Beating climate change from space
Earth-orbit gives us the perfect vantage point for taking steps to save the planet
Earth-orbit is an ideal location for battling humanity's greatest nemesis
Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing our planet today. Comprising a broad range of global phenomena – the primary cause being the burning of fossil fuels – it includes global warming, sea level rises, ice mass loss, and extreme weather.
While climate change skeptics inexplicably persist, some 97 per cent of scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are most likely due to human activities, according to multiple studies published in peer-reviewed journals. Data unequivocally shows that global temperature has risen, oceans have warmed, ice sheets have shrunk, glaciers are retreating and sea levels are rising. Just this year, readings from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies
(GISS) in New York showed that
February 2018 was the sixthwarmest February in 138 years.
So, how do we deal with such a problem? The response to climate change involves a two-pronged approach — mitigation and adaptation. The former involves reducing emissions and stabilising heattrapping greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, and the latter focuses on adapting to climate change that is already happening or is expected to happen. This is where space comes in.
Space agencies around the world have a number of missions aimed at addressing climate change by gathering data from Earth observation missions. ESA's Climate Change Initiative (CCI) was launched in 2009 to meet the desperate need for climate data. “The aim of the CCI is to produce measurements of the Earth from space that have all been developed in a very similar way, using the same processes to look at satellite datasets over the land, oceans, ice, [and] the atmosphere,” Andrew Shepherd, Professor of Earth Observation at the University of Leeds and science lead on the CCI ice sheet project, tells
all about Space. “This is so anyone using any one of the datasets can be confident they’ve all been produced in the same way.”
These standardised datasets are based on Essential Climate Variables (ECVs), which were developed by the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS). The ECV data is required to support the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). To date, the CCI has generated more than 100 datasets and 2.6 million files, comprising a massive 122 terabytes of data.
The data is freely available online for climate researchers and policy makers to refer to.
Much of the initiative’s data is gathered by ESA’s Copernicus programme, which is supported by a family of satellites called the Sentinels, as well as other non-ESA missions. Satellites have given us a new way of seeing the world and gathering information on inaccessible areas, making them a crucial element in the battle against climate change. As they remain in place for long periods of time, they can also show long-term global environmental changes on Earth that we might not necessarily be able to monitor from the ground.
Built specifically for the Copernicus programme, the Sentinel satellites carry instruments that can perform a range of tasks, including radar imaging and sea surface topography measurements. The Sentinel-5P, which is dedicated to monitoring air pollution, was the latest in the group to launch, blasting off from the Plesetsk cosmodrome on 13 October 2017. The Sentinel-3B is the next in line to be sent into orbit with a scheduled launch of 25 April 2018, and its wide-ranging mission will include taking vital measurements of ocean- and land-surface temperature, as well as forest cover.
Unsurprisingly, NASA also has a space-based programme for tackling climate change, known as the Earth Observing System (EOS), which is led by the flagship satellite Terra, the Latin name for Earth. Launched on 18 December 1999, Terra packs five instruments that work concurrently to observe Earth’s atmosphere, ocean, land, snow, ice and energy balance. What’s more, the on-board MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) and ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer) instruments provide critical information for assessing and managing natural disasters and other emergencies.
Somewhat alarmingly, Terra was the subject of two cyber attacks in 2008, experiencing interference for a total of 11 minutes, with Landsat 7 also being targeted. However, despite the worrying
“Aside from ensuring ongoing awareness, another major challenge for climate
experts is funding”
hack, no commands were successfully sent to the satellites and no data was captured. The hack was suspected to be tied to the Chinese military, though China denied any involvement. Thankfully, no similar incidents have been reported since.
Also making up NASA’s climate changemonitoring satellite roster is the Afternoon Constellation, or A-Train. This group of Earthmonitoring satellites fly in a coordinated orbit like a train on a track, only 705 kilometres (438 miles) above the Earth’s surface. Until recently the constellation was made up of six satellites, including NASA’s Aqua, Aura, and Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, the NASA-CNES Cloud-Aerosol
Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) and Japanese space agency JAXA’s Global Change Observation Mission – Water (GCOM-W1). Until February 2018, the cloudmonitoring CloudSat was also part of the formation until its orbit was deliberately lowered following the loss of one of its reaction wheels — the flywheel used for making small, precise manoeuvres. While the CloudSat will continue its science mission, it will no longer fly as part of the A-Train.
