"This is a day I have been waiting seven years for. I am so getting tears in my eyes!"
Per Erik Opseth, the director of the Norwegian Mapping Authority's Geodesy Division, is excited. It is a few minutes on this Saturday before the foundation stone for the new Earth observatory in Svalbard is laid down. The ceremony marks the start of a project that is seen as highly important for most people on Earth. Beginning in 2018, measurements of the Earth's surface will be even more precise thanks to the project in Ny-Ålesund.
'Strengthen our position'
The wind is brisk, but the rain has thankfully given up when the bus stops at Brandalslaguna a few kilometers outside Ny-Ålesund. The day before, Kings Bay AS completed construction of the road out to where the new Earth observatory will be, and at the site construction equipment and employees with Veidekke Arctic are waiting. After a brief orientation, the drilling machine starts, and Minister of Local Government and Regional Development Jan Tore Sanner (H) takes over the control panel. The pole begins to move and goes half a meter further into the ground. The "foundation stone" is laid down and a brass plate with text is screwed in.
"The fact that we are now building in Ny-Ålesund is helping to strengthen our position in the northern areas, and it will be an important tool in climate research and the monitoring of climate change," Sanner says. "A new station is essential for climate research and those who need precise data."
Hub in Svalbard
Climate research relies on accurate data to determine changes with certainty, but the measurements are not precise unless they are known with basically 100 percent certainty. In addition to the Earth's own motion, the globe continuously changes form (see fact box). Moreover, Earth's tectonic plates are moving all the time. Svalbard, for example, is moving two centimeters a year. Measurements must consider all this to be accurate and that requires extremely precise reference points.
The further away researchers are, the more stable these points are. Therefore, the Earth observatory in Svalbard uses quasars that are between seven and 12 billion light years away.
"This will see both east and the west, and will be a hub in a vast network of observatories," Opseth says. "This will improve observations of Earth and climate change significantly."
Unknown to climate chief
On Sept. 3, a new satellite was launched in New Guinea. It was fully operational the day before the ceremony in Ny-Ålesund, and its purpose is monitoring the environment and providing data to researchers. However, many researchers don't know they are relying on data from, amongst others, the geodetic station on Svalbard, and that the data from the Sentinel-1 satellite will be completely reliable.
"Climate scientists use data from satellites for, among other things, monitoring sea level." Opseth says. "You are happy to take it for granted that it is trustworthy, but we who work behind the scenes also know that the foundation needs to be improved. This has not yet been realized. To monitor how the Earth moves has been a research collaboration that has been going on for years, but it has been rather invisible. But as the years pass one becomes more and more dependent upon it, without being aware of it."
Opseth reveals that at the world's climate summits the leader of the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, had no idea geodesy is completely essential for the work he leads.
"I was a little surprised that he did not show that," Opseth says.
During the Ny-Ålesund Symposium this year, Pachauri got a crash course in geodesy, which resulted in his making an official statement. At the same time the U.N. is now working with geodesists and it is expected there will be a resolution on Earth observatories next year.
Today there are about 30 such observatories around the world, but most are in the northern hemisphere and in rich countries. Researchers believe it is necessary to double that total.
"Today, there is a positioning accuracy of two centimeters and with more antennas it can come down to millimeter level," says Moritz Sieber, station commander at the Norwegian Mapping Authority's Earth observatory in Ny-Ålesund.
"Geodesy is the basis of satellite observation, but the positioning of the satellite cannot be more accurate than our position was," he says. "For climate researchers that means that for greater accuracy they have to wait 50 years before they have a fully confident answer. With more observatories they can have the answer faster, maybe just over ten years."
Before Earth's origins
Veidekke Arctic is the turnkey contractor for the operations building and the foundation for the telescopes, which are scheduled to be completed in 2015. The following year the telescopes will be mounted and the station is scheduled to open in 2018. The last device that will measure the distance to the satellites is scheduled to be in place in 2019.
The reference point is therefore quasars located between seven and 13 billion light years in space.
"You may think that the quasars which sent those signals were sending them long before the Earth's origin," Opseth says. "That's about as far out" as we can imagine that outer space extends."