You see them in museums and stately homes, beautifully handcrafted and perched on solid oak foundations: old globes. The care and attention that went into them is always evident, even though Antarctica is usually missing and quite a few coastlines are drawn with a fair bit of artistic license. But the really impressive thing about them is that every single one that was made before 1946 was made by someone who had never seen our planet. They are an astonishing tribute to the power of deduction: measurements had been made and maps had been drawn by thousands of explorers over centuries, but no-one had ever seen Earth. In 1946, a V2 rocket went up and came straight back down again, having taken the first ever photos of us from space. It wasn’t until 1959 that any photos were taken from orbit. Humanity didn’t know what its home looked like.
Move forward 70 years, and the difference is startling. Our blue marble is surrounded by orbiting eyes, and we can’t imagine not knowing where we live. I think of us as each having three life support systems: our body, our planet and our civilization. These satellite eyes are constantly keeping watch on the second of the three: the Earth. From our modern perspective, we can see both the grandeur of our planet and its limitations. It’s evident that it’s a system – the oceans, atmosphere, biology, rocks and the ice all forming an interlinked and dynamic mosaic. And the oceans (the focus of the course Monitoring the Oceans from Space) are at the heart of it.
How can satellites help?
The problem with the oceans is that they are very much “there” and not “here”. It’s easy for us to forget about them because we necessarily live on land. But these vast expanses of blue are varied and dynamic; this is an engine of stunning subtlety. That’s why the rapid advancement of satellite technology is so important – it’s the only way we have of monitoring the whole picture, of supplying a constant stream of information that makes up, at least partly, for not being able to be everywhere at once.
This technology has come along at a crucial time, because our civilization is changing our planet in measureable ways. These two life support systems, planet and civilization, have come into conflict and we’re going to have to manage the outcome. Policy-makers, businesses and individual citizens all need to know what’s going on in order to plan for the future. The oceans are the hardest of all to bring to public attention, because they’re the hardest to see. There are two tasks: understanding how the ocean engine works now, and understanding how it might change in the future. Satellites have brought incredible advances in our understanding of the oceans, and their potential is only just starting to be realized.
Can everyone explore the oceans?
To be effective, to give humanity the perspective that it needs for competent stewardship of our planet, information about our oceans has to be available to everyone. This is the boldest and best aim of this EUMETSAT course: to open the door to everyone who is interested and to let them investigate satellite monitoring of the oceans, and the original data, for themselves. This is the perfect moment for it: the EU’s Copernicus network of earth observation satellites is reaching maturity, and the latest new satellite in the team (Sentinel 3A) is just starting to send data home.
As we filmed the interviews and toured the facilities that are explored in this course, the greatest privilege was to meet the many enthusiastic and knowledgeable scientists, engineers and technical advisors who are part of the Copernicus family. There are the people who design and launch the satellites, those who manage the vast amounts of data coming in, and the scientists working to turn that data into knowledge. Together, these are people who come to work to watch the world. They may never get to low-Earth orbit themselves, to see our planet from space with their own eyes. But they come as close to it as is possible while still being able to see their family regularly and to take the dog for a run in the morning. Best of all, they’re all committed to sharing the perspective that they have. They believe that the ability to monitor our oceans is one of the most important tools that society has, and they are open and enthusiastic about making best use of that tool. That’s why a major part of this course is the interviews, letting you hear about the importance and use of this data from those who know it best. And it’s these experts who will teach the you how to access the satellite data yourself, whether it’s for scientific purposes or just because it’s fascinating.
I really enjoyed the conversations that I had as we made this course, and it opened my eyes to the speed at which this mountain of data is becoming accessible. The oceans are such an important part of our future, and a realistic perspective on them is essential. We may not all be able to go to sea, or to go into orbit to look back at the blue, but we can all explore the oceans from space.
Discover more about observing our oceans, and get to grips with the EUMETSAT satellites. Join Monitoring the Oceans from Space now.
Article also posted here.