The European Environment Agency (EEA), assisted by ESA's Earth Observation Directorate, is publishing the data on 17 November.
"What we are able to see from satellite data is that the increase in soil that is sealed off by human infrastructure activities is even greater than we anticipated", says Chris Steenmans, Project Manager for Land and Remote Sensing at the EEA. "Fragmentation of land is a time bomb. Each year only a small fraction of the landscape will change its function. This is not enough for you to really feel the change as dramatic. But if you use satellite data over a span of ten years you can really see a difference".
The project is contributing to shaping Europe's Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) initiative, which will provide environmental information from a combination of ground-, air- and space-based observation systems. Both EEA and ESA are partners in GMES.
The EEA performed its first survey of Europe using data from the early 1990s. With this new Image2000 survey based on data from 2000 one is able to compare and draw conclusions on trends in the landscape. Technological improvements during the decade also allow much more detailed studies.
"In many areas the data will prove that current policies are insufficient. We hope the tool will assist policy makers to make decisions in a more timely way, along integrated land planning concerns", comments Ronan Uhel, head of Spatial Analysis at the EEA.
As an example of an area in need of better policies, Steenmans points to the impact of new motorways on the landscape: "Every day another 10 hectares - the equivalent of 20 football fields - of motorway is constructed in Europe. If you look at this development over a 50-year span you will see dramatic consequences for example for wildlife.
"One has to take into account that once this fragmentation of the landscape has happened, the situation is practically irreversible. Some countries - like Denmark - have tried to re-establish fragmented wetlands but this is very expensive".
Both the 1990 and the new survey are a part of an EEA programme called Corine (Coordination of Information on the Environment). ESA has assisted in the development of services based on satellite data.
"From ESA's side we view this as a process which is more pulled by the users than pushed by technology. There is almost no end to the possibilities within the technology, so we focus on first developing services in the fields with the greatest demand", says Oliver Arino of ESA's Earth Observation Directorate.
He explains that, in the case of monitoring changes in the landscape one can choose practically any scale depending on whether the focus is local, county, national or regional: "Depending on what kind of detail the user wants, we will have to use data from a different kind of satellite. But the processing of the data will be almost the same".
"Will my house be flooded?"
Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the EEA, believes remote sensing from space opens plenty of new ground. She takes flooding as an example: "Based on satellite observations of actual floodings in recent years we will be able to see some trends. We can point out which areas are at higher risk of future flooding, and we can analyse how roads and other forms of sealing of the soil will impact flooding.
"This information is obviously of interest to policy makers. At the same time information on flooding will attract attention from people living in these areas. They might not be so interested in the overall trends but they want to know 'Will my house be flooded?' Similarly people might want to check a number of other environmental developments in their neighbourhood."
The first edition of the virtual atlas based on 1990 data attracted more than 10 000 users. A dramatic increase in the number of users can be expected with the new version, as users will have much more detail and also be able to compare the changes over a decade.