New European satellite provides crystal-clear view of Arctic

Nunataks in north Greenland captured by Sentinel-2.
Nunataks, or exposed, ice-free glacial islands, sticking up out of a glacier in northern Greenland.

In June of last year, a satellite called Sentinel-2 rocketed into space. The orbiter is part of the European Commission’s Copernicus program, whose satellite missions allow everything from soil studies to maritime surveillance. Sentinel-2 in particular is meant to enhance land monitoring and climate change studies, but it also has more practical applications in the areas of emergency management and security. Indeed, Sentinel-2’s coverage of the entire Mediterranean Sea – a feature emphasized in numerous publications about the satellite – is meant to help protect Europe’s maritime borders and, ostensibly, the lives of those who venture into the perilous waters.

Sentinel-2 also provides publicly available imagery of the Arctic that is higher-resolution and more northerly in coverage than any satellite before. The satellite’s coverage ranges from 56°S to 83°N, capturing the northern tip of Greenland. U.S.-operated Landsat, which has long been the go-to satellite program for free, high-resolution satellite imagery of Earth, could never capture this icy edge of the world’s largest island because its coverage stops just one degree short, at 82°N. And with a resolution of 10 meters, Sentinel-2 data also offers an improvement over Landsat’s coarser 15-meter imagery.


Due to the European satellite’s novelty, only a small amount of scientific research has so far been published using the data product such as this attempt to automate glacier mapping. More work has been carried out using radar imagery from the slightly older Sentinel-1 satellite, such as tracking the motion of ice sheets, modeling tides in the Arctic Ocean, and measuring wave heights in sea ice.

Though Sentinel-2 science may still be in its infancy, citizen cartographers can already sift through its images to view the Arctic from the vantage point of outer space. Data can be downloaded using the U.S. Geological Survey’s easy-to-use interface at EarthExplorer.

The images below illustrate the full spectrum of the Arctic’s colors in summer, from the rusty reds of Canada’s Baffin Island to the brilliant vermillion of the volcanoes on Kamchatka in eastern Russia.

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The green fingers of Iceland’s Westfjord region pointing into the North Atlantic Ocean.
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The southern tip of the Lofoten Islands, Norway.
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The toothy ice- and snow-capped mountains of Svalbard, an island north of Norway.
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A river in northern Russia cutting across the tundra.
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The city of Norilsk, Russia – home to the world’s largest and dirtiest nickel mine. The light blue clouds are likely caused by local mining operations.
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The volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia. The snow atop Gora Gamchen, a complex volcano, can be seen in the top right.
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Summer sea ice off the Alaska North Slope, United States.
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Baffin Island, Canada.
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The Jakobshavn Glacier (Sermeq Kujalleq) south of Ilullissat, from which 6.5% of the Greenland Ice Sheet drains. It calves into Disko Bay, where tourists go to sail around the icebergs.
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A glacier flowing north into the sea off of the top of Greenland.

A raincheck for Coffee Club Island

Frustratingly for fans of geographic extremes, Sentinel-2 is just shy of being able to capture the northernmost land on Earth: Kaffeklubben Island (“coffee club island”, named in 1921 by a Danish geologist after the coffee club in Copenhagen’s Geologisk Museum). At 83°39′45″N, the island appears to sit a little bit too far of the satellite’s range. The task of capturing the island (after which I would name my cafe, if I ever opened one) will have to fall to another enterprising satellite. Until then, the public will never know if coffee-drinking polar bears populate the mysterious spit of land. 

Looking for people between the pixels

One danger with satellite images is that they can make places feel uninhabited, especially when there are few cities dotting the land to remind the viewer of human’s presence. Images of the Arctic from outer space might therefore reinforce the tendency to view the region as a wild and unpopulated frontier. For that reason, while satellite imagery is crucial to scientific research and monitoring of land, oceanic, and atmospheric processes, it can never reveal the full picture of what is happening on the ground, nor who is being affected by it.

Even at 10 meters resolution, it’s hard to make out small manmade features. For instance, the Goliat floating production, storage, and offloading unit (FPSO) is the largest in the world. Yet with a diameter of 90 meters, that means it only shows up as 9 pixels across in Sentinel imagery. I think I may have found the FPSO floating in the water north of Hammerfest with a ship anchored nearby, but I’m not sure. Whatever artificial structure it is, in comparison to the other photographs above, nature truly dwarfs man.

Goliat FPSO and supply ship captured by Sentinel-2?

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