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Satellite 'sentinels' to help track climate change

European project that will monitor different climate elements in Europe from space aims to help fight climate change.

A European project to monitor the continent's climate from space could provide a boost in the fight against climate change.

The Global Monitoring for Environment and Security project (GMES) will eventually consist of five satellites--or "sentinels"--that will monitor different climate elements.

The project has been jointly developed by the European Commission and European Space Agency and is aimed at generating data to inform government policy for combating climate change and help plan for the effects of the changes already taking place.

Each satellite would provide different data sets, such as ocean-monitoring information (temperature, color, level) and atmospheric data.

Speaking at a panel discussion in Westminster, U.K., professor Alan O'Neill, director of the National Centre for Earth Observation, said, "I think that the GMES could be a critical contribution to an Earth information system."

The project could provide "assured continuity of crucial data sets" that could help understand and predict climate change and inform policy making in hundreds of years, he added.

Professor David Crichton, consultant on insurance and climate change, cited a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that suggests government policy now needs to focus on making the infrastructure more resilient to climate change.

There are firm plans for the first three sentinels--with launches expected in 2011 or 2012--but plans for the final two satellites are less certain due to funding issues.

O'Neill said the U.K. has to do more than it has done so far to ensure results of the data-gathering can be quickly made into policy. "If the U.K. gets its act together, it can get involved in the building of (GMES)," he said.

Stuart Martin, director of space and satellite communications at LogicaCMG, which is heavily involved in the project, said the U.K. isn't putting enough money into the GMES pot.

Michael Jack, chairman of the U.K.'s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, agreed. He said, "There is a sort of reluctance in our system to spend any money on space."

John Higgins, director general of IT industry association Intellect, added, "The perceptions of this topic are quite different around the world. There are actions that need to be taken."

But Jack said the U.K. decision makers need to be better informed about the project and more effort needs to be made to engage with the public around the project. "At the moment there's a yawning disconnect," he said.

Jack added there are lessons to be learned from the European Galileo project--aimed at rivaling the U.S. GPS satellite system--which has also suffered from a dearth of funding.

The U.K.'s House of Commons Select Committee on Transport has said Galileo is suffering from an "alarming" absence of information about its costs and benefits.

Tim Ferguson of reported from London.