Earth observation is the gathering of information about planet Earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems via remote sensing technologies, usually involving satellites carrying imaging devices. Earth observation is used to monitor and assess the status of, and changes in, the natural and manmade environment. Space-based technologies deliver reliable and repeat-coverage datasets, which combined with research and development of appropriate methods, provide a unique means for gathering information concerning the planet. Examples include the monitoring of the state and evolution of our environment, be it land, sea or air, and the ability to rapidly assess situations during crises such as extreme weather events or during times of human conflict.
The JRC supports several policies within which the use of Earth observation plays a key role: the INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe) Directive, the Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS), the European Earth Observation Programme (Copernicus), the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), the Common Agricultural policy (CAP) and the Integrated Maritime Policy.
The ambition of the JRC is to develop a digital replica of our planet that provides globally shared access to the best available data, models, and scenarios necessary to support EU policy, public participation, and scientific research. The JRC helps set international standards for measurements from space through its in-house research and cooperation with partners, and enables the acquisition, access and storage of satellite and aerial remote sensing data.
Land Parcel Information Systems and On-the-Spot checks
The Land Parcel Identification System (LPIS) is used to identify land use and boundaries in a given country by using aerial photographs and high precision satellite images. Information is extracted and stored digitally, providing an accurate record that can be periodically updated to monitor the evolution of land cover and the management of the crops.
The LPIS provides geo-referenced, online information that is supported by up-to-date nationwide image datasets. The JRC provides scientific and technical support for the implementation of the Integrated Administration and Control System (IACS), cross compliance implementation and information management linked to these issues.
The LPIS was designed for the implementation of the first pillar of the CAP – direct payments to the farmer, i.e. to identify and quantify the land that is eligible for payments.
Since 1993, the Commission’s Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development has promoted the use of “Controls with Remote Sensing” (CwRS) as an appropriate method to check if area-based aids are correctly granted. CwRS is performed using satellite remote sensing data which are provided to the EU Member States’ administrations or their CwRS contractors, in order to carry out all or part of their on-the-spot checks in accordance with current legislation. The task of acquiring satellite images, carrying out quality control and and making them available to EU Member States is performed by the JRC for the European Commission.
Earth observation techniques for land and seas
Reliable and accurate information is essential to support environmental policies in identifying the issues to be addressed and monitoring their effectiveness. A fundamental aspect of the JRC’s work involves the validation, quality control and benchmarking of Earth observation products over ocean and land.
The marine coastal waters in Europe are constantly exposed to the impacts of climate change and increasing human pressure through activities such as fisheries, energy production, tourism, trade and commerce. The physical, biological and morphological characteristics of the European seas and coasts are being affected accordingly, modifying their ecological structure, their functions and the goods and services they provide.
The Environmental Marine Information System has been developed to facilitate access to scientific and technical environmental products and relies on biological and physical variables generated from both hydrodynamic models and satellite remote sensing. A number of these variables and advanced products are available to the scientific and managerial community through a geographic information system (GIS) tool, enabling the user to create maps and conduct basic regional assessments.
The JRC has also set up and maintains an integrated data system which processes, analyses and archives quality-controlled satellite-derived ocean colour data products in order to provide information maps of the organic biomass and carbon productivity of European seas and global oceans.
The JRC forest observation activities include carrying out quantitative measurements and mapping changes in forest resources, and monitoring European forests and environmental interactions.
The JRC develops forest monitoring techniques which include radar technologies, as these have good cloud penetration properties and operate without sunlight. It aims to generate regional forest maps, track areas of rapid forest change and produce statistically valid estimates of forest cover change for the current and previous decades.
Research on forest biodiversity has led to the development of techniques for the analysis of forest spatial patterns and forest fragmentation in Europe.
The habitats of many endangered species in Europe are closely linked to the status of the forests, as increased fragmentation of our forests may trigger the extinction of these species. The forest monitoring activities carried out by the JRC are essential to the implementation of indicators related to the monitoring of forest spatial patterns and forest fragmentation.
Global monitoring of agriculture and food security
The dramatic increases in population seen in the past 50 years and projected to 2050, together with pressures for an alternative use of food-producing land, highlight the need for comprehensive, systematic and accurate global agricultural monitoring activities.
The JRC provides early, independent, and objective estimates about the yield and production of the main crops in Europe and its neighbourhood, and is extending these activities to other strategic areas of the world. Satellite observations and meteorological data are integrated with baseline data on regional agronomic practices and results from crop growth model simulations. This information is used to prepare monthly Bulletins of crop yield forecasts for EU countries and neighbouring regions.
Since January 2012, the crop yield and production estimates are included in the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). AMIS is an international effort (G-20 initiative) as a contribution to the transparency of global agricultural markets in order to reduce the volatility of commodity prices. The JRC is committed to participate in this initiative through DG Agriculture by providing timely data and information on yield and production levels.
The JRC also monitors food security in high-risk regions worldwide. The information produced contributes to EU external aid and development policies, in particular to food aid and food security policy. The desired outcome is to avoid food shortages and market disruptions and to better calibrate and direct European food aid. Bulletins and assessments are produced to highlight the development of potentially critical situations and to support food security analyses carried out by EU services, governments, international organisations and other food security actors. The assessments are based on several indicators, including rainfall anomalies, the Global Water Satisfaction Index, and satellite-derived crop condition indicators.
Earth observation for crisis management
Satellite-derived information plays an essential role in all phases of crisis management as a synoptic, independent and objective data source. The JRC's research focuses on the automatic analysis of satellite data to provide information products and analyses for more effective disaster risk reduction, conflict prevention, and needs assessments for post-disaster response, recovery and reconstruction planning.
Maritime surveillance is essential for creating maritime awareness ('knowing what is happening at sea'). With its competencies in space technologies and data fusion, the JRC helps to strengthen the EU capabilities in maritime surveillance, by contributing to the development of the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) and the Common Information Sharing Environment (CISE) for the EU maritime domain, and by investigating maritime surveillance solutions e.g. in the fight against piracy off Africa.
Satellite image of a land mass