Earth Observation for Climate Change
June 9, 2010
Until this year, America’s civil space policies—and the budgets that derive from it—were shaped to a considerable degree by the political imperatives of the past and by the romantic fiction of spaceflight. We believe there is a new imperative—climate change—that should take precedence in our national plans for space and that the goal for space spending in the next decade should be to create a robust and adequate earth observation architecture.
There is unequivocal evidence, despite careless mistakes and noisy protests, that the earth’s climate is warming. While the effects and implications of this are subject to speculation, there should be no doubt that the world faces a major challenge. There are important shortfalls in data and analysis needed to manage this challenge. Inadequate data mean that we cannot determine the scope or nature of change in some key areas, such as the extent of Antarctic sea ice. Long-term changes in daily temperature are not well understood, in part because of limited observations of atmospheric changes. An understanding of how some anthropogenic (man-made) influences affect climate change is still incomplete.1 These shortfalls must be remedied, if only to overcome skepticism and doubt.Climate change now occupies a central place on the global political agenda, and the United States should adjust its space policies to reflect this. Assessing and managing climate change will require taking what has largely been a scientific enterprise and “operationalizing” it. Operationalization means creating processes to provide the data and analysis that governments will need if they are to implement policies and regulations to soften the effects of climate change. Operationalization requires the right kind of data and adequate tools for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating that data in ways that inform decisionmaking at many levels of society.
Satellites play a central role in assessing climate change because they can provide a consistent global view, better data, and an understanding of change in important but remote areas. Yet there are relatively few climate satellites—a total of 19, many of which are well past their expected service life. Accidents or failures would expose the fragility of the earth observation system.2 We lack all the required sensors and instruments for the kinds of measurement that would make predictions more accurate and solutions more acceptable. Scientists have made do by using weather satellites, which take low-resolution pictures of clouds, forests, and ice caps, but the data these satellites provide are not adequate to the task.Climate change poses a dilemma for space policy. The space programs needed to manage climate change are woefully underfunded. The normal practice is to call uncritically for more money for civil space and its three components—planetary exploration, earth observation, and manned spaceflight. In fact, civil space has been lavishly funded. Since 1989, NASA has received $385 billion, with $189 billion in the last decade.