Plotting Sentinel 5P Data

Sven Haardiek, 2020-01-22

Sentinel 5P is one of ESA’s earth observation satellites that are developed as part of the Copernicus program.

It is dedicated to monitor air quality parameters and provides us with atmospheric concentrations of ozone, methane and nitrogen dioxide among other trace gases of the atmosphere.

I am currently working with a small group of developers on a project called Emissions API that has the goal to create a web API to make it easier to access the data of Sentinel 5P and its successor, Sentinel 5. As part of this work we created some lightweight libraries to download data from the servers of the ESA and to process their data products. To verify that those libraries are working fine and to get a better understanding of the data, it is often useful to visualize the results. In this post, I would like to share with you how to download the data from the ESA and generate plots with them.

So, at the end we should look at something like this:

Scatter Plot


We will be using the Sentinel-5P Downloader to download the data from the ESA and Sentinel-5 Algorithms to read and pre-process those data. Finally, for plotting we will be using GeoPandas which itself is using Matplotlib and Descartes internally.

You can install those dependencies like this:

$ pip install geopandas s5a sentinel5dl matplotlib descartes

Now we can download the data using the sentinel5dl binary.

$ mkdir -p data/S5P_OFFL_L2__NO2____
$ sentinel5dl --begin-ts '2019-12-31' --end-ts '2020-01-02' \
    --mode Offline --product 'L2__NO2___' data/S5P_OFFL_L2__NO2____

For this example, I chose to download nitrogen dioxide concentrations on New Year’s Eve, in hope of finding a clear pattern of the air pollution from the fireworks on that day (but see for yourself at the end of this post).

The result from the download should look like this:

$ ls data/S5P_OFFL_L2__NO2____

We are interested in the *.nc files. These are in the NetCDF format and contain a lot of data and associated metadata gathered from the satellite. If you are interested in exploring those files yourself you can use a tool like Panoply for that. To make it easier for us, we are using s5a to load the data. We are only interested in a very small subset of everything the nc-file has to offer and s5a loads only the valid data points along with some basic metadata.

In a first step, we will load one of the files:

import s5a

data = s5a.load_ncfile(

data should now contain something like this:

timestamp quality value longitude latitude
0 2019-12-31 03:17:57.205000+00:00 0.07 -0.000011 -15.975651 -65.399246
1 2019-12-31 03:17:57.205000+00:00 0.07 -0.000019 -16.178890 -65.418892
2 2019-12-31 03:17:58.045000+00:00 0.07 -0.000006 -15.965775 -65.446426
3 2019-12-31 03:17:58.045000+00:00 0.07 -0.000012 -16.169365 -65.466110
4 2019-12-31 03:17:58.885000+00:00 0.07 -0.000010 -15.955670 -65.493546
... ... ... ... ... ...
1578390 2019-12-31 04:10:38.894000+00:00 0.03 -0.000070 91.619942 62.235840
1578391 2019-12-31 04:10:38.894000+00:00 0.03 -0.000045 91.716927 62.305752
1578392 2019-12-31 04:10:39.734000+00:00 0.03 -0.000052 91.440414 62.197773
1578393 2019-12-31 04:10:39.734000+00:00 0.03 -0.000070 91.538177 62.268784
1578394 2019-12-31 04:10:40.574000+00:00 0.03 -0.000075 91.358582 62.230633

1578395 rows × 5 columns

One and a half million points per data set is a lot. Luckily s5a does have some functionality to reduce this. First, note that every data point comes with a quality value (a basic measure of confidence in the correctness of the measurement at hand). With s5a we can drop points with poor quality quite easily.

data = s5a.filter_by_quality(data)

Now our dataset has been reduced to 1416967 data points, which, unfortunately, is still too much.

