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Page | Last updated: 02 May 2023

Earth Observation for the Arctic

Overview: why the Arctic matters?

The Arctic is a unique region in the world. Not only is the Arctic disproportionately affected by climate change, warming four times as fast as the rest of the globe, it is also increasingly subject to the ambitions of a number of countries with geoeconomic and geopolitical interests. Given the intertwining issues that characterise the region, such as its exposure to climate change, including the thawing of permafrost and melting of ice, and its relevance for security, supply of energy and raw materials, transport and shipping, Earth Observation (EO) can play a major role in supporting policy development and implementation in all these areas.

BOX 1. Countries with stakes in the Arctic

Russia sees the Arctic warming as an opportunity for the exploitation of natural resources and increasing its military presence in the region. The Arctic hosts respectively 13% and 30% of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas. The oil and gas industry and the mining business remain key priorities for Russia. A testimony of this is the Yamal LNG facility, inaugurated in 2017 thanks to Russia and China joint investments. China, even though not directly related to the Arctic, considers itself a “near-Arctic state” and while its policy rests upon four priorities - polar research, access to energy and mineral resources, access to sea routes and a role in an evolving Arctic governance regime - its agenda is mainly centered on commercial interests and the opportunity represented by melting sea ice in terms of establishing a Polar Silk Road. The United States is an Arctic state because of Alaska and has recently ramped up its military presence and efforts both to address climate change in the region and to respond to increasing competition and military presence from other states. Lastly, the most relevant intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation in the Arctic is the Arctic Council, comprised of eight Arctic Member States, of which Finland, Denmark and Sweden are EU Member States, six permanent participants representing the indigenous peoples of the Arctic and 38 permanent observers. The Arctic Council  promotes collaboration on topics of common interest to the region including the preservation of biodiversity, marine environment, climate change and the well-being of indigenous populations.

Figure 1. Major Players in the Arctic

A map of the arctic with a list of the members an observers of the Arctic Council in 2022

Policy Context: What role for the EU?

The European Union has a unique role to play in the Arctic, as also remarked by the Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne, who in 2019 said that “there should be more EU in the Arctic and more Arctic in the EU, because the EU has a lot to offer the region”. Many of its member states are observers in the Arctic Council, three are members and it has institutional linkages with two more, Iceland and Norway, through the European Economic Area. The Integrated European Policy for the Arctic of 2016 highlighted three main priorities of the EU in the region, first and foremost climate change and safeguarding the environment, followed by sustainable development and the role of the EU as a civilian power to promote international cooperation in the Arctic. The new EU Arctic Policy, which was released in October of 2021, renews member states’ commitment to address climate change and environmental protection, making a stronger link with the EU Green Deal. The policy focuses more than in the past on the element of security and cooperation, acknowledging that the high level of interconnectedness of issues in the Arctic requires an integrated strategy aimed at protecting both people and the environment in the Arctic. Both the EU Arctic Policy and the EU Space Programme, which entered into force in 2021, explicitly spell out polar monitoring as a priority.


Earth Observation in the Arctic

BOX 2. International context for observations in the Arctic

Given the strategic importance of the Arctic, multiple actors are involved in the region’s monitoring including the Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON), a joint initiative established in 2011 by the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee that, through its Committee on Observations and Networks (CON), aims to strengthen collaboration for a pan-Arctic observing system. SAON, in collaboration with Copernicus, has also established the ArcticGEOSS Community Activity, which supports the implementation of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) in the Arctic. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has set up an activity area, the Global Cryosphere Watch (GCW), addressing observation needs and gaps and providing access to valuable data on the cryosphere. Under this activity, the WMO established the Polar Space Task Group (PSTG) in 2011, which engages in dialogues with polar science authorities, and supports the development of products for cryospheric research and applications. 
The EC and ESA have launched the flagship action ”Polar regions and global impacts” as part of their joint Earth System Science Initiative, developing collaborative research and networking opportunities in the polar research domain, and in particular between the ESA and EU Polar Clusters.   The European Polar Science Week 2020 was hosted as part of this flagship action.  
Lastly, the International Permafrost Association (IPA) supports efforts to foster knowledge and scientific research in permafrost-related fields.

