POST - Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Environmental Earth Observation

Published Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Earth observation (EO) is the process of gathering information about the Earth from a range of sensors to provide monitoring data at a range of scales. This POSTnote outlines some of the environmental uses and benefits of EO data, the potential opportunities from advances in relevant technologies and challenges facing the effective use of EO data.

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The focus of this note is the growing applications environmental remote sensing. Satellites collect data via a number of sensor types, including optical sensors, which derive information about the Earth from reflected sunlight, and radar sensors, which transmit and receive microwave pulses to assess, for example, the texture of the surface. Advantages of remote sensing over in situ observations include:

  • Remoteness–Being able to collect data from difficult-to-access regions, such as the oceans or polar regions, and at scales too large for in situ monitoring, such as at the regional, national, continental and global scales.
  • Regular revisit times–Making repeated and consistent observations of the same features to monitor environmental changes. For example, changes in the extent of Arctic sea ice, forests or urban areas.

Key points in this POSTnote include:

  • Earth observation (EO) data is used for many environmental applications, including weather forecasting, climate change monitoring, disaster risk reduction and biodiversity monitoring.
  • EO satellites and data are part of the UK’s Space Innovation and Growth Strategy, which aims to increase the UK’s share of the global space market to 10% by 2030.
  • New technologies, such as small satellites and drones, are providing new ways to access EO data.
  • Government departments and the private sector are seeking to develop better ways of using EO data and services to improve efficiency and value for money.
  • Challenges facing the effective us of EO data include data access and lack of EO data relevant skills. Brexit may affect the UK's interaction with the EU EO programmes.



POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Jordi Puig-Suari, California Polytechnic State University
  • Mandar Trivedi, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy*
  • Miguel Martinez-Boti, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy*
  • Farhana Amin, Defra
  • Martin Jones, Defra
  • Alison Matthews, Environment Agency
  • Steve Keyworth, Environment Systems*
  • Steven Ramage, Group on Earth Observations*
  • Barbara Ryan, Group on Earth Observations*
  • Nathalie Pettorelli, Institute of Zoology*
  • Matthew McCabe, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology
  • Nick Rayner, Met Office*
  • Roger Saunders, Met Office*
  • Bruce Truscott, Met Office*
  • Adrian Broad, Met Office*
  • Stewart Turner, Met Office*
  • Heiko Baltzer, National Centre on Earth Observations & University of Leicester*
  • Nigel Fox, National Physical Laboratory*
  • Emma Woolliams, National Physical Laboratory*
  • Robert Elliott, National Physical Laboratory*
  • Rollo Home, Ordnance Survey
  • Steve Groom, Plymouth Marine Laboratory
  • Sam Adlen, Satellite Applications Catapult*
  • Richard Hilton, Satellite Applications Catapult*
  • Daniel Wicks, Satellite Applications Catapult*
  • Stephen Spittle, Satellite Applications Catapult*
  • Elena Lobo, Satellite Applications Catapult
  • Adina Gillespie, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd
  • Martin Sweeting, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd
  • Jolyon Reburn, RAL Space*
  • Brian Kerridge, RAL Space
  • Sara Huntingdon, UK Space Agency*
  • Christopher McQuire, UK Space Agency*
  • Helen Thomas, University of Bristol
  • Stuart Marsh, University of Nottingham
  • Stephen Grebby, University of Nottingham
  • Debbie Clifford, University of Reading
  • Jim Lynch, University of Surrey*
  • Damian Testa, Royal Geographic Society*

*Denotes people who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.

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The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology.