Studying the impact of climate change from outer space

How is climate change altering the amount of water that’s available from melted snow and ice? It’s an important question, given that more than one-sixth of the world’s population relies on seasonal snow packs and glaciers for their main supply of water.

At a remote research centre in northern Manitoba scientists from the University of Waterloo are looking for answers by investigating how radar could be used to estimate how much water is heClaude Duguay surrounded by iceld in snow and ice.

Working on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA), the Waterloo team is using twin frequency radars to develop and test the capabilities necessary to deliver all-weather, year-round information on regional and continental snow supplies.

“Over the last few decades we’ve seen a significant shift both in the amount of snow that’s available and when it starts to melt,” says Claude Duguay, professor, geography and environmental management and the Waterloo researcher leading the project. “By using radar to map the water content of snow on different ground surfaces, over time we hope to be able to monitor its seasonal and annual variations in relation to climate conditions.”

And starting in 2016 they hope to do it from outer space.

If the scientists are successful at providing hard evidence of the relationship between snow properties on the ground and radar measurements, the satellite mission they’re proposing to the ESA — the Earth Explorer Cold Regions Hydrology High-resolution Observatory (CoReH20) — may be selected as the ESA’s seventh Earth Explorer mission.

ESA’s Earth Explorer missions focus on the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, and earth’s interior. The aim is to give the earth science community an efficient tool for advancing the understanding of the earth’s systems. The questions the missions address form the basis for development of new applications of earth observation — like the one being explored by Duguay’s team.

“The ultimate goal of our work, of course, is to be able to provide decision makers with dependable data that will help them manage our global water resources and maximize their use,” says Duguay.

(Updated May 2013)