Fighting climate change with satellite data — and the tools to deliver it

Satellites generate vast and diverse amounts of data on a daily basis. Why aren’t we using this data more widely to preserve our planet?

Credit: Matt Palmer @ Unsplash

On 4 April, the UN published a new climate report with some chilling findings — most notably, greenhouse gas emissions have increased across the board since 2010. What’s worse, not only will we not achieve the 2015 target of limiting the warming of our planet to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but we’re on track to see warming of more than 3 degrees, or in the range of the worst possible scenarios.

These figures may seem abstract, and many would think that somewhat warmer global temperatures wouldn’t affect them. This couldn’t be further from the truth. So let’s try to imagine a world — say, in the mid-2050s — that keeps on warming at the current rate.

Droughts have become persistent. The Western United States is already experiencing the worst drought in 1200 years — water levels of lakes and rivers are dwindling. As a result, agriculture has become unsustainable and water for daily use is rationed. Food prices have soared as local crops are no longer viable. Conflicts over water sources are beginning to take shape.

The entire planet is becoming hotter; in some regions, this means severe drought. The Western United States are just one region that has been particularly affected. Along with other regions, it may become uninhabitable in the coming decades. (NOAA / NASA)

In other parts of the world things have unfolded much the opposite way. Rising sea levels and increasingly frequent monsoons flood the densely populated coasts of the Bay of Bengal. It is estimated that 4 out of 5 people to be affected by rising sea levels live in Asia — some 275 million people. Countries like Bangladesh, a nation of 165 million, are experiencing persistent flooding and continuous displacement of vast numbers of their population. Island nations, like the Maldives or Tuvalu in the Pacific, are outright disappearing under the rising oceans.

The Maldives are one of the many island nations threatened with complete disappearance due to rising ocean water levels; many others experience increasingly harsh seasonal floods. (Credit: Dion Tavenier @ Unsplash)

Hundreds of millions are becoming climate refugees — perfect ground for conflict, social strife, and human suffering. On top of everything else, climate change is causing massive loss of biodiversity, which in turn depletes greenhouse gas sinks, generating a vicious cycle. In fact, humans have triggered a sixth mass extinction, where for the last 50 years population sizes of vertebrate species have declined by 68%, and 1/8 of all species are now threatened by extinction.

While all of this may sound alarmist, it is nothing more than the real picture of a planet in turmoil. The wise course of action would be to prevent catastrophe long before it occurs — even though we may be too late. But the damage could still be mitigated. The question is how do we achieve this?

The answer is simple — arm communities, businesses and governments with Earth Observation data.

Why does data matter

To solve a problem, we must first understand it. And to understand it, we have to quantify it. If we don’t have a thorough picture of a process, we cannot distinguish trends; we cannot think of incentives or sanctions to correct the trend; and we cannot act quickly enough. Without precise data, we are stuck in a perpetual game of catch-up with events. Our decisions could often come too late, and be insufficient. We are simply shooting in the dark.

If there is one type of data which can give a thorough picture of our planet on a daily basis, this is Earth Observation (EO) data.

Here’s how it changes everything:

Earth Observation gives humanity insight and knowledge about our world that has never been available before. Just like the Internet created interactions that were previously unfathomable, Earth Observation is creating capabilities the full potential of which we haven’t even realized yet.

Massive emitters of greenhouse gasses — like cities, refineries and coal power stations — can be monitored from orbit, along with a number of other factors relevant to climate change. (Credit: Patrick Hendry @ Unsplash)

So then — we have the tool to quantify Earth’s environmental problems. Why aren’t we using it more?

The problem

To put it simply, EO data continues to be too complicated for the average user, and not quite widely available. But this won’t be solved by simply building platforms to discover, index and sell datasets alone.

The primary problem is that consumption is still well below its true potential — not because the data isn’t useful, but because:

  • The data still needs extensive analysis and insights based on it to become actionable;
  • The key takeaways from the data must be offered in a much more user-friendly format — like notifications for crop damage in a farmer’s app, or better integrated into decision-making environments and platforms for energy companies, local governments, small businesses, community management structures, etc. Such solutions are either scarce or non-existent;
  • Many potential users are simply oblivious to the benefits of EO data.

In short, many potential users still haven’t discovered the value of EO data. In a way, they simply “don’t know what they are missing” — this has to be communicated to them. Then, a robust system of gamification, incentives and penalties based on EO data insights is the key to unlocking this enormous data treasury and making a huge difference for our planet.

How will Ephemeris achieve this?

Ephemeris Protocol provides the infrastructure to build a complete data pipeline — from ground stations receiving the data, to storage and processing assets, dissemination points and gamification/community utilization.

Below is an example Ephemeris pipeline.

We have all the key stakeholders represented in this example:

  • Data provider: A space company operating a constellation of imaging satellites; it uses the decentralized ground station network, HomePort, and adjacent data storage and processing capabilities to send data from the satellites down to Earth, and crunch it into a commercial data product;
  • Data access point: A data marketplace, managed access platform or other dissemination tool that governs the distribution of the data to users. This can be built either by the data provider, or any marketplace developer operating on Ephemeris;
  • Data consumer: In this example we’ve set up a DAO where consensus-based decisions are taken on the basis of objective indicators extracted from EO data products and analytics. In this case, the DAO represents a real-life decentralized community managing a forested area through a system of incentives and penalties. The DAO has been set up to protect the area from illegal logging, and has assigned responsibilities to specific member organizations, each with its own physical area of responsibility. If unsanctioned logging occurs in one area, the event is detected by satellite and rapidly communicated to the DAO, which investigates and issues a fine to the organization managing the affected area. Conversely, if another area has expanded its wooded area, its managing organization can receive a reward under a defined set of rules — whether for the size of the forested area, the projected carbon offset, or other indicators.
  • Infrastructure & process validator: These can be validator nodes, oracles or other components which check and verify variables, outcomes or data points necessary for a process to occur.

Key engagement

  • Our partnership with CUDOS will provide Ephemeris users access to secure computing resources for EO data. CUDOS is a decentralized cloud computing network; by obtaining computation resources through CUDOS, Ephemeris will ensure data users can have a secure, scalable environment to convert raw data into meaningful products and actionable insights.
  • We have also initiated a collaboration with SupraOracles, the rapid-finality, scalable oracle infrastructure to ensure reliable data inputs for critical decision-making events. We will work together to build, demonstrate and operate oracle solutions that will reliably verify events related to ground station operations, data availability and decisions based on data inputs.
  • As already mentioned, managing access to datasets and elements along the pipeline is critical — which is why we’ve partnered with HyperSign to develop the next-generation access and credential systems for satellite data and space infrastructures.
  • We are also actively building a network of data consumers and utility partners. One collaboration that stands out is Ignitos Space, the first Zambian space tech startup. Ignitos Space is leveraging EO data and AI to tackle a variety of challenges with initial focus on agriculture and climate change. Zambia is at the forefront of blockchain adoption in Africa — actively researching blockchain technology for financial inclusion, and has already begun implementing blockchain-based solutions for its National Land Titling Program.

Finally, we have decided to build our infrastructure on Polygon, and have already initiated the process. The HomePort ground station network will operate its production version, scheduled to launch in December 2022, using Polygon tools. What’s more, Polygon recently issued their Green Manifesto, pledging to become carbon-negative in 2022. This makes it the ideal environment to build the space infrastructures of tomorrow — and we are working together to make this vision a reality.

What’s next?

Simple — making every day Earth Day to ensure we win the battle against climate change and restore a balance to the environment as much as possible.

We only have planet, we can’t conceivably build (or terraform) another one, and we have to act fast. But to get ahead of the curve, we must make sure everyone on Earth has bird’s eye view — from orbit — of our home planet. Earth observation is the key instrument we have in the fight against climate change, and it’s high time to make it widely available and make it possible for everyone to use it.

Sfera Technologies on LinkedIn

Ephemeris Protocol on Twitter

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