The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Space, Climate, and Congress

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About two weeks ago, NASA, in cooperation with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), launched the first of a prolific six Earth-science missions scheduled for 2014. NASA does not often come up in discussions of climate change, but actually the space agency is critical to our ability to both predict and respond to our climate. Like other government funded scientific ventures, however, NASA’s activities are ultimately subject to the will of the United States Congress. Occasionally, political pressure rises against such programs and NASA’s budget is cut.

That means American citizens especially need to keep track of what NASA does so we can make sure NASA is allowed to continue doing it.

NASA is one of several agencies (along with NOAA and the space and weather agencies of several other countries) that maintains a fleet of satellites in various orbits designed to observe different aspects of Earth’s weather and climate. Thanks to these satellites, we here on Earth can precisely measure variables like cloud cover, ocean temperature, and rainfall anywhere on Earth every day.

With this information we can study the causes and progress of climate change and also make the detailed day-today predictions that help us cope with more frequent extreme weather. Thanks to data collected by weather satellites, meteorologists were able to predict Hurricane Sandy’s abrupt left turn into New York and New Jersey early enough to issue hurricane warnings. After the fact, just to see what would happen, researchers ran the same simulations using only data collected from weather stations and airplanes; without the satellite data, the computers showed Sandy staying safely offshore. Without the satellites, Hurricane Sandy would have been a surprise.

Although there are already many climate and weather satellites in orbit around the Earth, gathering the data we need requires an active space program able to put new satellites up there regularly. There are two reasons. First, scientists continue to develop new research tools and so we need to launch new satellites that can carry the new, more advanced devices. Second, satellites eventually get old and break and have to be replaced. No one knows exactly when one is going to break, so to ensure an unbroken stream of data, new satellites have to go up while the old ones are still working.

There are four new space-based devices going up this year.

The first is already up there. At the end of February, NASA and JAXA launched the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory from a Japanese launch facility. The job of this satellite is to measure rainfall and snowfall much more precisely and completely across most of the planet. With these data, scientists will be better able to understand the planet’s hydrological cycle, leading to better weather forecasting and better water resource management.

In June, a device called the ISS-RapidScat will be sent up to the International Space Station. The device will be mounted on the space station where it will help monitor ocean winds, again aiding both climate modeling and weather forecasting. The idea is to turn the space station into a cost-efficient platform for a large number of scientific devices.

In July, a second satellite, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2, goes up. The OCO-1 was accidentally destroyed during launch in 2009. This one is a replacement. It’s job will be to measure carbon dioxide levels more precisely so scientists can pinpoint the different sources of this greenhouse gas and track how it moves through the planetary system.

In September, another device goes up to join the Space Station. The Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) instrument improves our ability to study tiny airborne particles such as dust and pollution. These aerosols block some sunlight and cool the planet, partially offsetting the greenhouse effect, but scientists still don’t know exactly how powerful this cooling effect is or how to include it accurately in climate models. After September, we’ll get closer to modelling the influence of aerosols correctly.

Finally, in November another satellite goes up. The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) will measure changes in soil moisture. How moist soil is, and whether the moisture is frozen, has a huge impact on both whether plants growing in the soil can sequester carbon and whether microbes in the soil can release methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas.

In addition to these space ventures, NASA will also use airplanes to fly two missions to research a wide range of topics, from polar ice to urban pollution.

The reader may wonder why NASA, the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is researching weather and climate at all. In theory, climate change seems more a job for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) or USGS (United States Geographical Survey). Why isn’t NASA focusing on studying space?

The answer has to do with the political and financial history of the three agencies. Originally, their respective duties were much more separate. NASA did launch Earth science research devices, but these were paid for by NOAA and USGS. That partnership ended in the 1970’s when Congress cut the budgets of all three agencies. NOAA and USGS could no longer pay for satellites and pulled out of the partnership. Meanwhile, Congress lost interest in funding space exploration that didn’t directly benefit people on Earth, so NASA focused more of its attention here and gradually took on more and more responsibility for the Earth science studies the other agencies could no longer afford. The shift in focus also reflected a new interest in Earth as one planet among many. Also in the 1970’s NASA scientists had discovered that Venus and Mars have climates that are radically different both from each other and from Earth even though all three planets must have started out very similar, given their similar sizes and orbits. So the question became, how and why do planetary climates develop as they do? What makes a planet remain habitable? What needs to happen so Earth stays habitable?

The result is a Space Administration that uses many of its spacecraft and airplanes to study the Earth, providing data and analysis that the rest of us desperately need.

NOAA and USGS also have their own satellites again and there is some cooperation among the three agencies as well as cooperation between them and their counterparts in other countries. The exact balance of responsibility is constantly changing according to budget constraints and changing political priorities.

But no matter who runs these programs they must continue. Much of the information that proves climate change is real comes from satellites. And yet voices sometimes surface calling for an end to these programs on the grounds that they are wasteful. A cynic might be forgiven for wondering if these voices belong to climate change deniers or people with ties to the oil industry, but even if the calls to economize are made in good conscience they are wrong. Simply put, this country’s ongoing political fights over budgets, especially the infamous Sequester, puts our ability to study the climate and respond to it in jeopardy.

I am not personally aware of any bill to de-fund space-based climate studies at the moment, but this is something we will all need to keep an eye on.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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