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Northern Ireland scientist who's protecting Planet Earth from on high

Natural threats monitored by agency's eyes-in-the-sky

By Linda Stewart

Published 06/05/2016

ESA follows changes on the Earth’s surface and in its oceans
ESA follows changes on the Earth’s surface and in its oceans
Dr Mark Doherty of ESA

A constellation of eye-in-the-sky sentinels is helping the Earth to cope with natural disasters, rising food prices and climate change.

So says an Armagh-born scientist who is responsible for using the data from the orbiting satellites to improve the lives of the planet's people.

Dr Mark Doherty works for the European Space Agency and heads its Earth Observation exploitation division, based in Frascati, Italy.

Next week the ESA will host the world's biggest ever conference on Earth Observation, and more than 3,200 scientists from across the globe will see how satellites in the Copernicus project are revolutionising everything from earthquake prediction to tackling illegal trafficking.

On April 25 Sentinel 1B was the latest European satellite to be launched into orbit, where it will use radar to image the Earth's surface through cloud and rain, day and night.

"We received the first image a few days ago. That means that in the UK we're getting complete coverage of the UK and Ireland every six days," Dr Doherty said.

His team works with the science community and people developing applications for the terabytes of data being beamed back down from the satellites, including public sector users and private companies developing commercial applications.

"We've been developing Earth Observation in Europe starting in the mid-70s when the first meteorological satellite went up," he said. ESA went on to develop satellites in the Nineties which focused on international and climate issues, launching satellites ERS1 in 1991 and ERS2 in 1994.

"These focused very much on environmental issues and climate issues, as well as civil security," Dr Doherty explained.

"The reason is that the EU needs information if it is going to formulate policies on environmental and climate issues."

The information will help explain how to limit global warming and adapt to climate change.

One application is developing ice charts to allow ships to navigate cold regions safely.

Another is monitoring crop production so that countries can plan for food security and reduce food price volatility.

Dr Doherty went to St Patrick's College in Armagh before studying in London, Oxford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined ESA in 1986.

And he has a message for politicians who refuse to believe in man-made climate change.

"The global sea level is rising by 3mm a year. You can see it."

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