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Trump threatens NASA climate satellite missions as Congress stalls

  • Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would cut four NASA Earth Observation projects including three climate satellite missions: the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission; Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) pathfinder; and Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3).
  • These missions are critical to ongoing climate change research, as well as to weather and air pollution forecasting. Without them, international scientists lose their “eyes in the sky” with potentially disastrous consequences for people not only in the United States, but the world round.
  • The U.S. Congress has the final say on whether these satellite programs go forward or not. Their vote on the 2018 budget was delayed from September to December 2017, and now to 19 January, 2018. Whether the vote will occur then, or what the outcome might be, remains in question.
  • As a result of Trump’s threatened cuts the international scientific community has been left in great uncertainty. It is currently scrambling to find a way to replace NASA’s planned Earth Observation missions and continue vital climate change, weather and pollution monitoring.
Hurricane Harvey seen from space. Slashing Earth Observation satellite funding would not only blind the world to important climate science, but also hinder other applications such as weather and pollution forecasting, with potentially disastrous consequences for people not only in the United States (which saw the highest costs ever for natural disasters in 2017; more than $300 billion), but also for the world over. Image courtesy of NASA

President Donald Trump recently trumpeted manned exploration to the Moon and Mars by NASA to reclaim “America’s proud destiny in space.” Such manned missions – in advance of human populated space colonies – could be needed sometime soon, as large swathes of the earth are baked to the point of becoming uninhabitable due to climate change.

However, accurately forecasting just how quickly such a scenario might develop on our planet could be difficult, if four major NASA Earth Missions are killed as proposed in Trump’s draconian 2018 budget.

Three of the missions on the chopping block are designed to measure unfolding climate change: the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem mission; the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 mission; and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder mission. Trump’s plan is to eliminate these projects entirely and instead focus “the Nation’s efforts on deep space exploration rather than Earth-centric research.”

This does not come as a surprise: the current denialist administration has systematically deleted climate change mentions from the Environmental Protection Agency website, just dropped climate change from being a U.S. national security strategy, and pulled the nation out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The OCO-2 mission provides a global perspective on atmospheric CO2. The OCO-3 mission would represent the next generation in atmospheric carbon monitoring. Image courtesy of NASA

Still, the death of NASA’s climate missions isn’t a done deal. A congressional stalemate has resulted in a legislative vote on the 2018 budget being kicked down the road from September 2017 to two dates in December, with 19 January 2018 now set as the next deadline. Going by the answers to Mongabay’s queries to U.S. legislators, it is still impossible to say whether these climate satellites will be cut or not.

What is certain is that losing these missions would have major impacts on the world’s ability to understand the mechanisms of climate change, and on the ability of the international scientific community and world governments to respond proactively to what may lie ahead.

“The danger of not having key Earth Observation data will be enormous,” Angela Benedetti, senior scientist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), told Mongabay in an email. (She emphasizes that this is her professional view, rather than reflecting the official position of the ECMWF.)

“Scientists rely on satellite data for very practical applications such as weather prediction, air pollution monitoring and natural hazards,” she explained. “The livelihoods of many depend on accurate predictions not only on longtime scales, but on the scale of a few days. Investing in these data [gathering instruments] will ensure saving money, and most importantly, lives.”

PACE climate mission architecture showing data and command flow. Earth Observation missions are typically cooperative efforts between multiple nations. Trump’s threatened U.S. withdrawal from these programs has left other countries scrambling to fill in the economic and scientific data gathering gaps. Image courtesy of NASA

How did we get here?

Donald Trump’s proposed FY18 NASA budget – with its slated erasure of Earth climate missions – was released last May.

When questioned about these particular cuts, Stephen Cole of the NASA Office of Communications sidestepped the issue. Instead, he praised the proposed budget, saying that it advances the agency’s core activities and enables important ongoing work on Earth, throughout the solar system and beyond.

“While hard choices had to be made in this constrained budget environment – especially in Education and Science – we are pleased by the support we have received,” he said in a statement emailed to Mongabay. “Overall Science funding is stable, although some missions in development will not go forward and others will adjust their schedules.”

Cole stressed that NASA remains committed to studying our home planet: “Our Earth science program today includes 18 missions in orbit, including sensors mounted to the exterior of the International Space Station… Several new missions are nearing launch in the next few years. Slated for 2018 are ICESat-2 and GRACE Follow-On, both of which will contribute to studies of Earth’s changing polar ice sheets and more.”

The NASA official did not directly address Trump’s proposal to shut down the three key climate change missions. Here’s what we could lose if the U.S. Congress follows Trump’s lead when it finally votes on the 2018 budget.

