TCS Daily


Not Sexy, But Necessary

By Roy Spencer - January 27, 2006 12:00 AM

TOKYO -- While most people think of NASA as an agency that puts men into space and robot vehicles on Mars, Earth observations have also been an important part of its claim to fame. Especially after James Hansen's 1988 congressional testimony, which brought global warming fully into the nation's consciousness, NASA has been a dominant provider of Earth-observation science data from a variety of satellites.

The 1990's saw multi-billion dollar investments in new satellite and remote sensing instrument technologies. These were justified to Congress based on the need to monitor, understand, and predict the effects of global warming. Most of these satellites have now been launched, and while they do not measure everything that needs to be measured, they represent a critical national resource. Their data enables scientists, both present and future, to develop theoretical models of the Earth's systems for understanding and thus predicting global climate change -- whether natural, man-made or both.

But these satellites are built to last for only five years or so, and for a lot of climate change science it is necessary to provide a continuous Earth-monitoring capability.

Unfortunately, it appears that the U.S. Earth observation effort is now on the decline. Partly because of the Administration's new emphasis on missions to the moon and Mars, and partly due to NASA's (budget-limited) focus on simply demonstrating new technologies with single satellites, rather than providing an Earth monitoring capability from a series of satellites, the future of Earth science research in the United States currently looks pretty gloomy.

Other countries, especially Japan, are now positioning themselves to be the world leaders in Earth remote sensing capabilities. While visiting here in Tokyo, my scientist colleagues and I have been presented with Japan's plans for future satellite systems that will monitor climate variations as well as natural disasters. Our meeting was even interrupted briefly so that we could watch the successful launch of one of their latest satellites designed to monitor a variety of land processes. In my particular field of satellite remote sensing, it looks like Japan might be poised to take over leadership from the United States, possibly for decades to come. For the kind of satellite data I work with, Japan designed and built the sensor that NASA flew on its Aqua satellite, launched almost four years ago. Future copies of the instrument will only be flown on Japanese satellites. The European Space Agency (ESA) has also advanced dramatically in their ability to design and launch Earth-monitoring instruments.

The current congressionally-mandated review of the over-budget National Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is not helping matters. One of Al Gore's many 'inventions', NPOESS is a next-generation weather satellite system that combines the two weather satellite systems operated separately by the Department of Defense and NOAA, the parent agency of the National Weather Service. NOAA has supposedly stepped up to the climate monitoring job, but it has not been provided with sufficient funds to do a very good job of this. NPOESS will provide data of great value to not only weather monitoring and forecasting, but science as well. But NASA's role in the program as the lead space science agency has been minimal, partly because NASA has little or no control over how the satellite hardware development funds are spent. The NPOESS program is now under intense scrutiny, and faces possible termination come this May.

One of the reasons that such satellite systems do not generate much excitement in congress is that the science payoff from these satellites occurs over longer time periods than most of our elected representatives will be in office. Also, many of the most important discoveries from these satellites' data will be serendipitous. We simply do not know ahead of time everything that will be discovered in the data collected from these sensors. It is difficult to justify programs to Congress based upon an 'expectation of serendipity'.

And it is not just obscure science problems that benefit from these sensors. One of the many products from a currently operating NASA sensor is the beautiful true-color imagery that it provides, daily revealing our world's breathtaking beauty.

Other than the science made possible from these satellites, their routine weather monitoring capabilities remain largely invisible to the public, and yet we expect our weather forecasts to be routinely available, and as accurate as possible. And sometimes the weather monitoring and science justifications combine. For instance, was the devastating hurricane season just experienced in the U.S. a fluke, or a foretaste of what we will be experiencing for decades to come? This question will require a continuing supply of new and innovative measurements from Earth observation satellites. The technology will not always be sexy (which is one of the unwritten rules for new NASA satellites), but not all great science depends upon sexy measurements.

No matter what you believe about future levels of global warming, there remains a need for the United States to collect global data that will help us make intelligent policy decisions based upon good science. Anything done about global warming from a policy standpoint will have huge financial implications, and that is sufficient justification to keep our science efforts competitive with the rest of the world. Allowing other nations to decide what kind of information should be gathered from space is not in the best interests of the United States. While I am happy for these countries in their technological and scientific progress, I am dismayed by the United States' gradual retreat from its traditional leadership position in satellite monitoring of the Earth.

Roy Spencer is a member of the TCS Science Roundtable.

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7 Comments

Global Warming
Dr Spencer, I really liked this part of your essay;-
"Their data enables scientists, both present and future, to develop theoretical models of the Earth’s systems for understanding and thus predicting global climate change".

Too bad that too many people do not understand that all that we can analyse, is the behavior of 'models'. We can analyse them exactly, because we designed the models ourselves, and endowned them with a set of rules of behavior, and we invented the mathematical tools to manipulate those rules exactly.

Unfortunately; what we really want to know is the behavior of the Universe itself; and that we can only observe; because the universe is not our group of models, and it doesn't behave like them.

