Space

New Satellite Exposes Pollution Hotspots on Earth

Fascinating images reveal high levels of nitrogen oxide, methane and carbon monoxide around the world Thursday, 7 December 2017

By Jonathan Manning
This images from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission shows nitrogen dioxide over Europe on 22 November 2017. It reveals high emissions over the Po Valley in northern Italy and over western Germany. The gaps in the coverage are because Sentinel-5P cannot image through clouds.

The newly launched Sentinel-5P satellite has beamed its first images of air pollution back to Earth. This latest Copernicus satellite only entered space on the 13th October, and already scientists are excited about its exceptional potential to monitor the Earth’s atmosphere and air quality.

One of the first images showed nitrogen dioxide (NOx) levels over Europe. The gas is a pollutant caused by vehicle engines and the burning of fossil fuels. The satellite revealed the high NOx concentrations over parts of the Netherlands, the Ruhr area in western Germany, the Po Valley in Italy and over areas of Spain.

The satellite also has the capacity to track levels of other pollutants, including methane, carbon monoxide and aerosol, which affect the air we breathe and our climate. Sentinel-5P has already identified high levels of carbon monoxide over parts of Asia, Africa and South America. It has even revealed high levels of pollution from power plants in India, and ash spewing from the Mount Agung volcano on Bali, Indonesia. 

The image reveals ozone distribution around the world. While ozone in the stratosphere is a good thing, protecting us from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, lower down in the atmosphere it is a harmful pollutant.

Josef Aschbacher, the European Space Agency’s director of Earth Observation Programmes, said, “These first images offer a tantalising glimpse of what’s in store and are not only an important milestone for the Sentinel-5P mission, but also an important milestone for Europe.

“Data such as we see here will soon underpin the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, and will be used to issue forecasts, and will ultimately be valuable for helping to put appropriate mitigation policies in place.”

Sentinel-5P has a swathe width of 2,600 km, which means it can map the whole of Earth every 24 hours.

One of the first images from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission showed high levels of carbon monoxide over northern Italy.

Stefan Dech, director of DLR’s Earth Observation Centre, said, “These first images are astonishing, especially given the satellite is still in the early stages of being commissioned for operations.

“The satellite’s Tropomi instrument promised to offer images of pollutants in higher resolution than ever before, and it’s certainly living up to its promise.”

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