Driving change: leveraging European satellites for Arctic preservation and climate action

Earth observation technologies help us understand the consequences of climate change, and enable a deeper understanding of the Arctic environment.

By Mercator Ocean International

Mercator Ocean International (MOi) is a non-profit organisation, in the process of transforming into an intergovernmental organisation, providing ocean science-based services of general interest focused on the conservation and the sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources.

06 Nov 2023

The European space sector is a leader in many important areas, such as earth observation. European satellites help us to combat climate change, find effective measures in disaster situations and provide evidence for war crimes. Programmes such as CopernicusEGNOS and Galileo provide a quality of data that is unique worldwide.

Earth observation-based technologies not only help us better understand the consequences of climate change in the long term, but are also used in acute disaster situations. In the event of natural disasters, earth observation data providers, or equivalents, share data with emergency and rescue forces and support them with real-time situation information. 

The Arctic region, for example, is experiencing the detrimental impacts of climate change at an alarming rate, with temperatures rising four times faster than the global average. The Arctic's heightened vulnerability demands our vigilant attention.

The European Union's updated Arctic policy, unveiled on 13 October 2021, is a crucial step towards preserving the Arctic ecosystem, mitigating the adverse effects of climate change, and promoting sustainable development in this fragile region. This policy aligns seamlessly with the goals set forth in the EU Green Deal and is essential for safeguarding our geopolitical interests in the Arctic.

MEP Nienass
MEP Niklas Nienass (Greens/EFA, DE)

To achieve these objectives, the implementation of the EU's Arctic policy is paramount. It not only demonstrates our commitment to combatting climate change but also positions the EU as a responsible and proactive actor on the global stage. The policy recognises that a deep understanding of the Arctic environment is essential for effective governance of the polar regions. Ocean knowledge, derived from continuous observations, meticulous measurements, and advanced ocean forecasting, is a cornerstone of such efforts.

This data empowers us to make informed decisions, protect the Arctic's delicate ecosystems, and foster sustainable development. Entities entrusted by the European Commission with the implementation of the Copernicus Marine Service and the Arctic thematic hub, such as Mercator Ocean International, offer ocean intelligence and services to support EU Arctic policy.

By cross-fertilising Copernicus services, the Copernicus Arctic hub aims to develop a new data portfolio, and new types of use for it, with the objective of providing a comprehensive service for the Arctic and its communities.

But we must do more to ensure that this data can be used. We must make sure that data collected in space is freely and easily accessible. We need to expand co-operation in science, especially in the field of education and training. And we need funding opportunities for young companies. The so-called downstream market, the evaluation and economic use of space data, offers first-class potential for start-ups and SMEs. Here, programs must be set up to ensure that a European space industry can develop. As a first step, we are awaiting a respective strategy on space data uptake from the European Commission to address the concrete needs of the market share.

Both I, and my colleagues at the European Parliament, are committed to championing these principles, and we look forward to working collaboratively to address the critical challenges facing the Arctic and our planet as a whole.

Copernicus as a cornerstone of the EU Arctic Policy

The Arctic is under pressure from rising global temperatures and increasing geopolitical interests. Accurate Copernicus programme data ensures policy ambitions to forge a new era of international co-operation in the region are a success.

Recent research indicates that the Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the rest of the planet since 1979.[i] Melting sea ice is exposing the Arctic to new pressures, including rising geopolitical and economic interests from various states, particularly regarding resources and transport routes. The changing Arctic climate could therefore potentially put at stake two decades of peaceful co-operation and ‘Arctic exceptionalism' enabled by the Arctic Council.

This backdrop of emerging challenges, alongside rapid and dramatic changes in the Arctic Ocean and its ecosystems, and the impacts of these changes on both the global climate and local Arctic inhabitants, calls for international co-operation and science diplomacy. The European Union has put forward a comprehensive Arctic policy that asserts its priorities: addressing the effects of climate change, safeguarding the Arctic environment, supporting sustainable development and fostering international co-operation.

Pierre Bahurel CEO of Mercator Ocean International
Pierre Bahurel is the CEO of Mercator Ocean International

The updated version of the EU’s Arctic policy, published in October 2021, establishes a clear link with the environmental targets outlined in the European Green Deal while highlighting the EU’s commitment to pursue Arctic research and strengthen the polar research community.

As a territory characterised by extreme conditions and covering more than 15m square kilometres, the Arctic region presents us with formidable challenges: this is where earth observation technology plays a critical role.

Indeed, it comes as no surprise that EU Arctic policy places great importance on Copernicus, the earth observation component of the European space programme. Copernicus delivers information collected from its space and ground-based components, which is also processed into ocean simulation systems. The programme operates through six thematic services: atmosphere, marine, land, climate, emergency and security. Thanks to the four services focused on the environment (atmosphere, marine, land and climate) we can rely on a holistic perspective on the Arctic.

As the entity in charge of the implementation of the Copernicus Arctic hub, Mercator Ocean International plays a key role in providing Copernicus Arctic data on a free, full and open basis to a diversified set of users. This data concerns numerous variables related to sea and land ice, along with other environmental variables that find several applications, ranging from the enhancement of maritime safety and navigation to the monitoring of climate change and its potential impact on ecosystems. The Copernicus Marine Service provides ocean monitoring and forecasting services that combine satellite data with in situ data in powerful numerical models and new digital twins to provide monitoring and prediction capability below the surface.

The increasingly central role that Copernicus plays in the Arctic will be the focus of a dedicated event organised by Mercator Ocean International and MEP Niklas Nienass at the European Parliament on 7 December.

I look forward to opening the event with MEP Nienass, who kindly accepted our invitation to host, and to accompanying the audience on a journey to discover the untapped potential of “Europe’s eyes on Earth” in supporting the main priorities of EU Arctic policy. For the occasion, we have invited illustrious speakers directly engaged in Arctic policymaking and in the workings of the Copernicus programme.

To conclude, it is evident that the Arctic represents the best example of inter-service co-operation within Copernicus, and I wholeheartedly commend the dedicated efforts of the entities entrusted with this vital work.

By actively contributing to the EU Arctic policy with Copernicus data, we ensure that our hard work and dedication find their fullest meaning. The Arctic, far from being merely a frozen wilderness, could represent the stage of a new era of international co-operation, with Copernicus serving as its cornerstone. 

Learn more at the upcoming event “Copernicus Data at the service of the EU Arctic Policy” in the Members Salons, European Parliament (Brussels) | 7 December 2023, 12:30 – 15:00. Register here.

[i] https://www.nature.com/articles/s43247-022-00498-3