Remember all those PSAs you heard about how the climate was changing, and that we were running out of time?

Well - all the hallmarks of climate change and associated risks to all spheres of human activity are here and now, and not some distant future (although our current trajectory means that we will experiences these impacts in the future as well).

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Frequent disasters like the Australian bushfires of 2020 are being attributed to climate change

As a whole, we have only begun to scratch the surface of what is required to understand, mitigate, and adapt to the crisis. Measurement and reporting frameworks abound to get governments, companies, and the like to account for risks and impacts in their annual reports. But is this focus on projections and reporting sufficient to understand how climate change is likely to impact critical assets, infrastructure, organizations, and vulnerable populations in a dynamic and changing environment?

As Blue Sky Analytics' journey has shifted from a focus on the air pollution crisis in India to monitoring an even broader range of environmental impacts, we have found several key reasons as to why satellite based insights can be game changing for climate action.

"All models are wrong, but some are useful"

Much of the conversation around climate impacts still has a bias toward future projections - with focus on future decades and estimation of the risks to come in that future. While these are critical, we also need to not lose sight of the fact that climate change is in fact happening now. Having an understanding of what is unfolding in front of our eyes is equally important, especially when it is routinely reported that models have underestimated the impacts of climate change.

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Satellite images show major water bodies shrinking as 'Day Zero' approached closer for the city of Chennai. Source: AP

Beyond the challenges in forecasting climate impacts, when we look at actual environmental outcomes there are many additional variables at play. For example, in our enthusiasm to address GHG emissions and climate change we also neglect to focus on the routine degradation of our air, land, and water that occur and in many ways exacerbate the impacts of climate change. A perfect example is the zero water day in Chennai, which bears the hallmarks of climate change induced drought conditions alongside overconsumption of water resources — amplifying the effect. Or take the case of Jakarta, a city already vulnerable to sea level rise, where over extraction of ground water is also causing the city to literally sink.

No model can perfectly predict these behavioral factors that are inherently part of these scenarios. This is where we see the tremendous potential for satellite observations to help identify and ideally mitigate these impacts before they result in a full blown crisis. These variables are likely to combine with the projected impacts of climate change in ways that can only be understood when directly observed.

So where do satellites come into this?

According to the Global Climate Observing System, a significant number of Essential Climate Variables (ECVs) can only be tracked using satellites. Satellite measurements of ECVs generated on a near-real-time basis can provide the source for back-testing existing model projections, and perhaps even improve the models themselves.

Building an AI powered remote sensing company

We believe so strongly in the importance of better measurement and monitoring of our changing environment that we are building an entire company to serve this need. Blue Sky Analytics started in air pollution tracking, after realizing that a major impediment to action was the sheer lack of information about air quality in many parts of India.

The number of ground-based air quality sensors available in India for monitoring of the subcontinent, are severely inadequate. Satellite data provides a means of monitoring every square kilometer of the country for a fraction of the cost of a ground monitoring network. And this issue goes far beyond air quality - some of the regions in the world that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change also lack the extensive ground monitoring networks found in developed countries.

We are also proud to be founding members of Climate TRACE, a coalition of organizations that plans to track global GHG emissions from major emitting sources in near-real-time using satellite data and AI. Which brings us to another benefit of using satellite data, whether for tracking mitigation efforts or designing effective adaptation measures - the potential to deliver insights with a much faster turnaround time.

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Climate TRACE, of which Blue Sky Analytics is a member, was listed in the Best Inventions of 2020 by TIME Magazine. Source: TIME

At Blue Sky Analytics, we have built an entire data processing and delivery infrastructure to create and continuously update datasets on key environmental parameters. Our environment is changing far too rapidly to wait for the latest scientific publications to clear peer review or for the latest annual report release. We often say this is the decade of climate action, but effective action requires rapid, comprehensive, and accessible information - which is why we are firm believers in the role of satellite-based datasets for tackling the defining challenge of our generation.