Future Tense

Keeping an Eye on Climate Change

Private satellite companies are providing critical information about sea-level rise and more.

Operating at an altitude of 617 kilometers, WorldView-4 features 31cm panchromatic resolution, 1.24m multispectral resolution and 4m CE90 accuracy at nadir.


You may not think about it, but space is critical to your daily life. Weather forecasts, GPS navigation systems, environmental monitoring, and synchronized time for banking and electricity grids are the most typical ways we interact with space resources daily. Gone are the days where the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union–dominated Earth orbit. Modern space politics and economics involve complex networks of dozens of governments, private companies, and research entities. We have entered an era known as New Space.

A large portion of this New Space sector is the provision of Earth observation data from satellites built and operated by private companies. This emerging commercial market provides the opportunity for nations that lack extensive space programs to obtain high-quality data for a fraction of the cost of launching their own satellites. Satellite images offered by commercial companies have resolutions as much as an order of magnitude better than the highest-resolution government-owned counterpart, the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2. This jump—from 10 meters to 1 meter or better in some cases— unlocks resolutions previously only obtainable by government reconnaissance satellites. Thanks to these improvements, private companies have emerged as some of the top providers of key data for Earth observation.

These emerging space resources offer critical information about our environment and Earth’s changing climate. In the U.S. and other developed countries with established space-based resources, it might be taken for granted (well, at least until recently) that NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency offer widely accessible data and monitoring of weather and climate. But countries like Cambodia, Nigeria, and many small island states—particularly those that bear the brunt of sea-level rise, biodiversity loss, extreme weather, and tropical storms—are already feeling the effects of climate change. Until recently, they had far fewer space resources to monitor their environments.

In fact, commercial Earth-observing data is already being utilized to monitor the effects of climate change in developing nations. Will Marshall, one of the founders of the San Francisco cube satellite startup Planet, said during his 2014 TED Talk that one of the company’s goals was to “democratize access to satellite data … and information about our planet.” More recently, Andrew Zolli, Planet’s vice president of global impact initiatives, told us, “We have a regular stream of developing country governments—which are traditionally underrepresented in space—purchasing our data for various monitoring purposes.” For instance, he said that Cambodia recently signed a contract with Planet to acquire data for ecosystem monitoring.

High-resolution data from DigitalGlobe’s four WorldView satellites has been utilized by Nigerian firm Aerial-View Solutions to create more accurate maps of the country. Improved maps directly feed into infrastructure planning, a key area of importance as the country modernizes in the face of sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion.

Some companies have given free data access to researchers studying natural hazards potentially related to climate change. The DigitalGlobe Foundation provided an “Imagery Grant” to a team led by Jacob Gaskill at Grand Valley State University investigating landslides on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, where 78 percent of the population lives in areas at risk for landslides. Andreas Kääb of the University of Oslo utilized Planet data provided to study massive landslides in Tibet triggered by the collapse of glaciers. While the landslides were visible in Landsat and Sentinel-2 data, key clues to their formation were only visible at the resolution of Planet’s images.

A big part of negotiating the future of space politics will lay in the discussion of increased sharing of, and funding for, Earth observation data. The question may be: Just how much can we expect developing countries to pay from their national budgets to address a phenomenon they largely didn’t create? Climate change is a textbook example of environmental justice, a concept that includes the idea that those causing environmental problems should be the ones to solve them without externalizing harm to others. From this perspective there should be an international effort to help all countries access the resources they need to adapt to climate change.

An example of this effort is the United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response. The SPIDER program was established by the U.N. General Assembly in 2006 with the goal of providing “universal access to all countries … to all types of space-based information and services relevant to disaster management.” The goal is to develop networks for space data access. However, according to its work plan for the 2016–2017 period, UN-SPIDER is facing budgetary limitations and mostly relies on a small pot of voluntary investments to help connect countries with Earth observation data and the training to integrate that data into planning.

This idea of fostering a community of shared space data isn’t novel. The Outer Space Treaty is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary; it and other international conventions say that the use of space should benefit of all countries. Adapting to climate change provides us the perfect example as to why this “shared benefits” language in international space politics is so important. Climate change is a global problem that affordable and accessible space-based resources will help address. A global space community with private firms, national space agencies, and programs such as UN-SPIDER, must continue to work together so to avoid the major costs of adaptation, and the impacts of not adapting, from disproportionately affecting the world’s vulnerable.

Planet’s Will Marshall says, “You can’t fix what you can’t see.” The high-resolution and frequent revisit rates of commercial satellite data allow us to see the effects of climate change in real time. Observing these changes, especially on the local scale, can be a powerful tool in educating the public about how climate change affects both them personally and the world at large.

This article is part of the new space race installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.