5 satellite images that show how our planet is changing

  • Satellite images can provide vital information on how our planet is changing and responding to global warming.
  • They can measure changes in sea level up to a milliliter or the temperature of the land and the ocean, so scientists can do a “health check.”
  • Below are 5 eye-opening satellite images showing how our planet is changing.
  • This information is essential to protect our planet and the systems we rely on for survival.

You’ve probably seen satellite images of the planet through apps like Google Earth. These provide a fascinating view of the planet’s surface from a unique perspective and can be both beautiful to look at and useful planning aids. But satellite observations can provide much more information than that. In fact, they are essential for understanding how our planet is changing and responding to global warming and can do more than just “take pictures”.

It’s really rocket science and the kind of information we can now get from so-called Earth observation satellites is revolutionizing our ability to perform a comprehensive and timely health check of the planetary systems we rely on. for our survival. We can measure changes in sea level down to one millimeter, changes in the amount of water stored in underground rocks, the temperature of the land and the ocean, and the spread of air pollutants and gases to greenhouse effect, all from space.

Here, I have selected five striking images that illustrate how Earth observation data inform climatologists about the changing characteristics of the planet we live in.

1. The sea level is rising – but where?

a color-coded map showing sea level trends

The sea rises quickly – but not evenly


Rising sea levels are expected to be one of the most serious consequences of global warming: in the more extreme “status quo” scenario, a two-meter rise would inundate 600 million people by the end of this period. century. The pattern of sea surface height change, however, is not uniform across the oceans.

This image shows the 13-year average sea level trends during which the global average rise was approximately 3.2 mm per year. But the rate was three or four times faster in some places, such as the South West Pacific east of Indonesia and New Zealand, where there are many small islands and atolls already very vulnerable to l sea ​​level rise. Meanwhile, in other parts of the ocean, sea level has barely changed, as in the Pacific west of North America.

a map showing thawing permafrost

When permafrost thaws, carbon and methane are released.

Image: ESA

Permafrost is permanently frozen ground and the vast majority is found in the Arctic. It stores huge amounts of carbon, but when it thaws, this carbon is released in the form of COâ‚‚ and an even more potent greenhouse gas: methane. Permafrost stores about 1.5 trillion tonnes of carbon – twice as much as in the atmosphere as a whole – and it is extremely important that the carbon stays in the soil.

This animation combines satellite, ground-based measurements of soil temperature, and computer modeling to map the temperature of permafrost deep in the Arctic and how it changes over time, giving an indication of where it is thawing.

3. Lockdown cleans the skies of Europe

an animation showing the difference in NOâ‚‚ concentrations in Europe before the start of national lockdowns linked to the pandemic in March 2020 and just after

This animation shows that the lockdown decreased the CO2 concentrations.

Image: ESA

Nitrogen dioxide is an air pollutant that can have serious health effects, especially for those with asthma or weakened lung function, and it can increase the acidity of precipitation with adverse effects on ecosystems. sensitive and plant health. A major source comes from internal combustion engines found in cars and other vehicles.

This animation shows the difference in NOâ‚‚ concentrations in Europe before the start of national lockdowns linked to the pandemic in March 2020 and just after. The latter shows a dramatic reduction in concentration on large agglomerations such as Madrid, Milan and Paris.

4. Deforestation in the Amazon

an animation showing the dramatic loss of rainforest in the western Brazilian state of Rondonia between 1986 and 2010, as observed by satellites

This is the dramatic loss of rainforest in the western Brazilian state of Rondonia between 1986 and 2010.

Image: ESA / USGS / Deimos Imaging

Rainforests have been described as the lungs of the planet, breathing in COâ‚‚ and storing it in woody biomass while exhaling oxygen. Deforestation in the Amazon has been in the news recently due to deregulation and increased land clearing in Brazil, but it has been happening, perhaps not so quickly, for decades. This animation shows the dramatic loss of rainforest in the western Brazilian state of Rondonia between 1986 and 2010, as observed by satellites.

5. An iceberg the size of a megalopolis

An animation showing the rupture of a huge iceberg named A-74, captured by satellite radar images

This animation shows the rupture of a huge iceberg called A-74, captured by satellite radar images.

Image: ESA

The Antarctic ice sheet contains enough frozen water to raise the world’s sea level by 58 meters if it all ended in the ocean. The floating ice shelves that line the continent act as a buffer and barrier between the warm ocean and inland ice, but they are vulnerable to oceanic and atmospheric warming.

Climate change is an urgent threat requiring decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts and floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit the rise in global temperature to well below 2 ° C and as close as possible to 1.5 ° C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policymakers and civil society implement global climate actions in the short and long term. in line with the objectives of the Paris agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum’s Climate Initiative supports scaling up and accelerating global climate action through collaboration between the public and private sectors. The Initiative works across multiple lines of work to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions for the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policymakers and partner companies to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of creating a safer climate.

Contact us to get involved.

This animation shows the rupture of a huge iceberg called A-74, captured by satellite radar images which have the advantage of being able to “see” through the clouds and to operate day and night and are therefore not affected by the 24 hours of darkness that the Antarctic winter. The iceberg that forms covers an area of ​​1270 km², roughly the same size as Greater London.

These examples illustrate just a few ways in which satellite data provides unique global observations of key components of the climate system and the biosphere that are essential for understanding how the planet is changing. We may use this data to monitor these changes and improve the models used to predict future changes. In the run-up to the vitally important United Nations climate conference, COP26 in Glasgow in November, my colleagues and I have produced a background paper to highlight the role that Earth observation satellites will play. Earth in safeguarding the climate and other systems we rely on to make this beautiful, fragile planet habitable.

About Lucille Thompson

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