When you hear “NASA”, what comes to mind? Maybe you think of the International Space Station, the Mars Curiosity rover, or the Hubble Space Telescope. These high-profile projects are all important, but they represent only a fraction of the US space program.
Because of its unique “big picture” view of our planet, NASA is undertaking extensive research on climate change too. Using a fleet of cutting-edge satellites and teams of scientists working around (and off) the world, NASA is showing us what we can expect on a warming planet. Here are just a few of the missions that are bringing climate change into focus.
Measuring Carbon in the Atmosphere with OCO-2
Measuring greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere gives us the most reliable predictor of global warming. Throughout the earth’s history, CO2 and temperature rise and fall together. Today, humans are adding significant amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, jacking up the earth’s temperature. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, launched in 2014, is measuring this CO2, giving us a better idea of the severity of the warming we can expect.
Picturing the Human Footprint with Landsat
How many trees are we losing to deforestation? How much has sprawl eaten into our natural space? How long does it take for a forest to recover from a wildfire? What cities are most at risk from flooding? These are questions that the Landsat satellites have been answering for over the last four decades using the most extensive imagery of our planet ever produced.
Forecasting Drought with SMAP
Society depends on reliable, clean water supplies, but global warming is changing all that. In early 2015, NASA launched its SMAP satellite that will measure soil moisture around the planet. What’s so important about soil moisture? Ask any farmer: no water, no food.
In places like California, we’re learning this the hard way as drought threatens to cripple our nation’s “produce basket”. SMAP will provide us with more detailed drought warnings, among other applications. On a planet facing worsening droughts in the years ahead, it’s a critical tool.
Predicting Sea Level Rise with ICESat
One of the most alarming impacts of climate change has been the rapid loss of Arctic ice. As that ice melts, it raises sea levels around the planet, threatening many cities (and even NASA’s own facilities!). How much sea level rise can we expect? The ICESat mission, which is mapping polar ice using lasers, is helping us answer that question.