Satellites are helping Europe protect its lakes, lagoons and rivers.
By HELEN MASSY-BERESFORD
It is early morning on the Razelm-Sinoe lagoon in Romania when a small boat sets out with instruments and probes. The researchers on board are collecting water samples and measurements to bring to the laboratory for analysis.
Located on the shores of the Black Sea, Lake Razelm is part of the most extensive wetland in Europe and of a World Heritage site: the Danube Delta.
Close up and afar
The researchers are part of an EU-funded project called CERTO tracking water quality along coasts and in places that transition between fresh and saltwater like lagoons, estuaries and large rivers. The team gets support not just from waterborne transport but also from something much more distant: a satellite network.
‘Traditionally, people have gone out in boats and sampled,’ said Professor Steve Groom, CERTO coordinator and head of science/earth observation at Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK. ‘But it’s expensive and they can’t be everywhere along the coast on the same day. We’re moving towards using satellites to complement in situ monitoring.’
The Razelm-Sinoe lagoon was almost closed off from the Black Sea during the 1970s as part of a plan to create a freshwater source for agriculture.
Nowadays it only has one sea inlet. The limited water exchange with the sea, combined with mineral and nutrient run-off from nearby farms, led in the 1990s to excessive plant and algal growth and low-oxygen levels that harmed fish and wildlife in the lagoon.
The lagoon’s diversity, including varying water depths and levels of salinity, makes for a valuable study site – and the interest is not just academic. Ensuring the health of coastal waters is vital both for ecosystems and for people who make a living from activities such as fishing, farming and tourism.
The skyward help that the CERTO researchers receive is through Copernicus, the Earth observation part of the EU’s space programme. Copernicus uses satellite data to observe water quality and quantity.
‘CERTO puts the use of satellite data in the spotlight,’ said Adriana Maria Constantinescu, technical leader of a Razelm-Sinoe lagoon case study. ‘We can get good-quality data from satellite images and the work we do in situ helps improve algorithms.’
CERTO is using on-site measurements and satellite-observation data in six places. Among them are also the world-famous lagoon in Venice, Italy and the Curonian lagoon in Lithuania.
The project, due to end this September after almost four years, is investigating ways to classify water.
‘The technical term is optical water types, but it’s really just a way of saying “this water is a bit muddy” or “this area is nice and blue,”’ said Groom.
The term categorises bodies of water based on the colour of the light they reflect.
Murky green ponds, for example, contain more organic matter such as algae than clear ponds and reflect less blue light. Murky water also indicates a surplus of nutrients that could be harmful to fish and wildlife.
In this way, using satellites to measure how much light bodies of water reflect can help determine their health without needing to go out in a boat and take samples. It also gives scientists a database to draw on when analysing waters classified as the same type.
‘The value is that you don’t necessarily have to take in situ measurements to validate your algorithms everywhere,’ said Groom. ‘We’re trying to go from lakes all the way to oceans and come up with a common set of water types for all those waters.’
CERTO also wants to make it easier for scientists to use the available information on water quality and bridge existing gaps in the data.
At present three Copernicus services, each using different approaches, provide information on water quality, making it hard for scientists to have an overview. In addition, some areas such as transitional waters aren’t covered by any service at all.
The project’s legacy will be prototype software that can be “plugged in” to existing Copernicus services as well as popular open-source software called SNAP that’s used more widely in the research community.
Constantinescu, the head of a Razelm-Sinoe study, expects the CERTO work to lead to more research at the lagoon. The filtering properties of reed beds or their role in attenuating wind waves could be some of the nature-based solutions investigated to deal with coastal erosion.
Satellite data is also used to keep an eye on Europe’s groundwater.
The EU-funded G3P project tracked variations in vital groundwater reserves for three years through 2022.
The project used data both from Copernicus and from a joint US-Germany satellite mission known as GRACE that, since its start in 2002, has transformed scientists’ view of how water moves and is stored around the planet.
‘Groundwater is one of the major resources for humankind,’ said Professor Andreas Güntner, who coordinated G3P and works at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam.
