A three-year Joint Research Centre (JRC)-supported project with partners from Greece, Germany, Hungary and Italy has developed an innovative system for monitoring and managing urban air quality and the related health risks. ICAROS NET uses information from satellite-borne sensors to monitor the concentration of harmful particles in the air, caused by heavy industry, traffic and household heating systems. It is the first time that ultra-fine pollution particles have been detected from space with such accuracy and precision.

Saving the earth from space

Four pilot trials of the ICAROS NET system are under way in Athens, Milan, Munich and Budapest. Early results from the Athens project are encouraging, indicating that the system is as reliable as land-based alternatives while providing better environmental information. Research has also demonstrated that environmental policy initiatives, such as reducing sulphur in diesel and introducing fuel alternatives such as natural gas, have been successful in reducing pollution levels.

Speaking at a recent ICAROS NET workshop in Budapest, European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said: “Fine airborne particles represent one of the biggest threats to human health from air pollution. If we are to improve environmental and health policy-making in the EU, we need precise and accurate air pollution data. Monitoring air pollution is a good illustration of what space technology can do for citizens and provides an additional argument to boost EU investments in space. This is particularly relevant in our initiative to build a European capacity for Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES).”

Mapping health risks from space

The ICAROS NET system merges atmospheric information derived from satellite-borne sensors with measurements from the ground and results of computer models to derive conclusive and comprehensive maps of the spatial distribution of particulate matter concentration in the lower atmosphere. The sensors monitor atmospheric pollution in areas as small as 30 metres in diameter, by measuring the proportion of light scattered by particulate matter. By incorporating data on expected health effects drawn from epidemiological studies, ICAROS NET allows the quantitative evaluation and mapping of the anticipated health risk from ultra-fine particles.

Coordinated international action is needed to resolve environmental problems linked to air pollution, and the ICAROS NET system could be used by all EU Member States and acceding countries in central Europe. ICAROS NET is flexible enough to be used at urban, regional and cross-border levels.

Environmental initiatives are making a difference

Analysis of the first trial run in Athens showed very high accuracy of results, compared with ground-based air pollution measurements. Furthermore, it was possible to identify the main particulate sources in the area, including heavy industry, road traffic and diesel-fuelled residential heating.

Analysis of the average concentrations of ultra-fine particles since 1987 and the evolution of their spatial distribution over the Athens basin revealed the significance of environmental initiatives taken since the early 1990s.

The bigger picture: GMES

Over the next 18 months, analysis of data from the recently concluded second pilot run in Athens and from Munich, where an experimental application of ICAROS NET has just been completed, will continue. The ICAROS NET system will be fully compatible with the INSPIRE initiative of the European Commission towards an integrated spatial data infrastructure in support of a European capacity for global monitoring for environment and security (GMES).