Satellite Data Continuity: Hero or Achilles Heel?

Average thickness of Arctic sea ice in spring as measured by CryoSat between 2010 and 2015. Image courtesy of ESA/CPOM

Average thickness of Arctic sea ice in spring as measured by CryoSat between 2010 and 2015. Image courtesy of ESA/CPOM

One of satellite remote sensing’s greatest strengths is the archive of historical data available, allowing researchers to analyse how areas change over years or even decades – for example, Landsat data has a forty year archive. It is one of the unique aspects of satellite data, which is very difficult to replicate by other measurement methods.

However, this unique selling point is also proving an Achilles Heel to industry as well, as highlighted last week, when a group of 179 researchers issued a plea to the European Commission (EC) and the European Space Agency (ESA) to provide a replacement for the aging Cryosat-2 satellite.

Cryosat-2 was launched in 2010, after the original Cryosat was lost during a launch failure in 2005, and is dedicated to the measurement of polar ice. It has a non sun-synchronous low earth orbit of just over 700 km with a 369 day ground track cycle, although it does image the same areas on Earth every 30 days. It was originally designed as three and half year mission, but is still going after six years. Although, technically it has enough fuel to last at least another five years, the risk of component failure is such that researchers are concerned that it could cease to function at any time

The main instrument onboard is a Synthetic Aperture Interferometric Radar Altimeter (SIRAL) operating in the Ku Band. It has two antennas that form an interferometer, and operates by sending out bursts of pulses at intervals of only 50 microseconds with the returning echoes correlated as a single measurement; whereas conventional altimeters send out single pulses and wait for the echo to return before sending out another pulse. This allows it to measure the difference in height between floating ice and seawater to an accuracy of 1.3cm, which is critical to measurement of edges of ice sheets.

SIRAL has been very successful and has offered a number of valuable datasets including the first complete assessment of Arctic sea-ice thickness, and measurements of the ice sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland. However, these datasets are simply snapshots in time. Scientists want to continue these measurements in the coming years to improve our understanding of how sea-ice and ice sheets are changing.

It’s unlikely ESA will provide a follow on satellite, as their aim is to develop new technology and not data continuity missions. This was part of the reason why the EU Copernicus programme of Sentinel satellites was established, whose aim is to provide reliable and up to date information on how our planet and climate is changing. The recently launched Sentinel-3 satellite can undertake some of the measurements of Cryosat-2, it is not a replacement.

Whether the appeal for a Cryosat-3 will be heard is unclear, but what is clear is thought needs to be given to data continuity with every mission. Once useful data is made available, there will be a desire for a dataset to be continued and developed.

This returns us to the title of the blog. Is data continuity the hero or Achilles Heel for the satellite remote sensing community?

A Few Days In Portland: Phytoplankton, Sea Ice and Cake!

Early morning photograph of Portland, Maine

Early morning photograph of Portland, Maine

As I talked about in my last blog, this week I’m attending the Ocean Optics XXII Conference in Portland, Maine in the USA. I arrived last Thursday and spent the weekend at a two day pre-conference meeting entitled ‘Phytoplankton Composition From Space’; where we discussed techniques for mapping phytoplankton – the microscopic plants in the ocean.

The smallest phytoplankton taxa (group) are the single celled cyanobacteria known as blue-green algae, they are an ancient life form with a fossil remains of over 3.5 billion years old. They can be mapped from space using ocean colour satellites which measure a signal based on the scattering and absorption of light within the ocean. This enables Earth observation to map the total biomass, via the concentration of the main pigment that’s normally Chlorophyll, and also get a glimpse into which taxa are present.

Understanding the concentration, and diversity, of phytoplankton is valuable as they play a key role in climate processes by absorbing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. In addition, they are the very essence of the bottom of the food chain, as they are eaten by zooplankton, who in turn are eaten by small fish and so on. Therefore, significant changes in the concentration or diversity of phytoplankton may have ripple effects through the aquatic food chain. The film Ocean Drifters provides an overview of the role of plankton in the ocean.

The conference itself began on Monday and we’ve had a number of interesting and varied presentations, but I’ve particularly enjoyed two plenary sessions. The first was by Don Perovich, of the Thayer School of Engineering looking at the impact of sunlight on sea ice in the artic. The brightness of sea ice determines the amount of light reflected back to space. If the ice is older, and hence snow covered, then it’s bright white whilst ice that’s melting is much darker due to the pools of water and so absorbs more sunlight. Therefore, there is a positive link between melting ice causing ice to melt quicker. In the Artic, sea ice reaches a minimum in September and causes an increase in melting. There is a scientific analysis on Arctic sea ice conditions here.

The second plenary was given by Johnathan Hair from NASA Langley Research Centre, presenting a paper co-authored with his colleague Yongziang Hu and Michael Behrenfeld from Oregon State University. It focussed on using lasers for mapping vertical profiles throughout the water column from space and applications for inland waters, and how this might be used in global ocean plankton research. Regular readers of the blog will know this is topic is something that particularly interests me, and I have previously written about the subject.

Tuesday morning was eventful, as the conference venue was evacuated just as the first session was starting, due to a strong smell of gas. I took the unexpected networking opportunity, and to catch up with one of my former colleagues over a coffee. Thankfully, we were let back into the venue a couple of hours later, and everything went ahead with a bit of rescheduling. My plenary session on Crowdfunding Ocean Optics went ahead in the afternoon, and seemed to generate a good level of interest. I had lot of questions within the session, and a number of people sought me out during the rest of the day to discuss the idea and the project.

I’ve really enjoyed my time in Portland, and have found a fantastic coffee shop and bakery – Bam Bam Bakery on Commercial Street – which I highly recommend! I’m looking forward to the rest of the week.