Groundwater accounts for almost a third of total freshwater resources worldwide. In the EU, it supplies 65% of drinking water and a quarter of water for agricultural irrigation.
Groundwater has also been declared an essential climate variable – a critical indicator of how the Earth’s climate is changing – by an international non-governmental organisation known as the Global Climate Observing System.
Copernicus doesn’t yet provide consistent, worldwide data on groundwater reserves and how they’re evolving.
The G3P team built a new dataset to fill that gap.
The researchers relied on information from GRACE, which has featured twin satellites. An initial GRACE mission lasted 15 years and a follow-up one began in 2018.
The distance between the two satellites changes constantly depending on the mass distribution below them. For example, when one approaches heavy masses such as mountains, ice sheets and large groundwater reserves, it speeds up and the distance from the other satellite increases.
By tracking the gravitational push and pull on the spacecraft as they fly over different landscapes, scientists were able to map out the distribution of water on and below Earth’s surface and how it’s changing.
Knowing more about groundwater reserves, their changes and how they are affected by human activities such as farming is essential as countries seek to improve the management of water resources generally.
‘In some areas of the world, taking water from aquifers for irrigation has led to more withdrawal than replenishment – in other words unsustainable use,’ Güntner said. ‘The first global observation-based groundwater dataset is really an amazing thing.’
Still, plenty more research lies ahead to make greater use of the dataset.
‘The next step is in-depth analysis of the groundwater data we obtained to try to understand how groundwater resources have changed over the last 20 years, how those changes may be related to climate change, changing rainfall and how much is due to human interference,’ said Güntner.
Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Global warming did the Unthinkable
French ski resort closes permanently because there’s not enough snow, CNN informs. Winter is coming. And for yet another ski resort in France, that means facing up to the reality that there isn’t enough snow to carry on.
La Sambuy, a town which runs a family skiing destination near Mont Blanc in the French Alps, has decided to dismantle its ski lifts because global warming has shrunk its ski season to just a few weeks, meaning it’s no longer profitable to keep them open.
“Before, we used to have snow practically from the first of December up until the 30th of March,” La Sambuy’s mayor, Jacques Dalex, told CNN.
Last winter, however, there was only “four weeks of snow, and even then, not much snow,” he added. That meant “very quickly, stones and rocks appeared on the piste.”
Able to open for fewer than five weeks during January and February, Dalex said the resort was looking at an annual operating loss of roughly 500,000 euros ($530,000). Keeping the lifts going alone costs 80,000 euros per year.
La Sambuy isn’t a huge resort, with just three lifts and a handful of pistes reaching up to a top height of 1,850 meters (about 6,070 feet).
But with a range of slopes running from expert “black” to beginner “green” and relatively cheap ski passes, it was popular with families seeking more of a low-key Alps experience than offered by bigger, higher-altitude destinations.
UK snow report website On The Snow calls it “an idyllic place to visit, with exceptional panoramic views and everything you need in a friendly resort.”
La Sambuy is not the only French ski resort facing a meltdown. Last year, Saint-Firmin, another small Alpine ski destination, opted to remove its ski lift after seeing its winter season dwindle from months to weeks, a situation also blamed on climate change.
Mountain Wilderness, a French environmental group, says it has dismantled 22 ski lifts in France since 2001, and estimates that there are still 106 abandoned ski lifts across 59 sites in the country.
According to a report published in August by the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, 53% of 2,234 ski resorts surveyed in Europe are likely to experience “a very high snow supply risk” at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) of global warming above pre-industrial levels, without use of artificial snow.
A report published in January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal found a “substantial possibility” of global temperature rises crossing this 2-degree Celsius threshold by mid-century.
La Sambuy’s Dalex said that “all winter sports resorts in France are impacted by global warming,” particularly those at a medium mountain altitude between 1,000 and 1,500 meters.
G20 summit must formulate plan for Global South climate change threat
The G20 summit in India must have a “concrete plan” for “scaled-up” green financing for the Global South as a critical strategy to combat climate change, affirms the founder of one of the world’s largest independent financial advisory, asset management and fintech organizations.
