Sustainable Energy

How satellites are helping to fight climate change

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
Tackling climate change from outer space

They may be many, many miles up in the air, but satellites have a vital role to play when it comes to analysing our planet and its climate.

In the U.S., for example, NASA says it has over a dozen "Earth science" spacecraft and instruments in orbit, and is conducting research on everything from solar activity to rising sea levels, air pollution and "changes in sea ice and land ice."

The European Space Agency (ESA), based in Paris, is also keen to stress just how important the relationship between space and our climate is.

"The data we get from space in influencing people about climate change is very, very important," Philip Haines, the European Space Agency's head of telecom business development, told CNBC's Sustainable Energy.

The ESA says that climate change is arguably "the greatest challenge facing mankind in the 21st century," and for Haines, the data gathered from up in the heavens is invaluable.

"(A) picture tells 1,000 words, and having a picture of the arctic ice shrinking so you can see how it's changing is much more powerful than going off and having some measurements that you make (in) a report just in a table or a document," Haines added.

To give just one example, at the end of last year radar observations from ESA satellites were used to inform a study which showed that a glacier in Greenland was losing "five billion tonnes of ice a year to the ocean."

But it's not just changes to our planet that satellites are monitoring.

"The satellites are offering a new way of looking at farming production, energy generation and general global conservation by giving a global view of vegetation and water, and atmosphere and climate," the ESA's Ian Downey said.

Satellites were offering farmers, agronomists (who study the science of using food for different purposes) and food producers efficiencies of production, harvest and transportation, Downey added.

They were "also providing important information about the energy resources from the wind from the sun and from biomass fuels," he said.