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Climate Change and Geospatial Technology

by Yashwant Singh

"Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now."- Barack Obama, Former president U.S.A.

"We are the first generation to be able to end poverty and the last generation that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change."- Ban Ki-mon, Secretary General United Nations.

Climate change is not a problem but a threat to mankind, a threat to lives flourishing on this blue planet. This is a process that has happened throughout history. Below are some facts determining the severity of the problem.

  • April 2017 was the second-warmest April in 137 years of modern record-keeping, according to NASA‘s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS).
  • In 2016, Earth’s average surface temperature hit a record level for the third consecutive year since records began in 1880.
  • Arctic summer sea ice shrank to 4.14 million square kilometers (1.6 million square miles) in 2016 — the second-lowest after 2012, when it reached 3.39 million km2.
  • The Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer as early as 2030.

The term climate change is referred to the statistical properties of the climate system when considered over long periods of time. Accordingly, fluctuations over periods shorter than a few decades do not represent climate change.

Earth is heating up

The rise in the earth's temperature is remarkable in the last 100 years. The temperature of any planet depends on the balance between energy entering and leaving the planet system. If earth absorbs most of the incoming energy from the sun it becomes warmer and if the same energy is reflected back into space it avoids warming. So the climate change depends on this balancing act. There are numerous reasons for earth heating but human activity is the prime one. With the industrial revolution, we emitted lots of greenhouse gases which act as insulation for the earth and trap the heat. We can understand this by a simple statistic showing how carbon dioxide emission constantly increased in the last fifty years.
 

The 19th century witnessed a rise in planets average surface temperature by 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius).

Oceans are warming

Oceans cover 70% of the earth's surface. The average depth of the ocean is about 2.7 miles. At some places, it is deeper than the tallest mountains on earth. Oceans soak up heat and carbon dioxide and are getting warmer. There are many phytoplankton's and zooplanktons which can't survive in warm water. These tiny creatures or bacteria are the basic food for a vast range of marine life. So it is a threat to the marine life too. Algae cannot carry out photosynthesis in water that is too warm. The algae either die, or the coral spits it out. Scientists are not sure exactly what happens, but it's bad for algae, coral, and for fishes. The corals lose their colorful food sources and become weak. This sad event is called coral bleaching, and it is happening on a grand scale in many places around the world.

Ice sheets are shrinking

Earth is heating up and as a result, the ice sheets are shrinking. According to NASA, Greenland lost an average of 281 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016 while Antarctica lost about 119 billion tons during the same period. 
 

Glaciers are retreating

Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska, and Africa. Ice that took centuries to develop can vanish in just a few years. A glacier doesn't melt slowly and steadily like an ice cube on a table. Once glacial ice begins to break down, the interaction of melted water with the glacier's structure can cause increasingly fast melting and retreat.

Widespread loss of glaciers would likely alter climate patterns in complex ways. Glaciers have white surfaces that reflect the sun's rays. This helps keep our current climate mild. When glaciers melt, darker surfaces are exposed, which absorb heat. This raises temperatures even more.
 

Causes of Climate Change

The primary cause of climate change is greenhouse gases. These include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and several others. These are the gases directly emitted by human activity. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent climate change. CO2 is absorbed and emitted naturally as a part of the carbon cycle, through plant and animal respiration, volcanic eruptions, and ocean-atmosphere exchange. Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use, release large amounts of CO2, causing concentrations in the atmosphere to rise.

Climate is influenced by natural changes that affect how much solar energy reaches Earth. These changes include changes within the sun and changes in Earth’s orbit. Changes occurring in the sun itself can affect the intensity of the sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface. The intensity of the sunlight can cause either warming (during periods of stronger solar intensity) or cool (during periods of weaker solar intensity). The sun follows a natural 11-year cycle of small ups and downs in intensity, but the effect on Earth’s climate is small. 

Geospatial industry and climate change

Till now we understand what climate change is and what are its root causes. Now the big question is that can we reverse the condition and if yes then how it is going to work? As this is not a local happening but is a global event, one can keep eye on it from space only, that's why out of the 50 essential climate variables being monitored today, 26 can be measured only from space. These include sea level monitoring, polar ice extent and greenhouse gas emissions in all layers of the atmosphere. On one hand Geospatial technology provides visual proof of the extreme weather conditions like melting polar ice caps, dying corals and vanishing islands on the other hand it links all kind of physical, biological and socioeconomic data in a way that helps us understand what was, what is, and what could be done for the earth's climate. 

Satellite images and remote sensing are the most powerful tool that we are using to fight this issue. GIS and other technologies like DTM and Land cover maps are helpful in mapping the impact of climate change at the local level through the use of satellite imagery. Through the use of Web GIS, a virtual globe can be created and presented with environmental change information such as atmospheric, societal, and ecological changes occurring around the world. GIS provides tools for mapping global temperature patterns.

The microwave is useful for monitoring sea ice because it can be used to collect data through clouds and at night. This is important because during the winter the poles are in darkness.

Geospatial technology is not only helping in the visualization of the changes and their comparison, but analysis and database is used in decision making and other aspects of environmental protection.

 
                      (high-resolution satellite imagery by DigitalGlobe showing the devastating flood of Croatia)

Summary

Climate change is one of the most critical problems that our generation is facing. This includes heating up of the earth, melting of ice sheets, retreating of glaciers and warming of oceans. Greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the prime cause of this condition. Geospatial technology is contributing in the study, analysis, and solutions for this problem. The most important and basic thing that we need to do is to spread more awareness about this issue and as a human being, we should act responsibly for the sake of this planet.


SATPALDA is a privately owned company and a leading provider of satellite imagery and GeoSpatial services to the user community. Established in 2002, SATPALDA has successfully completed wide range of photogrammetric and Remote Sensing Projects.

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