MetOp-A from Europe

The Newest Weather and Climate Tool

By Dr. Ray Williamson

On October 19, 2006, MetOp-A, Europe's first polar-orbiting, operational environmental satellite, was launched aboard a Russian Soyuz launch vehicle from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome. This substantial new Earth observation satellite was built by the European Space Agency (ESA) and is now operated by EUMETSAT, Europe's meteor-ological satellite agency. It is the first of a series of three MetOp satellites to be built in the next few years, which will supplement the data from EUMETSAT's Meteosat series of geosynchronous weather satellites.

MetOp-A is crammed with a variety of European and U.S. remote sensing instruments to measure surface temperature, cloud cover, humidity, space weather parameters, and many other weather and climate components.

MetOp-A image taken on Oct. 25, 2006, of northern Egypt (desert in bottom of image) and the Mediterranean Sea, with Italy (top left), Greece (top center) and Turkey (top right). This is an AVHRR fully processed level 1B image from the first orbit with color composite of the AVHRR visible and two near-infrared channels, rendered from the CalVal Facility. Courtesy and copyright of EUMETSAT.
After checkout of the satellite's various subsystems, ESA turned the satellite over to EUMETSAT, where it is now part of the U.S. - European fleet of polar orbiting operational environmental satellites, which includes NOAA's Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES) and the Air Force's Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) birds. The U.S. will have access to all of the data sets from the new satellite.

This launch is highly significant for Europe and the United States. First, it signifies that EUMETSAT will now be able to gather high quality global atmospheric, land, and ocean data and will not be limited solely to a dependence on U.S. sources for them. Global data are needed to develop and validate EUMETSAT's weather forecast models. These data will significantly improve global environmental coverage and also cement EUMETSAT's role as a major player in the global collection and exploitation of weather climate data.

Weather affects virtually everything we do daily, and advance warning of potential weather patterns can help us prepare for changes. Though we often take these forecasts for granted, weather forecasts help to mitigate risk, and as such, provide a daily benefit in our lives. Industries as diverse as agriculture, electricity generation, transportation, and recreation use weather forecasts daily, even hourly, as shifts in upcoming weather can sharply affect the bottom line. As several studies have shown, including those cited by the SAIC in a story on economic significance of improved environmental forecasting, weather forecasts can deliver substantial economic and social benefits to those who use them in their operational decision making processes.

Forecasts of extreme weather such as hurricanes, drought, and snow are especially important, since such weather can affect industry and the general population severely and may even cause loss of life. As coastal population density has increased, property damage from severe storms has increased right along with it, making accurate forecasts even more important.

Some 90 percent of the data in U.S. and European forecast weather models now derive from satellite sensors, so the relative importance of these satellite collectors of weather data is clear. MetOp-A data, when combined with data from Europe's new Meteosat Second Generation geostationary satellite, and from the U.S. geostationary GOES and polar-orbiting POES satellites, will contribute significantly to forecasting accuracy. U.S. and European forecast modelers will make considerable use of these new data sets.

Over the long term, EUMETSAT's plan to collect and archive MetOp-A data sets for assessing and interpreting climate change may be the most important contribution that the new satellite makes. Climate forecasting is in its infancy, and these data sets will contribute to improvements in our ability to predict future climate change.

As Tim Foresman argued in his last column for Imaging Notes, climate change, especially the rate of change, is becoming one of the most contested environmental issues of our day, in large part because of the potentially large economic and social effects of climate change and the difficulties of regulating reductions in harmful greenhouse gases effectively. These instruments will provide the additional data that policymakers say they need to make critical budgetary and regulatory decisions in attempts to mitigate the effects of climate change.

So far, U.S. policymakers have a mixed record (some say a poor one) of using the information already available to them. Europe is far ahead of the United States in this realm, and has already developed a number of technological and policy solutions to global warming. Yet, even if government officials fail to make good use of the information that this and other satellites provide, the instruments aboard will daily provide useful information for a wide variety of purposes.

MetOp-A's launch has been a long time in coming, held up in part by differences in policy between the United States and Europe. The United States wants to be able to withhold distribution of certain satellite data from its instruments during times of armed conflict or serious tension. EUMETSAT, however, is a strictly civilian agency supported by 20 European countries, so it was reluctant to grant such rights. After long negotiations, the two entities resolved the issue by agreeing on the terms by which data delivery might be restricted or delayed. It is not likely that such restrictions will occur very often.

Despite the delays, the launch of MetOp-A is a fine example of the continuing excellent U.S.-European cooperation in Earth observations. Such cooperation is becoming ever more important as we discover the many benefits of satellite Earth observations for managing our fragile planet.

Note: Related story by SAIC about the economic implications of more accurate weather forecasting begins in a story on economic significance of improved environmental forecasting, and a look at in a story on The Weather Channel's reliance on satellite data.

Ray A. Williamson is research professor of space policy and international affairs in the Space Policy Institute of The George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) and co-editor, with John C. Baker and Kevin O’Connell, of Commercial Observation Satellites: At the Leading Edge of Global Transparency (Rand and ASPRS, 2001).

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