Climate Change from Space5 min read

There’s really no convincing argument against the fact that we are on the cusp of a climate crisis. We face irreversible damage to our environment if we don’t make some significant alterations to our behavior within the next few years — and how we respond at this crucial time could be the difference between thriving and catastrophic failure.

There are certainly signs of environmental problems right in front of us. When we look around we can see evidence of damaging emissions, extremes of weather, and more. Even rising water tables have the potential to swamp space agency launch pads. But that doesn’t always help us to gain an understanding of the bigger picture. It’s important to take a step back and assess how these issues are affecting our planet as a whole over time. This allows us to see patterns of change, and forecast how issues might progress.

Across the globe, agencies are taking the ultimate step back to assess our global situation. Various projects are currently underway to assess the effects of climate change from space. We’ll take a look at some of these projects, their aims, and how they might help us stave off the worst effects.

Ice and Water

One of the areas that climate change poses a multitude of threats is water — in both liquid and solid forms. Reports show that ice levels are declining rapidly; not just in the poles, but across the globe. Our climate-averse behavior is also affecting water quality. Though the sea-levels are rising, less than 1% of this is suitable for drinking, with much of this subject to harmful pollutants.

NASA is currently undertaking a mission that provides unprecedented detail on the change of thickness in ice sheets worldwide. ICESat-2 is a satellite orbiting earth carrying a single, vital instrument — the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS). ATLAS sends 10,000 laser pulses per second toward Earth, and catches returning photons in order to calculate the distance between the earth and the satellite. A range of data recorded is analyzed in order to build an accurate picture of how Earth’s cryosphere (frozen, icy areas) is changing. This data is then provided to agencies across the planet to help inform research on why the climate is having this effect, and what measures can be taken to halt it. 

The European Space Agency (ESA) has also been using altimeter technology in order to monitor sea levels. Over the past 25 years, the agency has been gathering data recorded by satellites, including the Sentinel-3 mission, to gain a perspective on how the oceans are rising and falling in the long-term. The data gathered from these satellites is also provided to leaders in coastal communities, so that informed decisions can be made regarding taking mitigating action.

Atmospheric Gases

We have long been aware of the potential for damage that carbon emissions can have on our atmosphere. While it’s true that our planet can be resilient to pressures we humans place upon it, that doesn’t mean to say we’re free to let our emissions fly freely without consequence. Scientists monitoring our atmosphere from space have produced some concerning results.

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 project, which launched early in 2019 from the International Space Station, has shown that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has increased 48% since the beginning of the Industrial Age, and 11% since the turn of the millennium. This project has also been useful in confirming that the cause of this rise is human activity. Atmospheric scientists on the mission can measure isotopic “fingerprints” which identify fossil fuels as a primary culprit.

Much of the research surrounding climate change points to industrial users as significant contributors to greenhouse gases. This evidence can be used to put more pressure on those sectors guilty of overproducing. On a larger scale, providing verifiable information such as that produced by NASA, and highlighting green incentives, businesses may be more willing to fall in line with climate-friendly practices.

Life on Our Planet

We often think of climate change in terms that disconnect us from the issues. Gases forming in the atmosphere, a reduction in global ice; these things don’t always hit home the way they really should. However, climate change will have some serious consequences for members of the public; from food safety to the spread of disease. There is a vital role public health officials and community leaders must play in educating and preparing the populace. Our space agencies are also undertaking missions on subjects with public-facing relevance.   

Our ability to continue growing viable crops could be affected by the changes currently occurring. NASA’s ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment (ECOSTRESS) onboard the International Space Station is engaged in measuring the changing temperature of plants across the planet. This is important in order to understand the developing needs of our crops, and how we can better plan provisions such as irrigation in order to prevent setbacks in food production. It also allows scientists to better predict where droughts might occur, and recommend preparations accordingly.

One of the issues associated with climate change is the rise in damaging weather systems, which regularly displace communities. Warmer sea-surface temperatures can intensify tropical storms and hurricanes. The Global Precipitation Mission (GPM), a joint project of space and scientific agencies across the world, uses a network of satellites to measure precipitation and gain a better understanding of the Earth’s water and energy cycle and its links to climate change. The data gathered will be used for various purposes, including better forecasting of potentially damaging weather systems.

Simulations have already shown that climate change may well spell the extinction of our species, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless just yet. Agencies are undertaking missions to provide us with useful information in the fight against disaster. However, how we use this data will be the true test of our commitment to providing a healthy environment for future generations.

Sam Bowman
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Sam Bowman writes about science and tech. He enjoys getting to utilize the internet for community without actually having to leave his house. In his spare time he likes running, reading, and combining the two in a run to his local bookstore.

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