Combating Climate Change: Satellite Imagery for Small Island Nations

By Anthony Burn, Chief Engagement Officer of Radiant.Earth

Small island nations isolated in vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean may be the canaries in the coal mine for what could be climate change’s dangerous impact on a global scale. With nearly a third of the island nation’s population living on land less than 5m above sea level, they are especially vulnerable to the global threat of rising sea levels, extreme weather patterns, deteriorating soil quality, and coral bleaching, all of which damage not only coastlines, but also communities and livelihoods.

Viti Levu, Fiji. Credit: ESA (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

However, small island nations have developed a strong voice on the need to act now to address climate change and are embracing innovative technology solutions to support long-term resilience. It is in this context that Radiant.Earth supports a vital mission underway to help three Pacific island nations — Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. As part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme (IPP) CommonSensing project, Radiant.Earth is contributing to this mission, helping these island nations address the existing and emerging, threats posed by climate change.

“Sustainable development that mitigates the effects of climate change for geographically isolated nations, with heavily fragmented island populations, will only be achieved by investing in national capabilities and expertise in the use of innovative technologies.”

Understanding Unique Challenges

Though economic drivers vary from island to island, a combination of tourism, agriculture, forestry, and fishing are the foundation for these island economies. In recent years, land degradation has diminished crop yields, threatening supplies of staple crops such as taro for both export and domestic consumption.

Even before the effects of climate change became evident, these islands experienced development challenges, making them particularly vulnerable to the damage caused by severe storms and rising seas. Despite these difficulties, some of the islands score quite high in overall preparedness for disasters, based on the Sendai Framework. However, they receive a low score in information management systems, primarily because of a serious digital divide across the islands. These nations — consisting of up to 1,000 islands each — struggle with sharing data across their more remote geographies, resulting in unaligned responses to their shared challenges. They have a wide range of mapping and GIS tools and products. However, there is a lack of standardization, and as a result, there are significant issues of interoperability. CommonSensing will directly address these issues.

Recognizing the scale of the problem facing small islands, the Paris Climate Agreement designated financial commitments to vulnerable regions through the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) program. These funds are intended to support a broad array of climate change adaptation programs required to maintain environmental and economic viability over the long term. They are perfectly tailored to support SIDS, yet these island states often lack the resources, capacity, and expertise to access global climate financing, partly because of their lack of robust information systems and required data across geographies.

Launching CommonSensing

CommonSensing is an ambitious project that will supply Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu with improved access to climate finance adaption funds. Led by UNOSAT, the CommonSensing consortium includes the Satellite Applications Catapult, the Commonwealth Secretariat, Devex, the University of Portsmouth, the UK Met Office, Sensonomic, and Radiant.Earth.

The CommonSensing project provides SIDS access to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and the Commonwealth’s Climate Finance Access Hub (CFAH), for overall climate change adaptation activities. More specifically, the project’s goal is to deliver robust, easy-to-use climate change tools and services to these islands, using satellite Earth observation data. The services will be tailored to data and tools that match the specific challenges of each country and can further be integrated with their data and decision-making systems.

The datasets, which will be openly licensed, will address three main challenges:

· vulnerability to natural disasters, in particular cyclones, floods, droughts, and landslides;

· food security and maritime sector efficiency; and

· overall vulnerability to climate change, including deforestation, and access to clean water.

“The key to the CommonSensing consortium’s goals is ensuring sustainable, scalable, and continuous knowledge transfer of data that makes a difference.”

Bridging Knowledge with the Digital Divide

Knowledge transfer and capacity development are typically amongst the most elusive components of development work. Radiant.Earth supports impactful, and sustainable “last mile” capacity building activities by working within well-established program delivery structures. This principle is championed by all the partners within CommonSensing, embedding flexible technical solutions, rich with relevant data, into national and local governance and decision-making structures.

Specialists will be integrated within local governments to ensure that knowledge transfer activities are impactful. For example, to provide long-term project sustainability, the Commonwealth Secretariat is placing in-country advisors from CFAH in various offices to strengthen the links to the new CommonSensing data service.

In the past, some of the training and expertise provided to these small island nations struggled to reach their outlying islands, partly due to the lack of internet connectivity outside of the major islands, which are connected by sea cables. In the long run, the lack of connectivity may be addressed by the ongoing, staggered rollout of satellite or sea-cable connectivity to more islands across the pacific. Meanwhile, however, CommonSensing is taking steps to address this challenge. In addition to working with the relevant national ministries, it is also partnering with local research institutes, NGOs, and traditional community planning and decision-making channels, such as Vanuatu’s National Council of Chiefs (NCC).

The NCC is an important facilitator for local community decision-making and is used to work closely with government ministries to deliver programs and policies across the islands. Including NCC in CommonSensing provides a direct line to and from the beneficiary community. Building relationships with such community structures, supported by government partners, will prove to be critical to CommonSensing’s success.

CommonSensing similarly aims to work with local centers of knowledge and expertise in geography and environmental science, such as the University of the South Pacific.

Keeping regional partners informed and involved is essential for ensuring the long-term success of development missions. CommonSensing engages countries in the Pacific region who already support these islands in significant ways, through financial, technical, and political means. Australia and New Zealand for instance, support many climate change adaptation programs carried out by NGOs within the islands and provide government ministries with technical advice and resources, including weather and climate data, as well as disaster preparedness and response. This includes GIS-related support, such as vegetation and temperature mapping that measures the impact on agriculture and food security, from rising temperatures in coastal waters, and inland rural settlements.

Another crucial component of CommonSensing is open data. Currently, SIDS have access to limited, commercial products, some of which are very good. However, it can still be problematic to share them with key NGOs, outside of the government ministries. A commitment to open data will greatly facilitate information sharing with communities focused on climate change adaptation across islands.

Making a Difference for Today and the Future

Sustainable development that mitigates the effects of climate change for geographically isolated nations, with heavily fragmented island populations, will only be achieved by investing in national capabilities and expertise in the use of innovative technologies.

The key to the CommonSensing consortium’s goals is ensuring sustainable, scalable, and continuous knowledge transfer of data that makes a difference. These island nations can then make faster, better fact-based decisions from climate change adaptation, to ensure they have the domestic wherewithal to secure their own future against the existential threat posed by climate change.