and Snow.

UK climate expertise is also in demand for collaborations with international partners, for instance, the cutting-edge SWOT satellite (Surface Water and Ocean Topography). Due for launch in 2023, it will be the first time scientists can understand and monitor changing volumes of fresh water from space, and at an unprecedented resolution. SWOT is being developed by NASA and the French space agency CNES, in partnership with the Canadian Space Agency and the UK Space Agency.

Trusted data to inform crucial decisions for our planet

There are two main strands to climate data:

  • collecting the most up-to-date current meteorological and environmental data with as much detail and accuracy as possible
  • gathering as many historic and accurate measurements as possible to improve past records thereby informing future climate predictions.

Bringing the two together to create a detailed, accurate analysis enables climate scientists to provide trusted information on what the future could hold. These data inform crucial decisions being made around the world about how we protect lives, environments and natural resources globally from extremes of weather now, in a few years and further into the future.

The CCI datasets and the European EO programme, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), all provide open operational data. They are freely accessible but a level of technical capability is needed to translate the data into actionable climate information and/or climate services.

The climate data from space community – Space4Climate

The UK climate data from space community was formally brought together in February 2013 when the Government’s Space Innovation and Growth Strategy recommended that the UK should develop a strategy to secure leadership in technologies and services related to climate change validation, adaptation and mitigation. The recommendations to ‘… act quickly to develop operational climate-related information services including satellite and other observations and measurement data…’ and to  ‘…. establish a seamless supply chain for these services…’ were taken up by the UK Space Agency and integrated into its Earth Observation Strategy.

Now known as Space4Climate, our group is proud to bring together the current generation of leading UK players in EO to form our influential and ambitious community of academic, public, private and third sectors, committed to providing a seamless supply chain of verified, robust and trusted climate data from space.

Chaired by the UK Space Agency, our membership spans government, industry and academia, working in partnership to support and raise the profile of the UK’s world-leading climate science and services community.

As the UK prepares to take on presidency of COP26 – the world’s largest and most influential climate change conference – in November 2021, our expertise and ambition will be showcased to the world.

Prof Remedios says: “We have an amazing history in the UK, we are currently developing all these datasets and their user communities. We are also developing new missions BIOMASS, TRUTHS and MicroCarb to look at the Earth in ways that have not been done before, which in time will give us even more insight into the planet we live on.

“This isn’t the end of the story for the UK, we are building momentum and there is a lot more to come.”
Prof John Remedios, Director of the National Centre for Earth Observation

The UK space sector is at the forefront of global efforts to create and use trusted satellite data for climate action for all.

We do this through:

  • Climate Science – research into understanding our world from space and how it is changing, the fundamental importance being to learn what is happening to our world, and to be able to manage the impacts.
  • Climate Technology – the instrumentation and infrastructure to objectively monitor and measure Earth from space, enabling consistent and innovative data analytics, quality assurance and capacity-building.
  • Climate Action – enabling people to utilise data from space, to make it visible and meaningful through real-world, useful climate services for all

Further reading