Observing the Big Blue Marble: A Policy Lever

Authors: Policy Horizons Canada
Document Type: Policy Insight
Published Date: Saturday, December 1, 2012 - 5:00am
ISBN number: PH4-130/2012E-PDF, 978-1-100-21504-4


On this page

Canada’s use of Earth Observation

A Constellation of Actors

What’s Next?



Thank you to the staff of the Canada Space Agency’s Government Liaison Office and Communications Division for their contribution.

The first astronauts to see “the big blue marble” suspended in space described the moment as an epiphany and the pictures they sent back to Earth were no less transformative. From the beginning, viewing our planet from space has provided valuable insights. Earth observation is now seen as a unique tool that can serve a number of strategic objectives.

Canada’s use of Earth Observation

Earth observation is the use of satellites to gather information on our planet including our land, oceans, ice, atmosphere and cities. It has become part of the critical infrastructure that allows us to monitor and manage our natural resources and environment and support human endeavors such as monitoring treaties and territorial boundaries. Figure 1 shows the numerous policy areas that are enhanced by gathering satellite data. Many of these policy areas are undergoing significant change, necessitating accurate, real-time data for evidence-based decision-making. These include key issues Canada will face over the next ten to fifteen years such as the global shift in power, human migration, water scarcity, extreme weather events and changing patterns of natural resource development.


Figure 1: Policy Applications of Earth Observation

Earth Observation

  • Observe
  • Understand
  • Plan

Foreign Policy

Earth observation provides data to manage global resources and address issues that no one nation can solve alone. Examples include: monitoring changes that may lead to instabilities between and within nations; enabling the monitoring of international agreements and treaties, such as nuclear non-proliferation treaties; supporting international peace-keeping efforts; contributing toward common scientific understanding that underpins international policy agreements; and, creating opportunities for co-operation such as the Global Exploration Strategy and the International Charter on Space and Natural Disasters.

Resource Management

Development of natural resources is an important economic driver for Canada. Earth observation data is used to efficiently identify potential new resources and monitor the impacts of development to mitigate risk. For instance it is used to: identify promising mining, drilling and fishing sites; monitor soil characteristics and productivity of specific crops; monitor the effectiveness of carbon capture and sequestration; monitor forest coverage and wildfires; reduce costs in planning and routing of pipelines; and, monitor spills and wind and surface wave estimation.

Ecosystems Monitoring

As the second largest land mass in the world, Earth observation allows Canada to monitor our diverse ecosystems including: mapping and monitoring factors that affect climate change (eg permafrost melting, ozone depletion, wind circulation and forest fires) and surveying impacts (e.g. glacier contraction and ice flow movement); monitoring habitat changes and biodiversity conservation; facilitating an understanding of the earth’s water cycle, including soil moisture and ocean salinity; facilitating improved weather forecasting; and, anticipating extreme weather events and meteorological phenomenon such as El Niño.

Security & Sovereignty

GPS global positioning satellites and ground imaging have become indispensable security tools for mapping, navigation and weapons guidance which plays a role in the event of unrest, conflict and civil displacement. Earth observation enables: monitoring changing usage of our coasts and land; monitoring territorial waters including the opening of the Northwest passageway; ship detection and spill monitoring, including historical data that can help settle legal questions; and, siting and monitoring potential targets for attack, such as hazardous waste and nuclear facilities.

Disaster Relief / Disaster Management

Earth observation provides near real-time data, enabling early detection, quick response and recovery to natural and man-made disasters by: enabling daily weather and fire behavior mapping; gathering baseline data and detecting signs of impending disaster such as subtle earth motions and tectonic movement; monitoring soil moisture which can provide early warning for droughts and improved flood forecasts; monitoring damage to roads and other infrastructure; providing health and safety information to citizens and helping first responders manage efforts on the ground; facilitating clean-up of spills; and, facilitating co-ordination of international relief efforts.

Water and Air Quality

Water and air are essential public goods that require long-term data for effective stewardship. Earth observation enables evidence-based decision-making by: identifying aquifer locations and monitoring their physical and hydraulic qualities; monitoring oceans including salinity, wind and surface wave field estimation; facilitating the understanding of the impact of human activities on watersheds and wetlands such as development and combustion of biomass; helping communities determine the sources of air pollution and providing long-term, world-wide measurements of carbon-monoxide; and, assessing the impact of specific emission reduction initiatives in various parts of the world.

