Top 10 Earth observation stories of 2023


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This year has been a whirlwind of fascinating Earth observation stories and news, from spectacular volcanic eruptions to powerful earthquakes to witnessing icebergs on the run. Join us as we revisit some of the most memorable stories from 2023.

10) We celebrate 25 years of Copernicus

European views on Earth began in 1998 as an idea for an environmental monitoring program. Twenty-five years later, Copernicus was making progress. With seven Copernicus Sentinel satellites in orbit, with contributing missions, terabytes of free and open data and information services are provided daily to hundreds of thousands of users.

The data will help address some of today’s key challenges such as shrinking polar ice, food security, sea level rise, natural disasters and, of course, climate change.

To celebrate the anniversary, check out some of the highlights brought to you by Copernicus.

9) We saw smelly weed from space

Infrared channel

Sargassum was spotted by Copernicus Sentinel-2

Sargassum is a large brown seaweed that floats in masses along the surface of the ocean. It is an important habitat for marine species that provides refuge for food and breeding grounds. It also absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and turns it into organic carbon. However, when tons of it collects along the beach, it decomposes releasing toxins like hydrogen sulphide which produces a pungent smell.

This year the bloom spanned 8800 km from the coast of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico and weighed about 10 million tons so big it could be seen from space. Images from Copernicus Sentinel-2 show Sargassum about 45 km off the west coast of Guadeloupe.

It was predicted to be the largest ever recorded, but unexpectedly dropped.

Read the full story: A smelly seaweed bloom is headed for Florida

8) We count wildfires around the world

Global fires from ESAs World Fire Atlas

This summer, devastating forest fires spread across Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Algeria and Canada causing extensive environmental and economic damage, as well as human casualties.

Because of the fires, ESA has reopened its World Fire Atlas that offers insights into the distributions of individual fires that have occurred on a national and global scale.

The dashboard uses night-time data from the Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer (SLSTR) aboard the Copernicus Sentinel-3A satellite. Working like a thermometer in the sky, the sensor measures thermal infrared radiation to obtain ground temperatures on Earth that are used to detect fires.

In most of these outbreaks, the Copernicus Emergency Mapping Service is activated. The service uses satellite observations to help civil protection authorities and, in disaster cases, the international humanitarian community, respond to emergencies.

Read the full story: Counting wildfires around the world

7) Ice loss from Antarctica and Greenland hit record lows

Ice is disappearing from Greenland and Antarctica

A report from the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Intercomparison Exercise states that between 1992 and 2020, the polar ice sheets lost 7560 billion tons of ice equivalent to an ice cube measuring 20 km on each side. .

The polar ice sheets have been losing ice in every year of the satellite record, and the seven highest melting years have occurred in the past decade. The melting peaked in 2019, when the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets lost a staggering 612 billion tons of ice.

Scientists use data from satellites such as ESAs CryoSat and the Copernicus Sentinel-1 to measure changes in ice volume and flow, as well as satellites that provide information about gravity, to determine how much ice is lost.

Read the full story: Ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica hits new record

6) We are watching an iceberg bigger than London break free

Radar images capture new Antarctic mega-iceberg

Glaciologists have been monitoring the many cracks and chasms that have formed in the thick Brunt Ice Shelf, which borders the coast of Coats Land in the Weddell Sea sector of Antarctica, for years. It’s only a matter of time before the A-81 iceberg breaks.

After several years of desperate clinging, satellite imagery confirmed that the gigantic iceberg finally calved on 22 January from Antarcticas Brunt Ice Shelf. The iceberg, which is about 1550 sq km around the size of Greater London or five times the size of Malta is now floating near the ice edge of the Ronne Ice Shelf, about 600 km from where it gave birth.

Constant monitoring from satellites offers unparalleled visibility into events occurring in remote regions. The Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission carries a radar, which can return images regardless of day or night and this allows us a year-round view.

Read the full story: Giant iceberg separated from the Antarctic ice shelf

5) 2023 is set to be the hottest year on record

Heatwave across Europe

The WMO provisional State of the Global Climate report confirms that 2023 is set to be the hottest year on record. Data up to the end of October show that the year is about 1.40C above the pre-industrial 18501900 baseline.

The warming El Nio event, which emerged during the Northern Hemisphere spring in 2023 and developed rapidly during the summer, is likely to increase the heat in 2024 because El Nio usually has the greatest impact on global temperature after its rise.

Data from the Copernicus Sentinel-3 missions radiometer instrument shows the earth’s surface temperature in July 2023. The earth’s surface temperature is the temperature of the Earth’s surface to the touch. Air temperature, given in our daily weather forecasts, is a measure of how hot the air above the earth is.

Link to full story: Europe is preparing for summer in July

4) Three Sentinel satellites have mapped methane super-emitters

Sentinel-5P detected methane plumes

Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide. Typically, methane emissions are monitored by the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite. But this year, scientists combined data from multiple satellites to monitor methane from space for the first time.

Researchers from the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research detected persistent methane emissions from a leaking facility using data from the Tropomi instrument on Sentinel-5P. They then used a Sentinel-2 image to zoom in on the source of the plumes and pinpoint the exact location of the leak, while Sentinel-3 showed the leak continued for six days.

Combining data from these satellites allows researchers to zoom in with precision, identifying, quantifying and monitoring methane sources corresponding to the plumes observed by Sentinel-5Ps global scans.

Read the full story: Trio of Sentinel satellites map methane super-emitters

3) The ozone hole in 2023 will be one of the largest on record

Ozone hole extension 2023

Like the sea ice around Antarctica that grows and retreats every year, the ozone hole is constantly changing.

Observations from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite show that the ozone hole or ozone depleting area reached a size of about 26 million sq km on 16 September 2023 making it one of the largest seasonal holes ever observed. It is almost three times the size of Brazil.

A possible reason for this years unusual ozone patterns may be related to the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai in January 2022, which injected large amounts of water vapor into the stratosphere. Despite this year’s large seasonal growth, the ozone hole is still shrinking in size overall. Scientists now predict that the global ozone layer will reach normal conditions again around 2050.

Read the full story: The ozone hole will grow again

2) We bid farewell to a historic Aeolus mission

Journey back to Earth: The historic return of Aeolus

This year we bid farewell to the Aeolus wind mission which was one of ESA’s most successful Earth observation missions. As an Earth Explorer, the satellite was designed as a research mission and to demonstrate new technology in space.

Exceeding scientific expectations and exceeding its planned life in orbit, the Aeolus wind mission re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on 28 July at around 21:00 CEST over Antarctica. It is the first of its kind assisted reentry and sets a new standard for safe reentry of satellites and space debris reduction.

Read the full story: Aeolus: a historic end to a trailblazing mission

1) We have entered a new era of satellite meteorology

Lightning over Europe

The Meteosat Third Generation Imager not only provided its first view of Earth this year, but also provided us with amazing lightning animations that prove its ability to revolutionize the detection and forecasting of severe storms.

The Meteosat Third Generation Imager-1 is the first of the six satellites that form the entire MTG system. When fully operational, the system will provide critical data for short-term and early detection of potential extreme weather events over the next 20 years.

The first image of Earth reveals a level of detail about the weather in Europe and Africa that was not possible before from 36 000 km away. Just a few months ago, the Lightning Imager satellites were turned on. The Lightning Imager is the first satellite instrument capable of continuous lightning detection across Europe and Africa and its capabilities promise to revolutionize the detection and forecasting of severe storms.

Read the full stories: New weather satellite reveals amazing pictures of Earth and Europe’s satellite struck by lightning

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