To reduce those points even more, s5a is using Uber’s Hexagonal Hierarchical Spatial Index H3, which is a grid system partitioning the earth into hexagons. We will now calculate the H3 indices for every point, then aggregate points with the same index by calculating the mean value and, finally, recalculate the longitude and latitude as the center of the hexagons.

data = s5a.point_to_h3(data, resolution=5)
data = s5a.aggregate_h3(data)
data = s5a.h3_to_point(data)

The resolution parameter defines the size of the hexagons, with a resolution of 5 partitioning the world into approximately 2 million unique hexagons (for more detailed information, take a look at the Table of Cell Areas for H3 Resolutions).

So let’s compare the number of points in the different sets.

Number of Points

With the steps above, we have reduced the number of points in our dataset and also have limited the total amount of points we have to plot for the whole world to approximately 2 millions.

Our last preparation will be converting the pandas.core.frame.DataFrame into a geopandas.geodataframe.GeoDataFrame to be able to use geopandas’ spatial operations and plotting functionality.

import geopandas

geometry = geopandas.points_from_xy(data.longitude, data.latitude)
data = geopandas.GeoDataFrame(data, geometry=geometry, crs={'init' :'epsg:4326'})

Plotting the File

Our goal is to plot the values from the satellite on a map of the earth. Lucky for us, GeoPandas does have one included.

world = geopandas.read_file(geopandas.datasets.get_path('naturalearth_lowres'))
world.plot(figsize=(10, 5))


Our data and the world map have the same projection, so we can easily plot them together. But since that projection is widely distorted on the poles, we are switching to the Robinson projection.

robinson_projection = '+a=6378137.0 +proj=robin +lon_0=0 +no_defs'
world = world.to_crs(robinson_projection)
data = data.to_crs(robinson_projection)

We can now plot the data of the one file we imported. The explanation of the individual steps is given in the comments in the code. If you are interested in more details, take a look at GeoPandas Mapping.

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt

# Define base of the plot.
fig, ax = plt.subplots(1, 1, figsize=(40, 40), dpi=100)
# Disable the axes
# Plot the data
    column='value',  # Column defining the color
    cmap='rainbow',  # Colormap
    marker='H',  # marker layout. Here a Hexagon.
    ax=ax,  # Base
    vmax=0.0005,  # Used as max for normalize luminance data

# Plot the boundary of the countries on top
world.geometry.boundary.plot(color=None, edgecolor='black', ax=ax)

single plot

Although this is the data of just one nc-file, we can already see a lot on this plot. For one, we can see the path the satellite took while recording the data. We can also see that we do not have any data points in the north. This is due to the fact that the satellite’s spectrophotometer needs light to work and it is using the sunlight for that. And since our data is from December, from a certain latitude up north, there is not enough sunlight available to conduct the measurments.

Also, we can see a high peak of nitrogen dioxide off the south eastern coast of Australia which probably stems from the bushfires.

Plotting multiple Files

Finally, we will use all data we downloaded in the first step and put it into one single plot with an overview of the nitrogen dioxide values over the whole world.

To do that, we will first load all files and chain them together using Pandas concat. Next, we will be using the same techniques as before to reduce the data and create a geopandas.geodataframe.GeoDataFrame.

import glob

import pandas

# Read in all files
data = []
for filename in glob.glob('data/S5P_OFFL_L2__NO2____/*.nc'):

# Combine points
data = pandas.concat(data, ignore_index=True)

# Reduce points
data = s5a.filter_by_quality(data)
data = s5a.point_to_h3(data, resolution=5)
data = s5a.aggregate_h3(data)
data = s5a.h3_to_point(data)

# Create geopandas dataframe
geometry = geopandas.points_from_xy(data.longitude, data.latitude)
data = geopandas.GeoDataFrame(data, geometry=geometry, crs={'init' :'epsg:4326'})

# Projection change
data = data.to_crs(robinson_projection)

Now we plot this data the same we way we did before and we will get this result:

Scatter Plot

We are not able to see a clear pattern of the fireworks around the world, but that might also be due to the fact that the satellite can only conduct measurements during the day and not around midnight. However, we can clearly see the impact of the bushfires in Australia and the pollution around the Beijing area in China.

If you want to try this yourself, you can also take a look at this Jupyter Notebook.