Copernicus — Monitoring Earth from space and the ground

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Article Published 30 Sep 2019 Last modified 29 Aug 2023
5 min read
Photo: © European Image mosaic for 2018, Copernicus Land Monitoring Service
Known as Europe’s eyes on Earth, the EU’s Earth observation and monitoring programme, Copernicus, is revolutionising the way we understand and plan for the more sustainable use of our valuable land and soil resources. From urban planning, transport routes and green spaces to precision farming and forest management, Copernicus provides detailed and timely land monitoring information to support decision-making.

Europe is one of the most intensively used land masses in the world, with the highest share of landscape fragmentation due to settlements and infrastructure, such as highways and railways. The way we use land has substantial impacts on the environment — species, ecosystems and habitats. Europe’s land resources are also facing increased pressure due to the impacts of climate change, including more frequent extreme weather events, forest fires, droughts and flooding.

From patchy aerial photographs to high-resolution imagery

European national authorities have collected information on land cover and use at local, regional or national level for a long time. As the demand and competition for land resources grew during the second half of the 20th century, it became clear that a better and broader understanding of the links between land use and its impacts was essential to better protect land and soil resources. To this end, the EU decided, together with national authorities, in the mid-1980s to coordinate tracking and monitoring of land cover and use across borders.

In 1985, EU Member States initiated the Corine (Coordination of information on the environment) programme, which saw the first joint effort by EU Member States to map land cover across Europe. In these initial days, land management experts relied on a mix of ground measurements and aerial photos, complemented by often expensive, low-resolution imagery from only a handful of satellites. As the data were fragmented, it was difficult to get a comparable Europe-wide picture of the threats to Europe’s land resources. The first mapping took 10 years to complete.

High in the sky and down on the ground

The idea behind the Copernicus programme was developed in the late 1990s ([1]) and its first satellite was put into orbit in 2014. The programme is run by the European Commission in close collaboration with the European Space Agency and is supported by Member States and various European organisations and agencies. Copernicus operates in six thematic areas: the atmosphere, marine, climate change, security, emergency management and land.

Today, two out of the seven Copernicus satellites in orbit — Sentinels 2A and 2B — are specifically tasked with land monitoring. They provide high-spatial- and high-temporal-resolution imagery every 5 days with a wall-to-wall coverage of the entire EEA-39 region ([2]) and beyond, and support the monitoring of agriculture, forestry, land use and land cover change, and coastal and inland waters. They even provide biophysical data, such as on the level of chlorophyll in and the water content of leaves.

These two satellites are supported by data gathered from more than 100 contributing missions, both commercial and public, plus data from a large number of existing ground and air monitoring stations and sensors. Now, thanks to Copernicus, it takes only about a year to complete fully detailed and accurate mapping of Europe’s land resources.

Copernicus land monitoring

The EEA manages the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service’s  pan-European and local components. In practice, the EEA makes sure that the imagery and data sets derived are easily accessible by the public and free to use. This service is becoming an increasingly essential knowledge tool for national environment agencies, city planners and others involved in managing the use and preservation of land resources, from the European to the local level.

The EEA uses Copernicus data to assess some aspects of the health of Europe’s ecosystems and how land is used. The results are presented in various EEA assessments, including state of the environment reports, and key indicators. A first indicator — on land take — looks at how much land is taken for urban and other artificial development from agricultural, forest and other natural land use (see the land take data viewer). The second EEA indicator assesses the level of soil sealing and imperviousness across Europe, monitoring the extent to which soil is covered by buildings, concrete, roads or other constructions (see the imperviousness data viewer).

The EEA and other institutions can use these findings and data in a wide range of thematic or systemic assessments. For instance, based on Copernicus data and products, land managers can identify areas where urban sprawl, agriculture, highways and construction are splitting up key habitats and propose location-specific solutions. Similarly, Copernicus imagery helps to monitor habitat change and changes in land cover in the EU’s Natura 2000 network of protected sites, which covers over 18 % of the EU’s land area and 7 % of its marine territory (see the Natura 2000 data viewer).

The geospatial data collected by Copernicus also form the basis of what is known as Urban Atlas. Experts can study and compare the detailed make-up of almost 800 urban areas across Europe with more than 50 000 inhabitants. Detailed layers of information show where industrial, commercial and residential areas and parks are located. Data also include information on population density, building height and transport corridors, and pastures, wetlands and forests located in or near these urban areas.

Towards more knowledge and more sustainable choices

Supported by a dedicated set of satellites and advances in technology, land monitoring data and knowledge on Europe’s landscape are set to improve further in the years ahead. With expected improvements in resolution, including millimetre precise ground movement, and thematic details, such as vegetation phenology and productivity, the potential uses of the imagery offer numerous opportunities. Ongoing plans for Copernicus envisage the placing of almost 20 more satellites in orbit before 2030, further expanding the level and detail of information collected.

Data taken from Copernicus and the EU’s satellite navigation programme, Galileo, are already helping farmers to introduce precision farming techniques when growing crops, reducing the amount of irrigation and pesticides needed during growing seasons. City planners are also tapping into the increasing sets of data available on urban landscapes, to monitor housing dynamics, which can, for example, help in managing and improving access to public transport.

Similarly, monitoring urban heat islands and access to green spaces, including parks, gardens and forests, for city dwellers can help city planners in improving well-being and making sure cities are better prepared for climate change.

A recent EEA report on natural capital accounting in support of policymaking discusses how to build better knowledge on using our natural resources, including land and soil, sustainably. The Copernicus satellite data will play an important role in this regard, in combination with direct monitoring of biodiversity and ecosystems through other programmes.


[1] The Copernicus programme started in 2014. It was called GMES (Global Monitoring of Environment and Security) before 2014.

[2] The 28 EU Member States plus Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland, Kosovo (under UN Security Resolution 1244/99), Lichtenstein, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and Turkey.


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage