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Earth observation (EO) covers the many in situ and remote sensing technologies that are employed to measure and monitor our local and global environment. These technologies are advancing all the time, even more so in recent years as administrations, and in particular the European Union, seek to harmonise and integrate data from these observation platforms, whether land, sea, air, or space-based. This is done in the conviction that better coordination and integration of Earth observation will have many beneficial impacts, not only on political decision-making, but also directly on citizens’ daily lives.

Earth observation is not new. Humans have always watched over the Earth, at least the part of it they inhabit, in order to better understand and manage their environment. Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers watched the seasons to predict animal migrations and organise hunting expeditions; and the first farmers tracked the weather to know when to plant and when to reap their crops, just as farmers do today. The ancient Egyptians used a ‘nilometer’ to measure rising waters that announced the seasonal floods and heralded the planting season further downstream. And sailors throughout history have followed and recorded the behaviour of the sky and sea, to ensure safe, ice-free waters and favourable winds on their journeys.

A world full of measurement

Environmental monitoring is made up of a variety of complementary observations. At present, there are some 100 000 in situ stations installed on ground-based platforms. Today, there are environmental measuring devices all around us: weather buoys at sea guide shipping; weather stations on land help save lives and properties, giving advance warning of severe weather events; seismometers monitor volcanoes for potential eruptions; pollution meters in cities warn those with allergies; and tidal meters in estuaries protect vulnerable communities. Many of these sensors have a specific purpose, such as flood protection or urban pollution monitoring. Others range more widely in time and space – for example, networks of ground-based laser systems that probe the atmosphere for contaminants, such as aerosols and particulate matter from forest and wildland fires, up to thousands of kilometres away from their source regions. These networks can track such contaminants, which move around the planet in the upper atmosphere, providing information on how they influence cloud formation and their potential contribution to weather forecasts and climate change. The Commission-funded EARLINET project (see cases) is such a network, linking atmospheric research lasers across Europe to study aerosols and their influence on climate.

The advent of satellites in the 1960s gave a huge boost to EO. Before weather satellites were placed in orbit, meteorologists could only monitor one fifth of the Earths’ surface. Approximately 50 environmental satellites are currently in orbit. Today, they can see the whole globe, with continuous updates on cloud cover, storms and a host of other parameters. The European METEOSAT satellites have provided images from space on our television weather forecasts for the past 26 years. As technology advanced, satellites began to look at more than just the weather, providing imagery from space for fields such as land cover and vegetation monitoring, natural resource exploitation, agriculture and forestry, as well as the monitoring of natural disasters, and they continue this task today.

Global environmental problems – which cannot be solved by individual countries on their own – and the high costs of environmental monitoring have always favoured international co-operation in this field, which helps to avoid duplication and promotes sharing of information. The World Weather Watch of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) is a very positive example of successful international co-operation. Unfortunately, many Earth observation systems still operate independently, exchanging little or no information. In addition, temporal and spatial gaps do exist in EO systems. Many potential users never see much of the data provided and are not offered EO-based data, information, products and services tailored to their needs.

Coordinating a more sophisticated view

Today’s more sophisticated Earth and space-based observation platforms are reinforcing our capacity to manage events, either in real time, such as monitoring natural disasters as they unfold, or over the longer term, such as climate change predictions. However, there remains a large degree of fragmentation and isolation between these data sources. This has given an impulse to governments and scientific communities around the world to seek synergies through harmonising and integrating the many data sources from Earth-based and space-based platforms. Such integration would allow better management of our planet and its environment, with a wide range of socio-economic benefits.

The European Commission has a long tradition of supporting research on environmental monitoring in the Framework Programmes FP5 and FP6, both in developing observation systems and exploiting the information they provide for the benefit of EU citizens. This commitment to the development and improvement of integrated Earth observation technologies, their applications in supporting a deeper understanding of the complex inter-related components of planet Earth, the sustainable management of its limited resources, and the necessity to build and reinforce international co-operation, lies behind the leading role the Research DG is playing in the ad-hoc Group on Earth Observation (GEO).

