Satellites are a vital tool for studying the earth’s surface – but so is a good pair of boots

In the run up to the North East Centre of Excellence for Satellite Applications annual Discover the Possibilities “Into the Blue” conference next March, Peter Clarke, Professor of Geophysical Geodesy & Head of Group (Geomatics), Newcastle University gives his thoughts on how satellites as a tool for studying the earth’s surface.

“SATELLITES are a vital tool for studying the earth’s surface – but so is a good pair of boots

Amongst other things, my group use very precise satellite positioning to study changes in the earth’s surface caused by movements in ice sheets, tectonic plates and sea levels.

Studying deformation is more than just an academic exercise, it gives us deep insight into climate change and its impacts such as sea level, and can have important practical uses in how we understand and respond to hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides.

It can also have important applications for industries such as energy, construction and engineering. Precise monitoring of a bridge or a dam can show whether the structure is performing as designed or whether there could be a problem and a potential failure of key infrastructure.

Our focus is on making precise measurements repeatedly, which could be based on one or more types of satellite data, including GPS or GNSS positioning, radar and gravity fields, to build up a picture of how the world or large structures are changing.

Although we spend a lot of time at our computers analysing this data, we still enjoy pulling on our boots and getting out into the field. This year, I am co-leading a study in Antarctica to see how ice movements and changes in the weight of ice sheets cause the earth to deform, a little bit like stepping off the bathroom scales, and how quickly (or slowly) these changes take place.

The equipment we use is designed for sophisticated engineering and surveying and might not be not cost effective for something like monitoring movements in a bridge. One of the exciting things happening now is that we are starting to see lower-cost devices such as smartphones capable of logging locations down to a few millimetres rather than the nearest metre and this is going to drive a whole new set of applications in areas such as construction and disaster relief.

In the Newcastle University geomatics group, we have never considered ourselves as separate from the commercial world – after all we provide most the specialist graduates who go into the UK’s surveying and mapping industry. It has always been important for us to have great relations with industry bodies and individual companies across a whole spectrum of activity nationally and internationally and we are very keen to pursue opportunities for business development at a local level.

My sense is that more broadly in the North East, we are seeing increasing cooperation between universities and businesses and the Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence at NETPark is acting as a focus for the region, helping to build contacts locally and nationally.

Professor Peter Clarke

Professor of Geophysical Geodesy & Head of Group (Geomatics), Newcastle University

The Discover the Possibilities “Into the Blue” Annual Conference takes place on 28th March 2019 at The National Glass Centre in Sunderland. The conference will be looking at the Foresight report on the Future of the Sea and responding to the challenges and recommendations set out. To find out more please visit


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