Many of NASA’s additional Earth observation satellites were launched in collaboration with other organisations. The Landsat mission is a joint programme with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and is the longest continuous space-based record of Earth’s land in existence. The original Landsat 1 satellite launched in 1972, and the upcoming Landsat 9 is due to launch in 2020.
One of the latest instruments to join NASA’s EOS operations in space was the Total and Spectral
Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS-1), which became fully operational in March. This is designed to measure the total amount of sunlight that falls on Earth, and how that light is distributed among the infrared, visible and ultraviolet wavelengths. Rather than orbiting the Earth on a dedicated satellite,
“[CryoSat] is particularly important to us because it’s the only satellite designed to look at the polar regions” Prof Andrew Shepherd
the TSIS-1 was installed on the International Space Station (ISS) after launching on a SpaceX Falcon 9 on 15 December 2017. The orbit of the ISS permits observations not offered by standard satellites.
"TSIS-1 extends a long data record that helps us understand the Sun’s influence on Earth’s radiation budget, ozone layer, atmospheric circulation and ecosystems and the effects that solar variability has on the Earth system and climate change," said Dong Wu, TSIS-1 project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement in March.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) also has an initiative called the Global Change Observation Mission (GCOM) and, on 23 December 2017, it launched the GCOM-C1 satellite, nicknamed SHIKISAI, which is aimed at forecasting future global climate trends. Collecting data on clouds, aerosols, ocean colour, vegetation and snow and ice, the satellite is expected to gather a complete picture of the Earth every two to three days.
In October 2017, a new Earth observation project, backed by £75,000 in study phase funding, from the UK Space Agency was announced. The TARDiS (Terahertz Atmospheric/Astrophysics Radiation Detection in Space) is designed to offer new insights on how the composition of the atmosphere is affected by climate change. The instrument is designed to fit on to the new Bartolomeo platform on the ISS. Built by Airbus, the platform is due attach to the European Columbus module of the ISS in mid-2019, and will play host to instruments from space agencies and private companies covering a wide range of applications including robotic, astrophysics and, of course, Earth observation.
“The development of TARDiS, based on novel and ground-breaking Terahertz sensing technology, will not only enable us to measure the global distribution of atomic oxygen in the upper atmosphere and to understand how this region affects the climate of Earth, but will also help us better comprehend the process of star formation and the origin of the universe,” said Dr Jolyon Reburn, head of the Earth Observation Division at RAL Space in a statement announcing the project.
Like ESA, NASA combines its climate data from space with information gathered on the ground to
create as full a picture as possible of changes in the Earth’s environment.
“The datasets that we produce — we make them publicly available for anyone else to use,” says Shepherd, whose team produces measurements on how much ice has been lost from Antarctica and Greenland for ESA’s CCI. “We make use of them ourselves for scientific purposes and we also deliver them to third parties as operational datasets. For example, the sea level rise estimates are part of the European Environment Agency’s climate indicator series, and they were formerly part of the EPA’s [United States Environmental Protection Agency’s] climate indicator series — before it was abolished
by the present Administration,” Shepherd tells all
Since the beginning of Trump's Presidency, the EPA’s website has been altered to scrap various mentions of climate change and related data and also makes remaining information harder to find, leading to accusations of scientific censorship. Actions like this make maintaining climate change awareness among the public even more difficult. One way in which the space agencies are trying to counteract this is with education apps like ESA’s Climate From Space iPad app, which puts over 30 years of data at your fingertips with interactive globes and maps. NASA also has a series of apps designed to spread the climate change message, including Images of Change, which shows beforeand-after images of global climate phenomena. Aside from ensuring ongoing awareness, another major challenge for climate experts is funding.
“We are working with ESA and the European Commission to try and get a successor to the CryoSat mission, which we rely heavily on,” said Shepherd. “This is particularly important to us because it’s the only satellite designed to look at the polar regions. It flies really close to the poles while all the other satellites that we’ve used, fortuitously, see part of the Antarctica and Greenland, but their scope is limited.”
The good news is that a major spending bill recently passed by US Congress gives NASA $20.736 billion for 2018, thus restoring a number of Earthscience missions that were targeted for cancellation by the White House, including CLARREO (Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory), which is designed to help detect climate trends and improve climate prediction models. Continued investment across the globe is absolutely essential to keeping climate change at bay. After all, space is our window to the world.
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