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Combating climate change by observing the Earth

Dec 30, 2009 - David Biello - Scientific American

As part of the U.S. charm offensive at the recent Copenhagen summit on climate change, a roughly one meter-diameter orb helped display a decade's worth of climate data collected by NASA satellites. "This is the golden age," NASA's Jack Kaye told me. As associate research director for the agency's Earth Science Division, he's "reaping the benefits of the 1990s."

That's Dr. Kaye himself narrating some of the achievements of the last decade to an intrigued Copenhagen crowd.

Of course, most of these satellites are soon to be (or already) defunct and funding for replacements has not been forthcoming. Scientists will simply have to "get very creative," Kaye says, when it comes to filling in gaps. For example, NASA scientists struggled with a gap in Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer measurements. But, by using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as from European satellites, they could "provide continuity in total ozone data," Kaye says.

Ultimately, darkened U.S. satellites mean one thing: "We will rely on working with Europeans, Japanese. Even China and India, there are more partners than ever before," Kaye notes.

"Sea ice has been opened up, other nations are following an open data policy," adds Tony Freeman, manager of earth science research at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "NASA data has been open since 1989. This can only be positive."

There are a slew of launches planned over the next decade as well, ranging from replacements for now defunct satellites to new missions such as GLORY, which will more precisely measure soot and other aerosols in the atmosphere as well as the strength of the sunlight.

And some of the satellites that failed to make orbit, such as the Orbiting Carbon Observatory that would have given precise measures of where carbon dioxide is emitted and where it is absorbed, may be resurrected. "We've got all the plans and most of the people," Kaye says, and Freeman expects the next NASA budget to contain "good news for carbon monitoring."

The hope would be that at least some of the new satellites might work as well as some of their predecessors. "We've got satellites that are old enough to drink, old enough to vote, older than my kids," Kaye says, like Landsat 5, which has been operating for more than 25 years, or 22 years longer than initially planned. "We've got an opportunity to set up the next golden age."