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Scientists have suggestions on how to study the Earth from space — if Congress will let them

Scientists have suggestions on how to study the Earth from space — if Congress will let them


‘It’s critical that we understand the behavior of our planet’

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Photo: NASA

For the next 10 years, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the US Geological Survey (USGS) should focus their space-based observations of Earth on answering key questions about our planet: How much will sea level rise in the future? Why do certain storms and clouds occur exactly when and where they do? And how is the diversity of life changing?

These are among the science priorities recommended in a new report released today by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. But the funding priorities are set by Congress, so whether or not US agencies will follow through on the recommendations is an open question. The Trump administration has been vocal about wanting to cut NASA’s Earth Science program, as well as reduce funding for geostationary satellites used to track storms. But Bill Gail, chief technology officer at the Global Weather Corporation and one of the authors of the report, says that the National Academies report makes its recommendations based on realistic budgets, and Congress “has historically given a lot of respect to the recommendations.”

“Administrations come and go,” Gail adds. “And it wasn’t really our job to react to current politics. Our job was really to lay out what we thought was an objective, achievable, observing plan and then let the politics work itself out.”

“Administrations come and go.”

The report, called “Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space,” calls on the three federal agencies to work together to overall reduce uncertainty in climate change projections, improve weather and air quality forecasts, and predict hazards such as landslides, earthquakes, and eruptions. “Earth information from space, whether we realize it or not, has become an integral component of our daily lives,” said co-author Waleed Abdalati, director of the Cooperative Institute of Research in Environmental Sciences at University of Colorado Boulder, at a press conference. “It’s critical that we understand the behavior of our planet — on daily scales, on longer-term scales. This is directly tied to our capacity to thrive, to thrive as individuals, to thrive as a nation, to thrive as society as a whole.”

Studying Earth with satellites is key to understanding processes such as how ecosystems work and how Arctic ice influences the world’s climate. For instance, a NASA satellite that’s been mapping the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is helping scientists learn more about how plants work, and how the land and oceans suck up and release CO2. That’s key if we want to figure out how much temperatures will rise in the coming decades. Information collected by satellites is also crucial for weather forecasts — and for mapping services we use on our smartphones every day.

The report, which took two years to complete, is the second National Academies 10-year survey for Earth science and applications from space. It draws on research recommendations provided by scientists and engineers all over the US to ensure that the science happening at NASA, NOAA, and the USGS “is driven by the needs of the science and application community,” says Gail. Researchers came up with a set of 35 key questions on Earth science and applications, as well as 24 top objectives the three US agencies should try to accomplish over the next decade.

Our planet is continually changing, in large part because of our actions, the report notes. Knowing what those changes are matters for the ongoing well-being of the humans who live here. “For us to be successful, prosperous as a nation, as a society, it really is essential that we understand those changes, the mechanisms at work and the implications associated with those,” Abdalati said. “And that’s really what this report is about.”