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From Satellites to Small Island States: Harnessing the Power of Earth Observations for Societal Good

Small Island States

Growing up along the coast of the Caribbean Island of St. Vincent has indelibly influenced my passion for the coastal and marine environment. At a young age, I knew coastal ecosystems were extremely valuable resources as they provided important services to the environment, society, and economy. I was also aware of its vulnerability. I witnessed the effects of climate change through sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, and coral bleaching. As I got older, the degradation of the coastal environment continued, and I was determined to find solutions.

As a teenager, I was an environmental young leader and ventured to the island’s most vulnerable coastal communities to provide information to locals regarding the causes and effects of climate change, the importance of sustaining the island’s natural resources, and measures that can be taken to reduce the impact of environmental phenomena on their day to day lives. Many of these individuals, most of whom were farmers and watermen, expressed their concerns about the drastic reductions in catch quantities because of habitat destruction, a reduction in crop yields as a result of saltwater intrusion, and the constant threat to their lands and homes as a result of coastal erosion. These experiences taught me that there was a need for climate change adaptation strategies, better coastal ecosystem management and outreach programs, as well as the development of improved environmental policies to strengthen our coastal resilience.

As I embarked on my career as a scientist through scholarship and research, it became clear that coastal issues transcended international borders. In conducting projects geared towards improving coastal resilience throughout the Caribbean, South, Central, and North America, I gathered startling data and had numerous discussions with local stakeholders who all emphasised the need for climate action in their respective countries.

It is important to note however that although the impacts of climate change can be observed on a global scale, its effects are not proportionately distributed among the world’s nations. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) of the Caribbean Sea, Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans are at significantly higher risk of the effects of sea-level rise, coastal hazards, habitat degradation, and coastal erosion than other nations, despite their negligible contribution to the causes of these phenomena.

The degradation of the coastal and marine environment in these vulnerable communities is poised to continue unless measures are taken to mitigate the impacts of climate change. To develop appropriate management strategies and effective environmental policies, we must first be able to improve our understanding of the threats to these resources. Earth observations can be used as a powerful tool to support a wide range of decisions necessary to support the resilience of vulnerable coastal communities and adjacent marine resources among SIDS.

Hurricane Lee
Imagery of Hurricane Lee captured from the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-16), operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Numerous applications of Earth observation data can support the decision making necessary to improve climate resilience among Small Island Developing States. Data gathered from satellite altimetry radars can be used to measure and monitor sea level rise on a global scale, actions which will be key to mitigating the risk posed to coastal communities from coastal inundation, shoreline erosion, and the degradation of coastal ecosystems.

Ocean and coastal observations also deliver data and information required to prepare, forecast, mitigate, and recover from disasters. In many situations, including hurricanes, typhoons, and storm surge events, ocean and coastal observations from satellites can be used to provide warnings to vulnerable coastal communities. Additionally, Earth observations can provide data on sea surface temperatures, the occurrence of harmful algal blooms, and other phenomena that may harm marine biodiversity.

Coral bleaching
Remotely sensed data from satellite and in-situ sources can provide information on sea surface temperatures which can be used to forecast marine phenomenon such as coral bleaching.

Earth observations can also be used in decision support frameworks designed to improve the capacity of countries to adapt to climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) developed the National Adaptation Planning process to help Least Developed Countries identify medium- and long-term adaptation needs and strategies required to improve their adaptive capacity to climate change. These National Adaptation Plans can be informed by satellite-derived and in-situ remotely sensed data on oceans and coasts to help SIDS improve their ability to mitigate against the coastal manifestations of climate change. National Adaptation Plans, informed by Earth observations, are key decision-making tools as they help ensure that vulnerable countries, like SIDS, integrate coastal adaptation into policies, programs, and activities geared towards mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Earth observations
Earth observation informed National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) can support the development of strategies and policies required to improve adaptive capacity and strengthen resilience among coastal communities.

Geospatial data collected on the world’s oceans and coasts can be used as a powerful tool in supporting SIDS’ efforts to improve their nations’ resilience to the risks posed by climate change. This would, however, not be possible without the support of the global community. I wish to underscore the importance of recognising the need for partnership and collaboration as we work to address issues plaguing members of vulnerable communities on the front lines of the climate crisis. Cooperation among global data-providing agencies, regional collaboratives, and local entities is required to ensure the equitable dissemination of the tools, resources, and data needed to support sustainable island communities and the environmental resources upon which they depend.

About the Author

Nikelene Mclean is a coastal geospatial ecologist whose efforts are geared towards providing access to the ocean and coastal observational data, tools and services needed to inform climate adaptation and mitigation among Small Island Developing States (SIDS).



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