Copernicus: The European Union’s Eye On Wildifres

04 March 2019

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EUROPE – In 2018, the European Commission published its annual report on Forest Fires in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa for 2017. It showed that wildfires burned over 1.2 million hectares that year, more than the total surface area of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Wildfires also claimed the lives of 127 firefighters and civilians and caused economic damage estimated at almost €10 billion ($11.3 billion). The Mediterranean region was the hardest hit and, unfortunately, the vast majority of the fires were human-caused, making prevention and early detection the most important ways to save lives and money.

2018 was little better, with a conflagration in the Athens suburb of Mati claiming 100 lives alone. But this time, some of the largest blazes burned outside of the Mediterranean region, with at least 50 fires scorching 250 sq km in Sweden, prompting some of the southern European countries to send aircraft and crews to help that Scandinavian nation battle unprecedented wildfires for which it was totally unprepared.

As wildfires have worsened across the continent of Europe, the European Union has formulated a response which goes well beyond simply tracking wildfire activity. Their answer? Copernicus.

What is Copernicus?

Copernicus is the European Union’s Earth Observation Programme, a network of satellites and ground stations which look at the earth and its environment for the ultimate benefit of all European citizens. With the launch of the first Sentinel-1A satellite in 2014, the European Union set in motion a process to place a constellation of about 20 satellites in orbit before the year 2030.

“There are currently 7 Sentinels in orbit (2x Sentinel-1, 2x Sentinel-2, 2x Sentinel-3, Sentinel-5p) with Sentinel-4 and -5 to be launched in the early 2020s,” said Dr. Mark Parrington, a Senior Scientist in the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) which is implemented by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) in Reading, United Kingdom. “I believe the full network will be completed on schedule.”

These satellites deliver near-real-time data to six operational services (monitoring Atmosphere, Marine, Land, Climate Change, Security and Emergency) which can be used for local and regional needs, to help scientists and the general public better understand the planet and sustainably manage the environment. Part of those management aims include dealing more effectively with wildfires.

An important aspect of Copernicus is that the information services provided are freely and openly accessible to its users.

Having near real-time satellite data, as well as sensor data from ground monitoring networks (which include weather stations), in areas prone to wildfires provides fire managers with a substantial advantage, allowing them to conduct more effective initial attack on blazes while they are small.

All the sensor and satellite data can be combined into datasets that stretch back for years, in some cases decades, so that patterns can be examined and used to create better forecasts, as well as maps from satellite imagery.

The Copernicus Emergency Management Service (CEMS) provides emergency services with timely and accurate geo-spatial information derived from satellite remote sensing augmented by data from ground-based sensors. This information is available through the publicly-accessible European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).


EFFIS was established by the European Commission, in collaboration with the national fire administrations, to provide near real-time and historical information on forest fires and forest fire regimes in the European, Middle Eastern and North African regions to fire agencies in the European Union and neighboring countries, as well as to the European Parliament.

Since 1998, EFFIS has been supported by a network of experts from 43 countries in European, Middle East and North African countries.

In 2015, EFFIS became one of the components of the Emergency Management Services in Copernicus. Fire monitoring in EFFIS comprises the full fire cycle, providing information on the pre-fire conditions and assessing post-fire damage.

“The early warning component of Copernicus provides fire danger conditions up to ten days ahead, which can be used by Civil Defense agencies across the European Union to plan for the efficient allocation of resources,” said Dr. Francesca Di Giuseppe, a Principal Scientist at ECMWF and the lead for the fire danger forecasting inputs to EFFIS.

Timely news articles are collected by EFFIS and published with a date stamp and geographical information, such as the country within which the incident occurred and specifics on the towns and regions affected.

The Fire Database includes detailed information on individual fire records provided by the EFFIS network countries, comprising nearly 2 million records from 22 countries. The database is provided through the fire history application of EFFIS.


The Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS) is run by CAMS and assimilates fire radiative power observations from satellite-based sensors to produce daily estimates of biomass burning emissions. It has been further enhanced to include information about injection heights derived from fire observations and meteorological information provided by the ECMWF.


The Global Wildfire Information System (GWIS) is an extension of EFFIS to the global domain and brings together existing information sources at regional and national levels in order to provide a comprehensive view and evaluation of fire regimes and fire effects at a global level.

The fire danger forecast module of GWIS provides forecast maps of up to 10 days of fire danger levels. The ECMWF ensemble prediction system is used to compute the Fire Weather Index available in GWIS.

Active fires are identified in GWIS on the basis of thermal anomalies observed by satellite. Algorithms compare the temperature of a potential fire with the temperature of the land cover around it; if the difference in temperature is above a given threshold, the potential fire is confirmed as an active fire or “hot spot.”

Emissions from forest fires in GWIS are provided by CAMS and GFAS. A selection of fire emissions species is presented in GWIS to allow compatibility with the emissions estimates of those species provided in EFFIS.

Drought Monitoring

Copernicus doesn’t just relay information about where wildfires are burning. It also looks at the current drought situation via the European Drought Observatory, something which can be valuable in determining areas most at risk amid hot, windy conditions.

As part of the drought monitoring program, Copernicus also provides detailed information on precipitation across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Like the drought information, precipitation information can help to forecast which areas will be most at risk for wildfire activity at least 3 months into the future.

Soil moisture is typically available through Copernicus, something which can be a key indicator of the vulnerability of fuel to wildfire. At the time of this writing, however, the soil moisture component was in the process of being upgraded to an even more powerful version which promises to provide a better gauge of this important wildfire vulnerability predicter.


So what does Copernicus do with all the data collected by the sensor network?

“Each service has its own processing center (e.g., ECMWF for CAMS and C3S, the Copernicus Climate Change Service),” said Dr. Parrington. “But all Copernicus data is being made accessible together through online data access platforms called DIAS.”

DIAS stands for “Data and Information Access Services.” These consist of five cloud-based platforms which allow users to discover, manipulate, process and download Copernicus data and information. All DIAS platforms provide access to Copernicus Sentinel data, as well as to the information products from Copernicus’ six operational services, together with cloud-based tools (open source and/or on a pay-per-use basis).

The DIAS platforms also provide access to additional commercial satellite or non-space data sets, making all of the Copernicus data and information available to users through a single access point. DIAS allows the users to develop and host their own applications in the cloud while removing the need to download bulky files from several access points and process them locally.

Looking to the Future

So what does Dr. Parrington see as the future of Copernicus?

“We are developing and responsible for a number of wildfire-related activities in Copernicus at ECMWF,” he replied. “In CAMS we have developed the Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS) to produce hourly global wildfire emissions. In the next few months this will take over as the operational GFAS production and global data will be available a few hours behind real-time.

“GFAS is also being updated to use active fire data observations from VIIRS and geostationary satellites over Europe/Africa (MSG-SEVIRI), the Americas (GOES east and west), and East Asia/Australia (Himawari-8) as well as MODIS – currently we are only using MODIS observations.

“In ECMWF we are also developing means for comparing the fire forecasting with observed/assimilated fire observations to link the risk to atmospheric composition – this is still in the early stages but some information can be found on the ‘Monitoring 2017 and 2018 Global Wildfire Emissions from Fire Danger to Atmospheric Composition’ poster, which was presented at the AGU Fall Meeting in Washington DC in December 2018.”

With the support of the European Space Agency, the European Parliament, and dozens of countries, the future of Copernicus looks bright indeed!

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