Beat­ing cli­mate change from space

Earth-or­bit gives us the perfect vantage point for tak­ing steps to save the planet

All About Space - - Contents - Re­ported by Libby Plum­mer

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

about Space.

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.

For­est fires are be­com­ing more prob­lem­atic due to ris­ing tem­per­a­tures in heav­ily-wooded ar­eas

a car hid­den un­der­wa­ter for years is fi­nally un­earthed due to drought

Storms like hur­ri­cane irma could become more in­tense and de­struc­tive as a re­sult of cli­mate change

eSa is work­ing on fund­ing a successor to the po­lar-gaz­ing cry­oSat satel­lite

Po­lar bears are one of many an­i­mals that face ex­tinc­tion if cli­mate change goes unchecked

the six Sen­tinel mis­sions carry a range of in­stru­ments for gath­er­ing data for the coper­ni­cus pro­gramme

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