The proposed Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite. Image courtesy of NASA

Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE)

Oceans look blue from shore, but there are nuances that we can’t see with the naked eye. However, from space scientists can distinguish the specific species and abundance of phytoplankton flourishing in different regions at different times of year. Researchers are eager to investigate the role these microscopic organism play in ocean ecosystems because phytoplankton are not only at the base of the food chain that feeds much of humanity, but they also soak up CO2, curbing global warming, and release the oxygen we breath through photosynthesis.

It is already known that climate change is causing declines and shifts in phytoplankton as the oceans heat up and become more acidic. However, scientists need high spectral resolution instruments to see oceans in all their multifaceted glory. By showing everything in the ultraviolet to shortwave infrared range, the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite would do exactly that: offering researchers a more detailed view than ever before of microscopic ocean life, as well as advanced knowledge of aerosol particles and clouds – both critical to understanding how sensitive the earth’s atmosphere is to escalating rates of carbon emissions.

NASA believes PACE’s advanced capabilities would benefit society in many ways. For instance, it would detect harmful algae blooms, enhance fisheries management, improve air quality forecasting, and help study and manage global disasters such as oil spills, hurricanes, volcanic ash plumes, and wildfires.

New measurements by NASA’s PACE spacecraft would advance our understanding of how living marine resources respond to a changing climate. Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would scrap the PACE mission. Image courtesy of NASA

“I use satellite data from instruments such as those proposed on PACE to produce a more accurate global prediction of aerosols, which in turn is used to feed regional models at higher resolution, which can predict air quality at the local level,” Angela Benedetti told Mongabay, who emphasized that her work deals with what she believes is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk: air pollution.

“In 2014, the World Health Organization reported that in 2012 around 7 million people died – one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution exposure,” she explained, noting that a reduction in air pollution could save millions of lives.

However, she warned, our ability to predict the levels of pollution in the atmosphere is contingent on our ability to collect large amount of data as afforded by instruments on satellites such as PACE.

Graphic visualization of the OCO-3 mission. Image courtesy of NASA

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3)

Concentration and distribution of carbon dioxide on Earth is not uniform; it varies regionally based on growing urban populations, changing patterns of fossil fuel combustion, and changing forest, agriculture and other land use patterns. NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3) is meant to determine these variations with high precision and resolution, and with maximum coverage.

NASA would build OCO-3 using spare materials left over from the successful Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 mission from 2014. OCO-3 would dock with the International Space Station. Then it would be installed on the ISS Japanese Experiment Module-Exposed Facility, where it could begin operating within three years.

“While OCO-2 provides a global perspective on atmospheric CO2, and was proposed as an exploratory, sampling mission from a polar orbit, OCO-3 on the international space station (ISS) would bring new, unique, and highly complementary capabilities,” Michael Gunson, OCO-2 Project Scientist, said.

OCO-3 would be able to take snapshot maps and identify carbon emission hotspots, special regions of interest (such as agriculture, wildfires and rainforests) and would record data across the range of sunlit hours.

“From the ISS, together with other instruments scheduled to be deployed there, this will let us probe plant response over a range of conditions, and together [these projects] will study the carbon cycle on small scales,” Gunson said. Such monitoring by OCO-2 has already detected major surges in carbon emissions from the world’s rainforests in tropical Asia, Africa and South America in El Niño years, an important discovery.

The CLARREO Pathfinder mission. Image courtesy of NASA

The Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) pathfinder

In 2007, the National Research Council recommended the development of the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) mission to address the lack of sufficient accuracy and consistency of climate change observations being made by Earth-orbiting satellites. This lack occurs because orbiting satellites can be calibrated in a variety of ways, causing their measurements to vary due to factors such as the radiation from the Sun reflected by our planet.

The CLARREO Pathfinder (CPF) instrument would boast a reflected solar spectrometer that precisely measures energy from the sun reflected back from Earth. The CPF could thereby achieve highly accurate measurements tied to accepted international standards, making in-orbit calibrations (using stable and well-known sources such as the Sun and Moon), and transferring that calibration to other satellite instruments that cross its path.

This mission “would improve the calibration of other sensors and our understanding of their performance, which would lead to more accuracy in the geophysical parameters retrieved from them,” says Tim Hewison, the Calibration Team Leader at the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), which operates weather satellites for Europe.

This graphic depicts the unusually high levels of carbon dioxide released from tropical forests on three continents during the 2015 El Niño as detected by NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite. If Trump is successful in killing the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3, the world could be left largely blind to the world’s detailed region-by-region carbon emissions at a time when those emissions are increasing dangerously. Image courtesy of NASA

Hewison is also one of the chairs of the Global Space-based Inter-calibration System (GSICS), an international collaborative effort to monitor and improve the quality of observations from operational weather and environmental satellites of the Global Observing System.