Specifically Copernicus, the Earth Observation component of the EU Space Programme, offers essential support to EU and non-EU research initiatives in the Arctic and to the design of climate, environmental, maritime, development and cooperation policies for the region. The data and information gathered by the Copernicus Space and In Situ components as well as other EU and non-EU Space Programmes are processed by the six Copernicus services: the Copernicus Marine Service (or Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring Service) (CMEMS), the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service (CLMS), the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), the Copernicus Emergency Management Service (CEMS), and the Copernicus Security Service.   They contribute to three main areas: maritime operations, environmental and geopolitical aspects. Regarding maritime operations, the Copernicus programme can provide reliable data products and services for maritime navigation through increased integration with other EU space programmes like Galileo that will bolster the EU’s ability to enable safe shipping operations and sea routes monitoring.
The needs of users concerned with the environmental aspect tend to focus around three main areas: land, ocean, and atmosphere, while operational users are more interested in the geopolitical aspect including the oil and gas industry, the transport sector, security, and shipping priorities. SAON has identified twelve different Societal Benefit Areas (SBAs) relying on Arctic observation that can be grouped under four macro areas: People, Environment, Climate, and the Economy. This categorization has allowed to better identify data and services that are required to support specific SBAs and in particular to meet the requirements of the three main types of users of Arctic observations: scientific, operational and indigenous users.


Current Use of Earth Observation derived products for the Arctic 

The Copernicus services developing the most relevant products for the Arctic are CMEMS, CLMS, CAMS and C3S, but the other services also offer some relevant products which are important for Arctic monitoring. Starting from the environmental aspect, the most used products from CMEMS include those used to monitor Arctic ocean water conditions such as ocean winds, temperature, salinity and ocean surface waves, and ice related quantities including sea ice coverage (SIC), sea ice edge (SIE) and sea ice drift (SID). The CLMS provides key information on the state of vegetation, including crops and forest, with the monitoring of snow cover, lake ice, inland water volume and quality also being part of the land service portfolio. In addition, CLMS has implemented the European Ground Motion Service (EGMS), which provides pan-European information on ground motion. The CAMS service plays an important role in monitoring emissions by fires at high latitudes and transport of gases and aerosols affecting atmospheric composition in the Arctic region, the ozone layer including “mini-hole” events occurring occasionally over the Arctic, and emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane, including emissions deriving from the thawing of permafrost. Products provided by the C3S service include monthly maps of sea ice coverage produced by ECMWF’s ERA5 global reanalysis of observations from 1950 to current times with a resolution of 31 km, which replaces the ERA-Interim reanalysis. In addition, the Copernicus Arctic Regional Reanalysis (CARRA) system makes extensive use of satellite data and provides products for the European part of the Arctic from 1990 to the present in a resolution of 2.5 km. C3S has also supported the European Space Agency Climate Change Initiative (ESA CCI) in the development of Essential Climate Variables (ECVs), including Arctic-specific ECVs such as sea ice and permafrost maps. Permafrost_CCI is an ESA project which combines satellite data products for land surface temperature, snow, and landcover with a permafrost model known as CryoGrid2 to produce permafrost maps which are consistent over time and are provided with a spatial scale of 1 km and a temporal resolution of one year. The processing system is designed so that CCI ECV datasets can be included in the Climate Monitoring Facility of the C3S Toolbox once they are sufficiently mature. C3S also assesses impacts on infrastructure as part of their Sectoral Information System (SIS), including buildings, roads and storage facilities. Copernicus Sentinel data has been used widely to assess risks to Arctic infrastructure, including coastal areas

