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World first satellite mission to measure surface waters successfully launched

16 December 2022

PML scientists are over the moon with the opportunities the 'Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT)' mission will open up for increasing our understanding of ocean dynamics and climate change.
Earth from space. PIRO | Pixabay The UK-backed mission named ‘Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT)’ took off from Vandenberg in California earlier today and will use a revolutionary radar instrument to measure and monitor changes in the ocean, lakes, reservoirs, rivers and wetlands in unprecedented detail.

The data it will produce will help improve our understanding of climate change, as well as predict and mediate flood risks around the world.

When data are returned in 2023, Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) will work with the Ocean University of China to identify and track eddies, which are circular currents of water that move important nutrients and heat around ocean. Eddies could also help with sustaining carbon storage in subtropical waters and therefore, a possible asset in the battle against climate change.

PML researchers will look specifically at how the Mid Atlantic Ridge impacts the progression of eddies across the South Atlantic and how this affects the north-south transport of heat by the ocean. This information will feed into climate change models to help forecast potential environmental changes so society can be better prepared.

Partnering with NASA, the French Space Agency (CNES) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the UK Space Agency and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) invested £375,000 in the SWOT-UK science research project.

The UK’s Science Minister, The Rt Hon George Freeman MP, said: "Water is fast becoming a major geopolitical resource: with climate change causing droughts and floods and global interest in water temperature and flows."

"The UK government has just committed £314 million to participate in European Earth observation missions, giving us access to crucial data about our natural world and how we can tackle climate change."

"It’s fantastic to see industry and universities from across the UK collaborate on a global mission that will mark a step-change in our ability to map, monitor and respond to ocean and surface water."

"Our space sector thrives on building relationships with our international counterparts and this mission has the UK at its heart with our friends in the US, France, Canada and NASA".

UK Space Agency CEO Dr Paul Bate said: “SWOT will revolutionise our understanding of our planet’s surface water and how its patterns are changing, giving us vital information to improve how we manage one of humanity’s most precious resources."

“This is an important mission for the UK to be involved in, both in terms of building the radar instrument and in directly receiving and analysing Earth observation data for the UK."

Lead scientist on the SWOT project at PML and Remotes Sensing Oceanographer at PML, Dr Graham Quartly, said: “The mission will help give us valuable insight into the flow of warm salty water within the Atlantic and improve our understanding of factors affecting sea level rise. This will help us improve models of predicted future changes so that society can be better prepared.”

The UK recently committed £315 million to future Earth observation and climate missions and programmes, including TRUTHS and Aeolus-2, through the European Space Agency, and a further £65 million to national programmes that will strengthen skills and capabilities in this important area.

Related information

National Centre for Earth Observation press release

Video explainer of the 'Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT)' mission by the UK Space Agency