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The North from Space


The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is involved in satellite missions that focus on various aspects of the Arctic. These range from monitoring sea ice and tracking ships to measuring chemicals in the ozone layer.

RADARSAT-2, launched in 2007, complements the capabilities of RADARSAT-1, launched 12 years prior. Both satellites use synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology for marine surveillance, ice monitoring, disaster management, environmental monitoring, resource management and mapping both in Canada and around the world.

Among other applications, RADARSAT can identify and surveil ships, monitor oil spills and track the effects of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, landslides and forest fires. Its main focus in the Arctic is to identify ice types and record their movements. SAR is sensitive to surface roughness and water and can easily distinguish between water, land features and snowpack.

The satellite’s three-metre resolution allows for the mapping of coastlines, tidal and near-shore terrestrial areas. Data recovered from the satellites are passed along to the government for analysis. Envisat, launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2002, served to complement the data from RADARSAT-1 and helped ensure a transition between RADARSAT-1 and RADARSAT-2.

The Soil Moisture Ocean Salinity (SMOS) satellite, launched by the ESA in 2009, measures the moisture and salinity of soil using Microwave Imaging Radiometer with Aperture Synthesis (MIRAS). By assessing the moisture content in the top few centimetres of soil across the globe, it is able to show how water moves between the ground and the atmosphere and what proportion of that water is absorbed by vegetation. By studying ocean salinity, SMOS also helps visualize how water moves across the planet. This is significant because salt water is denser than fresh water, which means that various concentrations of salt water control the flow of warm and cold currents in the global ocean and weather systems.

The data generated by SMOS are contributing to our understanding of the global water cycle and how climate change may affect patterns of evaporation over land and ocean. SMOS also provides observations over snow- and ice-covered regions. The CSA has invested in this mission and supports the scientific use of the data.

Since its launch in 2010, ESA’s CryoSat satellite has been collecting data on the relationship between ice and climate. Climate change causes a decrease in not only the extent of ice in the Arctic but also its thickness. Generated using data from CryoSat, the first map of the thickness of Arctic sea ice was unveiled in June 2011. CryoSat sends out short radar pulses and measures the time it takes for the signals to travel to the ground and back, which provides the height of the surface below. The instrument that performs this task is so sensitive that it can detect tiny variations in the height of ice as well as measure sea level and the height of waves.


This piece discusses five satellites in operation over the Canadian Arctic. Each section outlines the launch date, payload and instrumentation of a specific satellite, and uses images to illustrate.


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Quiz :

Which type of ice protects shorelines from waves and storms?

Costal ice
Storm ice
Shore ice