The comments from deVere Group’s Nigel Green comes as leaders of the Group of 20 top industrialised and developing countries will gather this weekend in New Delhi for a summit that will celebrate the end of India’s 12-month G20 presidency.
He says: Climate change is no longer a distant threat; it is a present reality. Rising global temperatures, extreme weather events, melting ice caps, and sea-level rise are already affecting communities, ecosystems, and economies worldwide.
“The Global South, comprising developing nations with limited resources, bears a disproportionate burden in this climate crisis, despite contributing minimally to greenhouse gas emissions.
“As such, the leader of the G20 – the richest countries in the world – must use the summit starting in India this week to formulate a concrete plan for scaled-up green financing to help the Global South tackle the biggest issue of our time.
“A failure to do this could, ultimately, have catastrophic consequences for our planet and its communities.”
Green financing encompasses a range of mechanisms designed to support sustainable, environmentally friendly projects that mitigate climate change and enhance resilience.
These include investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, climate adaptation, sustainable agriculture, and conservation efforts.
“One of the major challenges faced by the Global South is access to financial resources needed for climate action. Developing nations often lack the financial capacity to invest in green projects without incurring significant debt,” says the deVere CEO.
“The G20 summit must play a pivotal role in bridging this financial gap by prioritising green financing and creating mechanisms to make it more accessible.”
G20 countries, being the largest economies in the world, must also “commit to increasing in a considerable way their financial contributions to international climate finance mechanisms. These funds are essential for providing support to developing nations in their efforts to mitigate emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change,” he notes.
Nigel Green goes on to add that the G20 summit should also serve as a platform for fostering collaboration between developed and developing nations.
This collaboration can take various forms, including knowledge sharing, technology transfer, and capacity building.
In addition, to scale up climate action, it is crucial to engage the private sector. G20 countries can promote public-private partnerships and initiatives that attract private sector investment in green projects.
“This can be achieved through incentives, guarantees, or risk-sharing mechanisms that make investments in sustainability more appealing to businesses.”
Innovation in financial instruments, such as green bonds and climate insurance, can unlock alternative funding sources for climate projects in developing nations.
The deVere CEO says: “The G20 summit must urgently encourage the development and adoption of such instruments to diversify funding options.”
The G20 summit in India presents a crucial opportunity to prioritize green financing for the Global South as a key strategy to combat climate change.
This summit can be a turning point in the global fight against climate change, demonstrating that unity, innovation, and commitment can drive transformative change toward a sustainable future for all.
“The urgency of climate action cannot be overstated, and the global community must act decisively.
“By committing to green financing, promoting collaboration, and bridging the financial gap, the G20 can lead the way in ensuring that all nations, particularly those in the Global South, have the resources and support they need to address the climate crisis effectively,” concludes Nigel Green.
To tackle wildfires, researchers in Europe team up with frontline forces
The EU is seeking to limit growing threats from blazes through the use of satellites, artificial intelligence and unmanned aerial vehicles.
By JACK MCGOVAN
Picture the following scene on the French island of Corsica: a local fire service uses a special surveillance camera to detect smoke in the area, quickly declare the outbreak of a blaze and mobilise a targeted response.
No, the action in the Biguglia municipality on Corsica’s northeastern coast wasn’t one of the many wildfire emergencies in Europe in 2023. Rather, it was a demonstration in October 2022 under an EU-funded research project to help regions in Europe counter threats from wildfires.
The Biguglia exercise used a smoke bomb to simulate the start of a fire and an extensive data network to trigger the rapid-reaction steps. It involved a service that has 1 300 firefighters who protect a population in this part of Corsica – the Mediterranean’s fourth-biggest island – that grows to around 400 000 in summer.
‘This first demonstration on Corsica was very positive,’ said Michael Pelissier, a firefighter who participated in the test.
As part of the EU project, called SAFERS, a similar firefighting exercise took place in the Piedmont region of Italy in February 2023 and two more trials are planned in Greece and Spain toward the end of this year.
‘After the next two demonstrations, we would like to push the management system forward in Europe and also beyond,’ said Claudio Rossi, who coordinates the project and is a senior researcher at an Italian research and innovation centre called the Links Foundation in the city of Turin.