Regarding maritime operations, C3S has launched an economic sectoral activity on shipping, the Global Shipping Service, using data for wind, ocean, and ice derived from reanalyses and forecasts to produce indicators which are relevant for fleet deployment planning. CMEMS provides products for the whole Arctic through its dedicated Arctic – Monitoring Forecasting Centre (ARC MFC) which are relevant for transport and maritime operations. These products are derived from a combination of EO and in situ data as well as modeling and include waves, ocean and sea ice data, and biological data. For maritime operations, integration of Copernicus with other EU Space Programmes is essential. An example of synergy is represented by the integration of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) which tracks self-reporting ships, the VHF Data Exchange System (VDES) and EO data to provide advanced maritime maps. The Copernicus Maritime Surveillance Service (CMS) component of the Copernicus Security Service (CSS) offers products based on radar and satellite imagery in high and very high resolution that supports detection activities including vessel detection and oil spills. Another component of CSS – the Copernicus Service in support to External Action (SEA) - provides rapid, on-demand geospatial information for monitoring of events or activities outside Europe that may have implications for European and global security.

Lastly, all the products mentioned above also relate to the geopolitical importance of the Arctic. In fact, having near-real-time observations and reliable forecasts available for sea ice cover and icebergs allows to plan for shipping across the region where actors are interested to increase their military and economic presence. Equally, melting ice may pave the way for increased exploration and exploitation of Arctic resources and presence in the region. Copernicus products allow to monitor the presence of vessels through instruments such as the CMS. Products for vessel detection, activity detection as well as wind and wave information by the CMS allow to reach large user communities providing data for fisheries control, law enforcement, maritime safety and security, customs, and marine pollution monitoring. On a different note, changing permafrost conditions adversely impact infrastructure and may contribute to health issues, and may therefore raise concerns for economic activities, security and defence. Hence, products allowing to monitor the status of permafrost may be useful with relation to geopolitical interests.


Potential Use of Earth Observation derived products for the Arctic

Starting from the widespread current use of Copernicus derived products for the Arctic in relation to the environmental, maritime and geopolitical aspects, the future holds even more opportunities, especially considering that three of the Copernicus Sentinel Expansion Missions with launch readiness foreseen for 2027 and 2028 will be directly related to this region: CRISTAL, CIMR and ROSE-L. These missions will address users’ needs that have been highlighted in the consultation process co-led by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) and DG DEFIS, particularly within the Polar Expert Groups, that ultimately led to their development.  CRISTAL is the Copernicus Polar Ice and Snow Topography mission that, thanks to its dual-frequency radar altimeter and microwave radiometer, will measure sea-ice thickness, overlying snow depth, and changes in the height of ice sheets and glaciers, supporting environmental observations and maritime operations in polar oceans.  The Copernicus Imaging Microwave Radiometer (CIMR) will uniquely observe a wide range of geophysical parameters in the cryosphere, ocean, land, and atmosphere to address the needs of Copernicus services for improved spatial resolution data on Sea Ice Concentration, Sea Ice Extent, Sea Surface Temperature, Salinity, and Sea Ice Drift, contributing primarily to environmental monitoring, but also to maritime operations. CIMR may also play a role in the monitoring of permafrost thawing by deriving land surface temperature, soil moisture, and the freeze/thaw state of soil.  The L-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (ROSE-L) mission focus will be instead to provide further information on Arctic vegetation, complementing the information provided by Sentinel 1, to support forest management, improve monitoring of the terrestrial carbon cycle and carbon accounting, and provide information aimed at increasing food security in the Arctic. ROSE-L will also collect data on soil moisture, sea ice, icebergs, land ice, and snow, and will provide capacity for monitoring vessel movements, oil spills, and fisheries. In addition, this mission is also expected to offer data on vertical ground motion, and thus might provide information on the state of permafrost.  The three other Sentinel Expansion Missions can also be relevant for observing parameters in the Arctic. These missions are Copernicus Anthropogenic CO2 Monitoring (CO2M), Copernicus Land Surface Temperature Monitoring (LSTM), and Copernicus Hyperspectral Imaging Mission for the Environment (CHIME).

