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Adaptation option

Use of remote sensing in climate change adaptation

Remote sensing refers to the acquisition of data and information about a phenomenon and a territory, without a direct contact with it. It is alternative to in-situ observation. Remote sensing techniques are used in numerous fields, including geography, hydrology, ecology, meteorology, oceanography, glaciology, geology, as well as for military scope, intelligence, commercial, economic, planning, and humanitarian applications.

Remote sensing technologies can be satellite- or aircraft-based and are able to detect and classify objects and characteristics of the Earth system through propagated signals (e.g. electromagnetic radiation). In addition, the use of drones is emerging due to the high-resolution data that can be collected in a short time for real-time monitoring. "Active" remote sensing techniques refer to a signal directly emitted by a satellite or an aircraft, that is reflected by an object and it is, on turn, detected by the sensor (e.g. RADAR and LiDAR), while "passive" remote sensing is referred to sensors able to detect radiation that is emitted or reflected by an object or surrounding areas (e.g. film photography, infrared, charge-coupled devices, and radiometers).

Recently, remote sensing has been used for improving understanding of the climate system and its changes. It enables to monitor the Earth surface, ocean and the atmosphere at several spatio-temporal scales, thus allowing climate system observations, as well as to investigate climate-related processes or long and short term phenomena, as for example deforestation or El Niño trends. Moreover, remote sensing is useful to collect information and data in dangerous (e.g. during fire events) or inaccessible areas (e.g. impervious areas). Specific examples of remote sensing uses also related to climate change adaptation practices include: (i) natural resource management, (ii) management of agricultural practices, for example related to land use, land conservation and soil carbon stock, (iii) tactical forest fire-fighting operations in real-time decision support systems, (iv) monitoring of land cover and its changes over different temporal and spatial scales, even after a disaster event, (v) better informed forest and water management, (vi) evaluation of carbon stocks and related dynamics, (vii) simulation of climate system dynamic, (viii) improvement of climate projections and meteorological reanalysis products, widely used for climate change research studies.

Finally, remote sensing can be used for improving warning and preparedness, being therefore also useful in disaster risk management. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) using satellite technology can be used for developing early warning and forecasting systems to reduce and manage climate-related disaster risk (i.e. preparing better prediction of cyclone and flood tracks, drought events, fire occurrence), as well as helping to be prepared for actions. Remote sensing technology can be also useful for post-disaster damage detection, based on comparative analysis of before and post disaster images. Remote sensing data and information are also useful for emergency workers.

Diverse programmes and initiatives are in place in Europe and worldwide to drive the use and sharing of remote data. Copernicus is the EU’s Earth Observation Programme coordinated and managed from European Commission. It consists of a complex set of systems which collect data from multiple sources: earth observation satellites and in situ sensors such as ground stations, airborne and sea borne sensors. Copernicus processes these data and provides users with information through a set of services that address six thematic areas: land, marine, atmosphere, climate change, emergency management and security. Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) provides climate change services that support European climate policies and actions, contributing to build an European society more resilience in a human-induced changing climate. The Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) is a set of coordinated, independent Earth observation, information and processing systems that provide access to information for public and private sectors. The ‘GEOSS Portal’ offers a single Internet access point for users seeking data, imagery and analytical software packages relevant to all parts of the globe.

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Adaptation Details

IPCC categories

Social: Informational, Structural and physical: Technological options

Stakeholder participation

Remote sensing is used to produce knowledge or even decision support systems for targeted users (e.g. practioners involved in disaster risk management, urban planners, land planners, farmers, etc.). The involvement of final users as stakeholders along the entire process of knowledge and products design and creation is essential to produce outputs which are really used and useful, according to the co-production paradigm.

Success and Limiting Factors

Remote sensing techniques, and specifically satellite images, have been already successfully used in a wide range of climate change fields, such as for: (i) investigating global temperature trends, both at the ocean surface and in the atmosphere, (ii) detecting changes in solar radiation affecting global warming, (iii) monitoring aerosols, water vapour concentration, and changes in precipitation regime, (iv) studying the dynamics of snow extension and ice cover, (v) monitoring sea-level changes and coastal modifications, (vi) monitoring vegetation status and change, (vii) monitoring water resources and impact due to droughts and dry periods, (viii) monitoring fire events and fire emissions, (ix) predicting disaster risk, such as cyclone, floods, and drought, (x) guiding decision-making processes on climate change adaptation. The use of remote sensed data is quickly evolving, both in terms of available techniques and resolution, and other uses relevant for climate change adaption are expected to emerge in the next future.

Some concerns, however, have been posed on the use of remote sensing. Studying and monitoring climate change require long-term time series of observations, while satellite data are often available for short-term period. Furthermore, some uncertainties and distortions of received image frames due to vibrations and turbulence can derive by biases in sensors and retrieval algorithms, so the use of satellite observations in climate change studies requires a clear identification of such limitations. Other possible limitations include: (i) high cost for acquiring aircraft and drone high-resolution data; (ii) in some cases, limited access to needed technologies due to costs or skills constrains; (iii) temporal discontinuity of aircraft and satellite data; while the first can be particularly expensive and therefore available for a limited number of surveys, the second are collected at fixed intervals depending on the satellite return time.

Costs and Benefits

Direct land observations are typically limited in spatial coverage, whereas remote sensing techniques allow for monitoring a greater scale. Satellite data have wide coverage, multi-temporal and multispectral capability, providing climate change related data and information for extensive areas. This allows improvements in understanding the climate system, studying and predicting climate change effect on ecosystems, and monitoring the effectiveness of implemented adaptation measures.

Remote sensing also allows data collection in dangerous or inaccessible areas, with no disturbance for the site, and provides frequent updates. Data acquisition is often less expensive and faster than direct collection of data from the ground. In addition, the use of drones adds flexibility in time and space monitoring and the advantage of no human risks.

Price of satellite imagery varies depending on spatial resolution. Low resolution (> 10m) archive images are usually free of charge, while price increases from 1 to 8 $ per km2 passing from 5-10 m resolution to 0.3-1 m resolution (2019 prices; see for example Geocento). Costs are slightly higher for images taken by airplanes and drones; this latter can arrive at a resolution < 0.05 m. Of course, prices increase if customized images are required. Resources are also needed to process data and develop applications. Finally, enough skills and capacity are required for using remote sensing data.

Implementation Time

The implementation time refers to data processing and delivering of final knowledge or products. It greatly depends on the specific scope and use of remote sensing techniques, the level of available skills, the availability of needed tools, and the collaboration between the different stakeholders involved.

Life Time

The use of remote sensing techniques for studying climate change and supporting the definition of actions for mitigation and adaptation to climate change can be performed both at the short- and long-term period.

Reference information


Yang, J., Gong, P., Fu, R., Zhang, M., Chen, J., Liang, S., Xu, B., Shi J., and Dickinson, R., (2013). The role of satellite remote sensing in climate change studies. Nature Climate change, vol. 13.

Published in Climate-ADAPT Apr 01 2020   -   Last Modified in Climate-ADAPT Dec 12 2023

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