Human Health

Environmental factors are a significant factor in disease worldwide. Earth observation enables the monitoring and prediction of key environmental phenomenon that affect human health, including air quality, water quantity and quality, infectious disease, waterborne and insect disease vectors and temperatures. For example: monitoring environmental factors such as water and land surface temperature, rainfall, water depth, wind, wildfires and marine organism which all contribute to disease outbreaks; help communities determine the sources of air pollution that can contribute to premature death; supporting the management of hazardous waste; and, supporting the response to disasters such as drought, floods and fire.

The North

On the ground realities are changing quickly in the North. Earth observation allows us to stay on top of developments by: monitoring the environmental and economic effects of climate change such as the melting of the permafrost which could affect mining sites, roads and other critical infrastructure; mapping of ice-type, structure and topography to secure safe navigation as a the Northwest passageway opens; and, monitoring changing patterns of use in the North.

The Economy

Earth observation also aids in managing factors of our economy such as: monitoring and management of natural resources; providing data for the knowledge economy; understanding insurance risk and financial losses related to extreme weather and natural disasters; and, management of disruptions to essential services as water, food, and energy.


GPS satellite navigation and positioning systems are used to rationalize land, maritime and air travel. In particular, Earth Observation can monitor changing seas ice to enhance safe navigation in the North, including off-shore exploration and extraction efforts.

A Constellation of Actors

The Earth observation ecosystem is changing. Canada is a leader in this industry, and Canada has maintained its role as a valued space partner with other nation-states. International partnerships have enabled Canada to specialize in niche markets and gain access to international contracts and a broader range of information and facilities. New players such as India and China are applying downward pressure on aerospace cost structures and commercial operators are likely to play a much larger role in the future.

Figure 2: The Emerging Earth Observation Constellation

Reusable launch models could open space to smaller countries and non-state actors such as universities. Improved reliability, accessibility and networking of Earth-based data sensors will increasingly create new suppliers and new customers of Earth observation data.

While the Earth observation ecosystem is opening up, there is still a role for “classical” Earth observation by governments to meet needs that won’t be foreseeably met by markets because they are not monatizable. With this shift comes greatly increased data demands, so providing platforms and ways to integrate data across domains will be an important role for government. By facilitating open access to long-term data sets across diverse areas, governments can support a growing network of data providers and users, many of whom can add value as data sharing is supported. This will become particularly important, as cross-boundary policy solutions are increasingly sought to address growing complexity.

Space offers the opportunity to get out in front, but the current realignment of the stars raises several policy questions. How are these changes affecting Canada’s ability to both co-operate and compete? What are the data-sharing and data compatibility implications of more private actors? How might governments co-operate with the private sector internationally to leverage our cumulative investment in space, and to address legal issues such as privacy, national security and liability? Closer to home, how could the federal government best co-ordinate its own departmental interests and ensure Canada is using Earth observation data to its fullest? And finally, might providing license-free data to citizens and networks help maximize benefits?


Canadian Space Agency. 2003. The Canadian Space Strategy: Serving and Inspiring the Nation.

Government of Canada1. June 2011. The Next Phase of Canada’s Economic Action Plan: A low-tax plan for jobs and growth. p. 86.

Industry Canada. 2009. Canada’s Space Sector: Leading the development of new knowledge and cutting-edge technologies.

Industry Canada, 2011. “Space” dated 2011-11-21. 

OECD. 2011. The Space Economy at a Glance.

Walter Mirczak. March 2, 2011. The Commercial Payload Market Beyond ISS. March 2, 2011. Space News International.

de Selding, Peter B. March 2, 2011. Cash-flush MDA Corp. Looks Beyond Canada for Growth. Space News International.

de Selding, Peter B. Space News International, September 2, 2011. Canadian Earth Observation Firm Buys Bankrupt RapidEye.

Brinton, Turner. August 6, 2010. Nanomissile Being Designed to Launch the Smallest Satellites Affordably. Space News International.

de Selding, Peter B. June, 2010. Space X Undercut Competition to Clinch Head-turning Iridium Deal. Space News International.

Rains, Lon and Leonard David. May 12, 2008. Canada Ponders Its Space Future After Collapse of MDA Sale to ATK. Space News International.

Sauser, Brittany. May 16, 2011. Nanosatellite will Look for Alien World. Technology Review.

Wigbels, Lyn D. 2011. Using Earth Observation to Improve Health in the United States. Centre for Strategic and International Studies.