Satellites over Europe track massive floods in Germany and Belgium

A satellite image shows flooding in Europe in July 2021.
A satellite image shows flooding in Europe in July 2021. (Image credit: ESA)

Sobering images from space show the impact of devastating floods in Germany and Belgium that have left more than 100 people dead.

While the rain that caused the floods is expected to ease this weekend, search and rescue efforts remain hampered in the two countries. Officials say that the rising waters are in large part due to global warming, according to the New York Times (opens in new tab).

The Copernicus Emergency Management Service, which includes participation from the European Space Agency (ESA), first forecast a "high probability of flooding" on July 9, according to the service's website (opens in new tab). Copernicus has been sending out alerts and forecasts regularly to European emergency authorities to try to stay ahead of the flooding as best as possible.

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The forecasts depend on accurate and timely satellite imagery from any available source. One prominent European example is the Sentinel 1 mission, which began in 2014 and includes a pair of polar-orbiting satellites that map Earth using synthetic aperture radar. Radar allows the satellite to peer through clouds, which makes it a useful tool during rainy and flooding conditions.

"Radar data from our Sentinel-1 will be used to map flooded areas to support first responders," tweeted Thierry Breton, the European Commission's commissioner for internal market, on Thursday (July 15) (opens in new tab). "Thoughts with those affected."

Sentinel-1 has already been tasked to gather more information about the floods over the weekend, the ESA Operations account tweeted on Friday (July 16) (opens in new tab).

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Another useful tool for forecasters has been Meteosat 11, one of a series of European weather forecasting satellites allowing a continuous series of data since 1977. Long, consistent satellite datasets are useful for making predictions about global warming and other long-term changes in Earth's climate. Further, Meteosat-11's geosynchronous orbit around Earth allows it to image the same zone of our planet consistently, as its orbit approximately matches the Earth's rotation.

"Imagery from Europe's #Meteosat11 Satellite shows a large low-pressure system that has been bringing record rainfall and devastating, deadly flooding to Germany and Belgium. Heavy rain also fell across Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands," wrote the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Satellites Twitter account on Friday (opens in new tab).

Meteosat 11 is operated by EUMETSAT, the European satellite agency that monitors weather, climate and the environment from space. EUMETSAT has been providing regular updates on the flooding through its Twitter account (opens in new tab), using a range of satellites and prediction products.

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"The slow moving persistent upper-level low that brought the long-lasting intense rainfall which caused the deadly #flooding in Germany & many parts of W[est] Europe this week can be clearly in satellite imagery," the EUMETSAT Users account tweeted Friday (opens in new tab), including an animation of clouds swirling over western Europe.

A third generation of the Meteosat series is under development to "guarantee the continuity of data for weather forecast ... over the next two decades," ESA's Space Transportation office tweeted Thursday (opens in new tab). The new series will include new capabilities including lightning imaging, and atmospheric "sounding" to monitor changes at different altitudes, according to EUMETSAT's website (opens in new tab). The first of the new series is scheduled to launch (opens in new tab) in late 2022, with two others following in 2024 and 2025.

ESA's Earth observation Twitter account has also been documenting the flooding, using Copernicus imagery. "This radar image uses information from two separate acquisitions captured by @copernicusEU Sentinel 1 (on 3 July and 15 July 2021) to show the extent of the flooding in red," the account said on Friday (opens in new tab), with a radar image showing water spreading in Germany.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace