Satellite data places air pollution in focus

October 30th, 2018, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: EE Publishers

With air quality a serious environmental health problem, the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite is tasked with mapping air pollutants around the entire globe every day. This new mission has been providing data on carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone since July 2018, and now other pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and formaldehyde have been added to the list of data products that can be monitored.

Satellite data and computer models are the only real way of showing how pollution accumulates around the world as a whole. In the immediate term, these tools are essential for forecasts and warnings on air quality. In the longer term they are indispensable for providing accurate information for decision-makers developing strategies to tackle this major problem.

Average formaldehyde in the atmosphere between January and August 2018, based on vertical column concentrations.

Average formaldehyde in the atmosphere between January and August 2018, based on vertical column concentrations.

Launched in October 2017, Copernicus Sentinel-5P – short for Sentinel-5 Precursor – is the first Copernicus satellite dedicated to monitoring the atmosphere. It is part of the fleet of Copernicus Sentinel missions that ESA develops for the European Union’s environmental monitoring programme. The satellite carries an advanced multispectral imaging spectrometer called Tropomi. This sensor detects the unique fingerprints of atmospheric gases in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to image a wide range of pollutants more accurately and at a higher spatial resolution than before.

Streams of data on carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, along with information on aerosols and clouds have been available since July. On 17 October 2018, sulphur dioxide and formaldehyde joined the list of air pollutants routinely available for services such as air-quality forecasting and volcanic ash monitoring.

The Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS) is a key user of these data products.

Copernicus Sentinel-5P data is also about to make its way into everyone’s pockets as the products are being taken up by smartphone applications to inform the public on current air quality. Sulphur dioxide affects air quality badly and can lead to breathing problems. While it is released into the atmosphere mainly through industrial processes, it is also present in volcanic plumes. Monitoring the spread of volcanic plumes is critical for aircraft safety. The near-real-time data on sulphur dioxide and aerosols are being used in the Support to Aviation Control Service and in the European Natural Disaster Coordination Information System for Aviation.

The latest data release also includes formaldehyde, which tends to enter the atmosphere from forest fires and wood processing, for example. It is an important intermediate gas in the oxidation of methane and other hydrocarbons. While it is short-lived in the atmosphere, it reacts chemically to become a source of carbon monoxide – another harmful pollutant.

Improved total ozone columns are now also available to enable long-term ozone monitoring from space.

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