Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 111

Supplementary submission from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

  The European Space Agency (ESA) Earth Observation Envelope Programme (EOEP) is set to deliver six so-called Earth Explorer missions over the next five years. These will make an enormous contribution to the number of areas where space data can be used to address key environmental research issues. As detailed in NERC's written evidence, two missions are led by principal investigators from the UK:

    —  Cryosat will test the prediction of thinning arctic ice due to global warming, which could change the climate of the Arctic and possibly other regions; and

    —  EarthCARE, a joint European-Japanese mission, will address the need for a better understanding of the interactions between cloud, radiative and aerosol processes that play a role in climate regulation.

  The four further approved missions will, respectively:

    —  provide the best ever survey of the geomagnetic field and its temporal evolution, and gain new insights into the Earth's interior and climate (SWARM);

    —  measure the Earth's gravity field and model the geoid with extremely high accuracy and spatial resolution, crucial for deriving accurate measurements of ocean circulation, sea-level change and terrestrial ice dynamics, all of which are affected by climate change (GOCE). The geoid is also used as a reference surface from which to map all topographical features on the planet;

    —  provide global observations of wind profiles from space to improve the quality of weather forecasts, and to advance our understanding of atmospheric dynamics and climate processes (ADM); and

    —  observe soil moisture over the Earth's landmasses and salinity over the oceans to enable hydrological studies vital for improving our understanding of ocean circulation patterns (SMOS).

  The two UK-led candidate missions for the next round of the Explorer programme, PREMIER and BIOMASS, would look at atmospheric chemistry and forest biomass, respectively.

  2.  It is clear from the input from my co-witnesses (Mr Douglas and Professor Dalton) during the oral evidence session on 7 February that both the Met Office and Defra make regular use of data from satellite-based observations. On the latter (Defra), you may wish to note that, as part of the UK's Countryside Survey 2007, which is funded largely by NERC and Defra, a new version of the national land cover map will be produced where satellite land cover data will be integrated with data from the Ordnance Survey's MasterMap to produce a parcel-based land cover map. This will be a world first for the UK and will provide many new opportunities for both public and private sector groups.

  3.  Raising the awareness of Government departments to the potential uses that they might make of such data is clearly important if Earth observations are to be exploited effectively in the policy arena. I am aware that DTI, through BNSC, have recognised this need and have run an activity, known as GIFTSS (Government Information From The Space Sector), for a number of years which aims to encourage greater use by the public sector of space data products and services. As I understand it, this initiative has so far supported six pilot projects across four Government departments and there are a number of new projects currently in the pipeline.

  4.  Finally, the instruments that I was referring to in my oral response are largely those to be flown on the ESA's forthcoming Explorer missions, as detailed in point 1 above. Significant new research opportunities will be realised by the exploitation of the associated observations. In the cases of CryoSat, BIOMASS and/or PREMIER, these will be supported by a strong link to NERC's Earth Observation (EO) Centres of Excellence Programme. Additionally, as identified by both Professor Quegan and Professor Wingham in their oral evidence, the scientific community has made great advances in amalgamating different datasets so that the range of problems to which those datasets can be applied can be further broadened. This trend will be reinforced through the establishment of NERC's new National Centre for Earth Observation (from April 2008), which will, amongst other things, integrate expertise already nurtured through NERC's Centres of Excellence programme.

May 2007

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