The system of systems

The GEO is an intergovernmental body, currently consisting of 51 countries and the European Commission, charged with developing a ten-year plan to strengthen co-operation in Earth observation, particularly with regard to developing countries. The aim is to link existing in situ networks with airborne and space-based platforms to create the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). The GEOSS would revolutionise both our understanding of how the world works and our ability to manage our environment for the benefit of all of us on Earth. The societal and economic benefits of GEOSS include:

  • reducing loss of life and property from disasters;
  • gaining a better understanding of how environmental factors affect human health;
  • understanding climate change and managing its consequences;
  • improved resource management, such as energy and water;
  • better management of ecosystems and biodiversity; and
  • supporting sustainable agriculture and combating desertification.

All of these benefits are related to topics of environmental research addressed in the EU RTD Framework Programme. So GEOSS can be added to the tools supporting a range of EU policies through improved decision-making and implementation and based on more complete environmental monitoring information. It is this feature of Earth observation that is guiding the Commission’s efforts in supporting EO-related research under the Framework Programmes.

These same benefits are driving the joint ESA-EU Global Monitoring for the Environment and Security (GMES) initiative, which is a major European contribution to the GEOSS. GMES supports EU policies on environment and security by developing, by 2008, European capacity for providing and using operational information collected from space and Earth observation platforms. It will provide innovative, cost-effective, sustainable and user-friendly services, which will enable decision-makers to better anticipate, or integrate responses to, crisis situations affecting the environment and security.

The GEOSS will work closely with developing countries, which will be among the largest beneficiaries of Earth observation data. On 15 October 2004, the Commission organised an EO partnership conference to launch large-scale dialogue with developing countries – those with emerging economies – in order to raise awareness about the huge potential benefits of international co-operation in Earth observation. The event aimed to foster partnership development in this field and to promote ties between developing countries and European and international research on Earth system science. A number of Commission-funded RTD projects are addressing co-operation and capacity building in developing countries.

Projects to ‘bring it together’

Current and future calls for research proposals under the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) for research in the Environment and Space/GMES priority areas address Earth observation and its contribution to the implementation of the GEOSS. To show the EU’s contribution to this important field, examples of Commission-backed research are presented in the ‘more information’ and cases section of this page.

Latest News on Observing the Earth



GEO and GMES Projects
The following are examples of projects from the EU’s Framework Programmes for  research and technological development.


EARLINET – ‘European Aerosol Research Lidar Network to Establish an Aerosol Climatology’ – is a Commission-funded FP5 project aimed at building a comprehensive statistical database of the distribution of aerosols across the European continent. Today, the effect of aerosols on the global climate system and climate predictions is a major challenge. They play a significant role in atmospheric chemistry and, hence, affect the concentrations of atmospheric material, including ozone and UV-B radiation, which can be harmful to human health. A better understanding of this process will help scientists remove aerosols from the atmosphere.


The Commission-funded BICEPS study assessed the scientific and technical capability of current Earth observation technologies to inform policy-making, particularly with regard to environmental changes. Through this assessment, which covered land, sea, air and space-based platforms, gaps in the production of environmental information (e.g. measurement and interpretation of data) were identified and solutions to improve the current situation (e.g. requirements for new observation platforms or new environmental indicators) were suggested. BICEPS has been a crosscutting FP5 project that contributed to several thematic areas of Earth observation.


The BIOPRESS FP5 project links European land cover changes to pressures on biodiversity. Several EU policy areas have legislation to protect habitats, such as Natura 2000 sites. BIOPRESS is combining aerial photographs with satellite images to record changes over the past 50 years in land cover and land use around these areas. From this data, new quantitative measures of pressures on biodiversity will result, which will aid future decision-making on land use.


ESONET, the FP5 European sea floor observatory network, is undertaking preparatory studies to place ‘sensor packages’ on the submarine continental margins, from the Arctic to the Black Sea. The aim is to measure a range of physical, chemical and biological parameters to obtain information on seismic activity, chemical changes, biodiversity, etc., over the long term.


Feedback is expected from the DISMAR project, which is monitoring marine pollution and water quality. This FP5 project uses a range of space and Earth-based systems to identify marine oil spills and algal blooms in coastal regions of Europe, and to provide information which is used to support public administrations and emergency services in dealing with these crises.

  • EU Research for Sustainable Earth Observation
    Watching the world for a better tomorrow
    EN link 24 PDF icon [582 Kb]

More information on EU funded projects

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