As COP28 heats up, a close-up look at the massive European earth observatory program 25 years after its creation, with its disturbing monthly reports of a planet that has gotten hotter than ever.
PARIS — The monthly Copernicus bulletin has become a regular news event.
In early August, amid summer heatwaves around the Northern Hemisphere, Copernicus — the Earth Observation component of the European Union's space program — sent out a press release confirming July as the hottest month ever recorded. The news had the effect of a (climatic) bomb. Since then, alarming heat records have kept coming, including the news at the beginning of November, when Copernicus Climate Change Service deputy director Samantha Burgess declared 2023 to be the warmest year on record ”with near certainty.”
Approaching the dangerous threshold set by the Paris Agreement, the global temperature has never been so high: 1.43°C (2.57°F) higher than the pre-industrial average of 1850-1900 and 0.10°C (0.18°F) higher than the average of 2016 (warmest year so far). Burgess, a marine geochemistry researcher who previously served as chief advisor for oceans for the UK government, knows that the the climate data gathered by Copernicus is largely driving the negotiations currently underway at COP28 in Dubai.
She confirmed for Les Echos that December is also expected to be warmer than the global average due to additional heat in sea surfaces, though there is still more data to collect. “Are the tipping points going to be crossed in 2023,?" she asked. "Or is it just a very warm year part of the long-term warming trend varying from one year to the next?”
Launched in the wake of the Kyoto Protocol
Until recently it was best known to the world's weather forecasters, specialized agencies and researchers. Now Copernicus is coming out of the shadows in time for its 25th anniversary. In 1998, when launched in the wake of the Kyoto Protocol on environmental protection, the European program was only an obscure acronym among others in the jungle of European acronyms: GMES for Global Monitoring for Environment and Security.
Over time, it expanded to include six services managed by different agencies or organizations, each monitoring one key aspect of our planet. Copernicus now provides hundreds of products (maps, bulletins, simulations, etc.) to tens of thousands of users: departments and agencies of the European Commission, weather services, NGOs, companies and scientists around the world.
The 16th-century Polish scientist was the first to defend the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun.
It was not until 2011, after years of discussion, that the program was renamed Copernicus, a reference to the famous 16th-century Polish scientist, the first to defend the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not the inverse. The Heliocentric thesis was confirmed a century later by Italian astronomer Galileo, who gave his name to the other major European Union space program, intending to replace the American GPS with a European radio navigation system.
Copernicus and Galileo are key operational projects for the European Commission, with a budget of 5.4 billion euros for Copernicus over the 2021-2027 period.
European satellite, Sentinel-1B, being launched on April 25, 2016
Satellite costs and benefits
What makes these programs so expensive? The space aspect, of course. Satellites are essential to observe the Earth in all its components, from the state of the soil to that of the atmosphere, including oceans, ice floes and catastrophic phenomena — and even demographic developments and human migrations.
Jean-Noël Thépaut, head of Copernicus' Climate Change and Atmosphere Monitoring Services, explains that more than 90% of the data used to feed the models about the impact of global warming, comes from their systems. "The rest comes from in situ measuring instruments such as drifting buoys and Argo beacons for oceans, grounds sensors or weather balloons in the air," Thépaut said. "Those are managed by the program member countries’ meteorological and environmental agencies."
To collect the data feeding the models and products provided to Copernicus users, the program first relied on non-European satellites (United States, Japan, Canada, etc.), Earth observation satellites from the European Space Agency (ERS and Envisat) and the Earth Explorer mission, before truly launching its operational phase in 2014 with its own family of satellites, the Sentinel 1 to 6, intended to observe the planet under all its aspects, and without interruption…To compensate for future failures and further improve the data, a new generation of Sentinel is being built and will be launched starting in 2032. Pierre Potin, head of the Copernicus office of the European Space Agency (ESA), said that with the Sentinel Expansions missions developing, they'll expand from six Sentinel families to 12 in the coming years. "Everything is done to ensure the continuity of observations," he said.
Primordial measurement of the cryosphere
The new satellite called Cristal which is intended to measure not only the thickness of sea ice but also that of the snow covering it, as well as the evolution of ice caps and glaciers, is expected be put into orbit in 2027. In the meantime, cryosphere researchers can still count on the exploration satellite Cryosat, launched by ESA in 2010, which was not intended to last more than five years. After being put on hold due to a fuel leak, ESA succeeded in switching to an emergency propulsion system on Nov. 21, allowing it to keep providing data for the years to come.
This is a relief for scientists, says Andy Shepherd, head of Department of Geography and Environment at Northumbria University and Senior Scientific Advisor for Cyrosat and Cristal missions. “Years of missing data would have been a serious problem for the scientific community studying and measuring the evolution of the cryosphere," he said. "Especially at a time when we are witnessing a dramatic acceleration in the melting of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets and Himalayan glaciers.”
Another highly anticipated satellite, Sentinel7 or CO2M (for CO2 monitoring mission) will measure, with unprecedented resolution, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, those produced by human activity, close to the ground where they come from, and not higher in the atmosphere. Vincent-Henri Peuch, director of the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS), explains the impact: "We will finally be able to provide information on actual greenhouse gas emissions that is consistent with atmospheric observations, with a resolution of a few kilometers."
Today, global warming is no longer debated. What matters is how quickly we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, hence the need to have reliable information to see the impact of the measures taken and know whether they are effective or not. “We have seen in the past how an idea that seemed good for the climate, like wood heating, turned out to be harmful in terms of air quality and public health,” says Thépaut. “Our role is therefore to help public authorities and businesses in their choice of energy policy to avoid unforeseen perverse effects.’
To try to predict tomorrow’s weather, you must first know yesterday’s weather.
All the data collected also allows for documenting the “global stocktake,” a part of the Paris Agreement intended to assess the progress of all countries concerning its objectives, implemented for the first time this year. “Every five years, a progress report will be carried out on each country’s greenhouse gas emissions," explains Peuch.
A scientist working on Sentinel-2A
At the top of modeling
The arrival of the new Sentinel satellites will further strengthen Copernicus’ place in the firmament of Earth observation heavyweights, NASA and NOAA , the American Oceanic and Atmospheric Observation Agency. "In the latest IPCC report, Copernicus was cited more than 200 times," notes Jean-Noël Thépaut, who is leaving his position as director at the end of the year.
What sets the program apart is its capacity for “reanalysis,” a concept that comes from meteorological science. It involves combining all the information already known before establishing a forecast, because to try to predict tomorrow’s weather you must first know yesterday’s weather.
From the start, the principle of open data was established, despite the mass of high-value-added products and services provided by the program. A study commissioned by the European Commission in 2017 also put a price on all the benefits generated by Copernicus for intermediate and end users: from 67 to 135 billion euros by 2035, i.e. 10 to 20 times the cost of the program.
“Free access is a good plan to facilitate the development of green economy businesses, and then the contributor has already paid for the program,” says Thépaut. Still, this question continues to be debated, with some demanding that European users get privileged access. This could offer a deserved competitive edge in the green sector over countries like Russia or China.