Using Earth observations to help address challenges in small island nations

11 July 2023

George Apodaca, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Photo credit: Unsplash

Sitting at the forefront of climate change impacts, developing coastal resilience and adaptation plans is essential for small island nations. Good plans need good data, which is why the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) is working with small island stakeholders to harness Earth observations for early warning systems, monitoring systems, and more.

When Dr Nikelene Mclean returned to her home island of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, she was shocked to see that many of the beaches she spent her childhood on were disappearing. “I saw firsthand the negative impacts of climate change,  there was evidence of sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, coral bleaching, and coastal degradation. I realised that more needed to be done, not only for the environment but for the communities that depend on it.”

Every nation will feel the impact of climate change, but “unfortunately, small island nations, or large ocean states, are on the frontline of climate change,” Mclean explains. “We contribute a negligible percentage to the overarching causes of climate change, but we bear the brunt of its impacts.”

“It’s really important for small island nations to develop coastal resilience and adaptation plans. We should also prioritize the implementation of policies and management strategies to protect our people and our resources,” says Mclean. Harnessing Earth observations is crucial for ensuring such policies and strategies are effective.

Earth observations guide decision-making

“Earth observations play a crucial role in understanding and preparing for climate change,” says Dr Sara Venturini, Climate and Biodiversity Coordinator at the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Secretariat. “Satellites, ground-based sensors, and other monitoring systems collect data on variables such as temperature, sea level, wind patterns and ocean currents. These help scientists analyse long-term trends, assess the magnitude of change, and identify anomalies. We can also use these observational data to develop and improve models that simulate the Earth’s climate and ocean to make more reliable predictions or projections about future climate change, including the impact on the ocean and coasts.”

“Earth observations also help assess the health and resilience of marine ecosystems, understand the consequences of climate change for marine biodiversity and fisheries, as well as the vulnerability of coastal communities. They also enable operational services and early warning systems for extreme weather events including hurricanes, storms and heat waves. With a wealth of accessible near-real-time and very-high-resolution Earth observation data, policymakers can make informed decisions to address climate change and its impacts across sectors with accurate, up-to-date information,” Venturini adds.

Developing and working with ocean and coastal observations is not a trivial undertaking. For small island nations, financial, infrastructure, and skills limitations can severely hamper efforts. Fortunately, Earth observation data have become increasingly open and freely available through programs like the EU’s Copernicus Marine Service and Climate Change Services. Meanwhile, GEO is helping make more Earth observation data readily available – and put them to good use.

At GEO, “we support our member countries in understanding how to use Earth observations for the benefit of society and the environment,” says Venturini. As an example, GEO Secretariat is supporting the Maldives to gain access to the global expert network and co-design innovative solutions, while setting up a national coordination mechanism for Earth observation. In May 2023, the newly established Maldives Space Research Organisation hosted the Space for Island Nations Conference (SINC) – the first space conference to focus entirely on island nations’ perspectives, needs, and experiences.

Dr Sara Venturini, GEO Secretariat Climate and Biodiversity Coordinator at the Space for Island Nations Conference (SINC), Maldives, May 2023

Earth observation for the people

GEO has 48 initiatives focusing on various aspects of Earth observations. Taking care of the ocean and coastal waters is the GEO Blue Planet initiative, which hosts a suite of activities relevant to small island nations. Among these activities is the development of WaveFoRCE by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United States Geological Service (USGS), Deltares, and other partners under the Coastal Geomorphology Working Group. Aimed at coral reef-lined coastlines, WaveFoRCE “is an early warning system which will provide flooding forecasts ten days ahead of the flood event and at hourly intervals, supporting both early warning and longer-term planning,” says Venturini. Meanwhile, the Sargassum Working Group is looking at detection and forecasting systems for Sargassum blooms which impact numerous Caribbean small island nations and beyond. These forecasting systems harness Earth observations from EU Copernicus and US satellites.

For Mclean, who supported the USA’s contribution to GEO Blue Planet during her time at the NOAA/NESDIS Center for Satellite Applications and Research as a Knauss Marine Policy Fellow, “One of the real strengths of GEO Blue Planet is that they engage with vulnerable communities in an effort to understand their needs. they then use their amazing convening powers as a global initiative to recruit the actors who they believe will be able to support the implementation of strategies to help promote the sustainability of the ocean or the coast based on stakeholder needs.”

“At the GEO Blue Planet Symposium held in Accra, Ghana, we had a fisheries plenary session, where fisheries stakeholders, community officials and representatives from national ministries had the opportunity to openly discuss issues and required solutions.   We then worked with these stakeholders and members of the GEO Blue Planet Fishery Working Group to come up with actions that use Earth observations to provide decision-making tools,” says Mclean.

“For science to be impactful, it is important to understand the needs of persons on the ground. That’s what GEO Blue Planet is doing. It’s full circle, and I think that is really noble.”

Dr Nikelene Mclean at the GEO Blue Planet 5th Symposium in 2022 in Accra, Ghana, co-chair of the fisheries plenary session.