Figure 2. New missions for the Arctic

Cylindrical stack representing the various categories of new missions for the arctic


Synergies, Integration and Future Development of EO-derived information for the Arctic 

Considering the increasing relevance of the Arctic from a geopolitical and strategic point of view and its importance for any policy aimed at preserving ecosystems, the increasing amount of data made available by the Copernicus programme will contribute to enhancing the uptake of Copernicus products throughout the policy cycle. This will ensure that policy needs are concretely met by a new generation of better integrated and synergistic products. To this end, increased synergy of Copernicus with other EU Space Programmes and in particular the satellite and communication capabilities provided by Galileo, EGNOS and SatCom will be key for climate reanalysis and maritime surveillance. A good example of this synergy is provided by the ERA5 global reanalysis, which assimilates a large number of satellite datasets, including Global Navigation Satellite System Radio Occultation (GNSS-RO) data and Copernicus products, to provide an improved analysis of the atmospheric state, and generate improved surface, cryospheric (snow and ice) and sea   states. ERA5 data is also being used to develop the CARRA dataset, which, thanks to the combination with past observations recorded by ground-based instruments and satellites, provides a complete and accurate picture of the climate in the European Arctic over the last 30 years. Delivering Copernicus products and services also requires the integration of in situ data to supplement, calibrate, and validate the satellite data. For this reason, the European Environment Agency (EEA), which is in charge of coordinating the in situ component of Copernicus,   has recently carried out an in situ coordination activity specifically for the Arctic region, aimed at identifying requirements and the availability of marine, atmospheric, and cryospheric in situ data. Additionally, the H2020 EU framework programme supports initiatives aimed at coordinating research in the polar region such as Kepler, which delivered a Copernicus roadmap for improved monitoring capacity in the Arctic in the following key areas: 1) opening up of Arctic sea routes, 2) increased access to natural resources, 3) development of new fisheries, 4) easier access to tourism in the polar regions, and 5) specialised environmental monitoring. Two other   examples are EU-PolarNet2, which is coordinating polar research actions in Europe to support decision-making in specific areas, and ARCOS - Arctic Observatory for Copernicus SEA Service, which develops an early-warning system providing continuous monitoring of the Arctic Region. While the Kepler project ended in 2021, the European Union is also funding the Arctic PASSION project under H2020, which has been launched in 2021 and aims to promote the integration of international environmental observing systems for the Arctic. These and several other EU funded polar projects are connected through the EU Polar Cluster network for knowledge sharing and activity coordination to increase their combined impact. 


Evolution of the EO Value Chain

A changing, warming, and open Arctic has environmental, socio-economic and geopolitical implications. This is broadly summarized by “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic”, as mentioned by Vidar Helgesen, the Norwegian Minister of Climate and Environment, in 2017. Over the coming years, there will be a come-back of the Arctic at the centre of the political stage, and thus enhancing European capacity in the region will be key to promote sustainable development, address climate change challenges and security threats. Copernicus’ role in support of the new EU Arctic Policy will become even more important and will provide the EU with a sustained capacity to support monitoring and to track main drivers of change in the Arctic, thus contributing to reinforcing the overall EU role in the region. Over the coming years, the European Commission will define an operational Copernicus Polar Observing System, based both on space-based and in-situ observing assets. To this end, a Polar Task Force has been established by the European Commission at the end of 2022 to further elaborate and facilitate coordination of the polar activities carried out by the various Copernicus Services, and stake out the direction for the polar dimension in Copernicus, including the establishment of a Copernicus Arctic Thematic Hub as a one-stop shop for all polar-relevant services and products. The next phase of Copernicus will provide data with higher spatial and temporal resolution through new missions, but also through increased synergy and integration with existing space capacities and in situ data with a view to establish an integrated and comprehensive observation system for the monitoring of this region for the benefit of all the stakeholders involved. This will contribute to the EU long-term environmental targets defined in the Green Deal, and also to the EU geopolitical targets as described in the Arctic Policy and the Global Strategy for the European Union's Foreign and Security Policy.



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