With the help of EU funding, Europe’s research community is joining forces with firefighters to prevent fires from spreading or from happening at all. SAFERS is one of several EU projects to combine resources and know-how for tackling wildfires on the continent.
The focus of SAFERS is primarily on the use of satellites and artificial intelligence, or AI, to provide information that could help save lives and contain environmental damage.
‘The orchestrated utilisation of AI-powered solutions can increase resilience to forest fires,’ Rossi said.
Running for three and a half years through March 2024, the project features weather and hazard maps, fire-detection techniques, input from the general public and other tools to help local authorities prepare.
The ultimate goal is to build on the demonstrations in France, Greece, Italy and Spain and develop a comprehensive wildfire-control system for use around Europe.
By combining satellite images and other data, the system is intended to give first responders, decision-makers and ordinary people a clearer view of what’s happening and to facilitate the best responses.
Earth-observation data from the EU’s Copernicus programme is the primary source of information. This would be combined with data collected from smoke detectors, mobile applications, social media and forecast models.
A stark reminder that wildfires pose a growing threat in Europe came from news images in July 2023 of tourists fleeing flames on the Greek island of Rhodes and blazes spreading near the Sicilian city of Palermo.
A month later, attention turned to Spain and Portugal where blazes destroyed more than 16 300 hectares of land and forced the evacuation of villages and tourist accommodations.
The Biguglia municipality on Corsica was chosen as a SAFERS demonstration site in part because of a major fire there in 2017.
‘These last years we have noticed that, notably because of global warming, the summer season has a tendency to expand,’ said Pelissier, the firefighter. ‘So we are increasingly threatened by forest fires.’
The EU, which recently doubled its firefighting fleet of aircraft, has deployed more than 10 planes, 500 firefighters and 100 vehicles to help control and quell wildfires in Greece alone during the summer of 2023.
Over the past two months, the EU has also mobilised such support for Cyprus and – outside Europe – Tunisia. The moves were closely coordinated with national authorities.
Another EU-funded project – TREEADS – plans to feature drones, high-altitude balloons and satellites in a Europe-wide protection system.
‘We can’t only invest in fire trucks, helicopters or planes – we need to train our communities before the fires happen,’ said Kemal Sarp Arsava, who coordinates the project.
Arsava is a senior research scientist at Norway-based RISE Fire Research, which specialises in fire safety.
TREEADS aims to establish a comprehensive fire-management platform covering all three stages of wildfires – before, during and after a blaze breaks out.
Arsava is a native of Turkey who has also worked and studied in the US.
While in the US in late 2019, he was reminded of the international dimension of the wildfires threat by noticing the effect of Australia’s major outbreak of bushfires at the time.
Based then in the state of New Hampshire, Arsava said the blazes caused a slight haze in North America while primarily hurting air quality in South America.
‘The smoke from all of the wildfires in Australia basically crossed the Pacific Ocean and even changed the colour of the sky in America,’ he said.
Drones and balloons
TREEADS began in December 2021 and is due to run until end-May 2025.
The initiative brings together research institutes and companies from 14 European countries and Taiwan.
Besides Norway and Taiwan, the participants are from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Romania, Spain and Sweden.
The team of researchers is developing new technologies that’ll be tested in eight countries represented in the project.
One plan is to use drones and high-altitude balloons to detect blazes early, collect data for fire crews and even aid their actions by dropping fire-suppressant materials.
A four-layer approach is foreseen: low-altitude drones to locate fire hotspots; mid-altitude drones to drop fire suppressants; high-altitude balloons to provide a broader view; and satellites for the whole picture.
The trials are due to start early next year.
The project is also testing a virtual-reality headset to train firefighters who aren’t typically assigned to dealing with wildfires. That means teaching city firefighters to deal with blazes in different terrains should the need arise.
In total, more than 26 technologies including for fire protection and suppression will be enhanced, developed and verified in TREEADS.
‘These new technologies will make it easier to fight wildfires in the future,’ said Arsava.
Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
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