So if we are lucky, and good model builders, our models will behave somewhat like the universe, and yield us some useful insights; but the moment we step off the observation platform, into that unknown and unknowable future, we embark on a risky journey; that may very well not lead where we expected from analysing our models.

Climate models embody this principle in spades. However well they succeed in replicating our past observations; we have no assurance that they navigate correctly into the future.

By the way just what was the global mean temperature today Friday Jan 27, 2006; shall we say at zero hours UT.
What will it be, same time on July 4th this year. And of what earthly use is it to know that number; it has nothing to do with the energy balance of the earth.

And just how do they observe the global mean temperature anyway; that is without introducing aliassing errors due to violation of the Nyquist criterion, both spoatially and temporally?

Perhaps a clue is in order
State funding is coercively collected and thus very attractive because you don't have to actually explain it and convince all that many people to get your project funded. However, it is not for everything. We don't use this sort of funding to allocate and pay for food in the main and we don't use it for a number of other things that are at least as vital as earth science observation satellites.

If the politicians can't be bothered to adequately fund programs that provide long-term benefits mostly through serendipity, maybe the answer is to seek a different funding mechanism. This problem of short-term thinking in our political class is not new and it is not partisan. There should be private nonprofits who contribute to and will eventually take over the programs that aren't funded well by the government model. It's too bad so many scientists are themselves short sighted and instead of moving to a sustainable funding model, whine and complain about how they're on the hind tit of government largess.

Government promises in the 1st world have far outpaced any realistic ability of our society to pay for them. The crash is coming. For those on the hind tit, it would be prudent to wean off it as quickly as possible to minimize the coming damage.

Science Leaders or Losers?
"No matter what you believe about future levels of global warming, there remains a need for the United States to collect global data that will help us make intelligent policy decisions based upon good science."

I couldn't agree more with Roy on this issue. For example, NASA's Earth Observatory site makes available many data and image sets, but only about half have recordings lasting more than six years.

Data & Images
-------------------
Aerosol Optical Depth
Aerosol Particle Radius
TOMS Aerosol Index
Biosphere
Global Calcite
Chlorophyll (CZCS)
Chlorophyll (SeaWiFS)
Global Chlorophyll (MODIS)
Cirrus Cloud Fraction
Cloud Radiative Forcing
Cloud Fraction
Enhanced Vegetation Index
1km AVHRR Fires
4km TRMM Fires
Leaf Area Index
Day Land Temperature
Night Land Temperature
Outgoing Longwave Radiation
Mopitt Carbon Monoxide
Vegetation/NDVI
Net Radiation
Ozone
Primary Productivity
Precipitation
Snow Cove
Snow Cover and Ice Depth
Sea Surface Height
Sea Surface Temperature
Global Sea Surface Temperature
Surface Temperature
UV Radiation Exposure

http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Observatory/datasets.html

Needs
You are correct that there will be a continuing need for weather and climate data.

You are incorrect when you claim that it is imperative that this information be gathered by the US govt.

How does it hurt us if some portion of the data gathered on the Earth starts coming from countries not named US?

Do We Have To Do EVERYTHING?
Why not let Japan and other countries do much of the monitoring? We can then concentrate our resources on what they don't provide.

Where is it written that only the Americans can do these things properly?

No Subject
By _exceeding _ the Nyquist criterion, which is what scanning radiometers are for. The answer to the question you have borrowed from 'State of fear ' as to what an average is , is as complex as the question is ludicrously simplified- yet it exists and cam=]n be uncontraversially rendered on as few as three blackboards by appropriately integrating the terms for:

Aerosol Optical Depth
Aerosol Particle Radius
TOMS Aerosol Inex
Cirrus Cloud Fraction
Cloud Radiative Forcing
Cloud Fraction
Leaf Area Index
Day Land Temperature
Night Land Temperature
Outgoing Longwave Radiation
Vegetation/NDVI
Net Radiation
Ozone
Precipitation
Snow Cover
Sea Surface Temperature
Global Sea Surface Temperature
Surface Temperature
UV Flux at 1 Km intervals
and a few other things, and running a model with grid that is underwhelmed by the data density.


Try it sometime.

'State of Fear'
Whatever that is, I borrowed nothing from it.

So I take it that we have one of these scanning radiometers which can simultaneously map the entire globe from sea level to however high it goes?

Unfortunately the energy flux flowing onto or out of this planet, doesn't depend on any averages.

I see you forgot to include that big orange ball in your list of things to integrate on your blackboards.

And yes the question was ludicrously simplified; just as the alleged answer to it is.

So how many of this list of things to integrate did they have to use 150 years ago when they set the number around 1 deg F lower than it is supposed to be now?

Given that the daily temperature range on earth might run from +136F (331K) down to -129F (184K) on the same northern summer day, I hardly see how the average can have any significance, as to what the flux balance is.

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