He says that this mission would improve the inter-operability of our many orbiting satellites, allowing scientists to develop a more robust Global Earth Observing System, while also giving researchers greater protection from launch delays and failures. The project, he adds, would encourage international cooperation and data exchange.

“The CPF is an important stepping stone, as it would not only demonstrate the technology, but allow us to develop the methodologies needed to maximize the benefits to the world’s weather satellites,” Hewison said.

While the satellite missions that Trump wants to cut are designated as climate missions, they would also contribute to our ability to forecast and understand extreme weather events and to track global air pollution. Image courtesy of NASA

Trump’s cuts could derail the A-train

The international scientific community is very concerned by the proposed termination of these key NASA climate science missions, said Angela Benedetti. Cutting their funding would not only blind the world to important climate science, but also hobble other applications such as weather and pollution forecasting, with potentially disastrous consequences for people not only in the United States, but the world round.

“While these missions are labeled as climate missions, the data they will provide are crucial for a range of applications including natural hazards and extreme [weather] events,” she said.

She explained further: today, the scientific community relies heavily on satellite data from the so-called A-train, short for the “Afternoon Constellation,” composed of six Earth-observing satellites that chase each other along the same orbital track – the six satellites being: OCO-2, GCOM-W1, Aqua, CALIPSO, CloudSat and Aura. All are in a polar orbit and cross the equator within seconds to minutes of each other.

The A-train has provided humanity with life-saving data, such as that provided to track and predict the intensity of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Without the A-train, the storm forecast would not have been as accurate and many more lives likely would have been lost. The criticality of such predictions hits home when one recognizes that pinpoint accuracy regarding storm surges and wind speeds can help officials prepare coastal nuclear plants, oil rigs and other vulnerable infrastructure in advance of a direct hit.

The earth seen from space, a perspective first made possible by satellite missions and which some philosophers say has helped create a stronger sense of internationalism since the start of the Space Age. Image courtesy of NASA

“PACE and CLARREO will largely replace instruments that are part of the A-train and are now past their lifetime,” she said. “As for OCO-3, cutting the capability for observing CO2 from space is going to put us in a very fragile position to monitor the state of our planet.”

Benedetti emphasizes that the U.S. was not expected to do the job alone. The international community was preparing to support these NASA missions and add other satellites to guarantee more data coverage and complement the data sets we already have.

“However, it will not be possible to entirely replace these missions,” she said. “NASA instruments – such as PACE, CLARREO and OCO-3, which are supposed to replace parts of the [aging] A-train – would have made possible big steps forward in aerosol and air pollution prediction. The lack of these follow-on missions will be a huge setback.”

Tim Hewison agreed, noting that the need for CPF – with its ability to offer an absolute reference point for satellite calibration – is so clear to researchers that other international agencies are now hurriedly discussing ideas to launch alternative missions.

There has already been a replacement European proposal: the Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio-Studies (TRUTHS) mission, that aims to support climate adaptation by establishing a space-based climate and calibration observing system. TRUTHS will not only facilitate improved confidence in climate change forecasts, but also provide benchmark data on the status of the Earth’s climate with unprecedented accuracy, as well as improving our understanding of the carbon and water cycles.

A graph showing the increase in atmospheric carbon over the last half million years. The vertical upswing of CO2 pictured at the right, greater than at any time in recorded human history, emphasizes the critical need for climate satellites which allow us to be prepared for the uncharted territory and uncertainties ahead. Image courtesy of NASA

“The China Meteorological Agency, who operate the Chinese weather satellites, are also interested in establishing missions with capabilities similar to CLARREO… and are planning a workshop on the subject in 2018,” Hewison added. Still, “the absence of a clear [U.S. Congress] funding decision leaves the [international scientific] community in limbo, having already invested in the CLARREO concept.”

NASA’s Cole provides this clarification: “Regarding the current status of the NASA budget, the ‘continuing resolution’ for the federal budget [agreed to by Congress in September and December] and signed by the President… does not contain language cancelling any NASA projects (including OCO-3 or other Earth Science missions).… In general, the function of a ‘continuing resolution’ to the federal budget is to continue previously approved funding levels.” Cole didn’t speculate on what the outcome might be of the final 2018 budget vote by Congress.

Benedetti said that the general feeling of the international scientific community since Trump’s election and the announcement of his proposed budget has been “uncertainty and fear for the future of several key Earth Observation missions.… While it is scientifically absolutely relevant to have a well-funded space [and planetary exploration] program, this should not come at the expense of monitoring closely what happens on our own planet.”

She cautioned: “It is particularly worrisome if one thinks that [Trump’s decision to cut Earth Science missions] might go hand-in-hand with an approach of total denial of climate change and a refusal to take on measures to limit it.”

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