Defunding Our Eyes on the Planet

May 3, 2016

In recent weeks, one of the important satellite monitors of arctic sea ice, a critical control on global weather and climate, (see elsewhere on this page) failed.

My recent video, above, raised the alarm about congressional climate deniers who are squeezing funding for our satellite eyes on the home planet.  This is a long term hobby horse for the anti science crowd.

New York Times, 2006:

From 2002 until this year, NASA’s mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers … as only NASA can.”

In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” deleted. In this year’s budget and planning documents, the agency’s mission is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

Understanding and protecting the only place in the universe that sustains human life is understood by climate deniers to be a dangerous, radical, and subversive activity.

Marshall Shepherd is a climate scientist and former President of the American Meteorological Society:

Imagine hurricane season without weather satellites. Since the satellite era we are not surprised about a storm the way the people of Galveston were over a century ago. Many climatologists are sounding the alarm that our fleet of satellites that monitor Arctic sea ice is on life support (and that may be generous). This matters to you and is frankly not just about polar bears.

Walt Meier is a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory. He wrote to me,

Satellites carrying passive microwave sensors are essential for monitoring sea ice because only these sensors have the capability to see through clouds and dark of night to capture a continuous and complete record of sea ice every day. This sea ice time series is now nearing 40 years in length, making it one of the longest continuous satellite-derived climate datasets. The loss of these satellites would effectively end the consistent record of Arctic sea ice decline.

When I asked Dr. Meier about the current status of the fleet he told me,

DMSP-F19 (part of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program) is definitely dead. DMSP-F17  is still operational except one channel (37 GHz, V polarization) of SSMIS. Unfortunately, that’s an essential channel for the sea ice algorithms. DMSP-F18 is still fully capable, at least for the sea ice channels, which is what we’re planning to switch to. The Japanese AMSR2 sensor is also available. That’s not as optimal for the long-term record because, even though it’s more modern, it’s not as consistent

This is a patchwork fix. Long-term issues are clearly evident as F18 is an aging system A DMSP-F20 is built and in storage but funding was not allocated by Congress to launch it. We may need to rethink that decision. Many of us have warned of these looming gaps for weather and climate monitoring.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced in March that Arctic sea ice was at a record low in terms of maximum extent for the second straight year (see this NASA animation for a good visual aid). NSIDC director Dr. Mark Serreze stated in a press release,

I’ve never seen such a warm, crazy winter in the Arctic….The heat was relentless.”

Arctic sea ice has a seasonal cycle. It typically increases through the cool seasons with a maximum around the middle of March. It retreats through the warm season months and is usually at a minimum extent by the middle of September. NSIDC notes,

The September Arctic minimum began drawing attention in 2005 when it first shrank to a record low extent over the period of satellite observations. It broke the record again in 2007, and then again in 2012. The March Arctic maximum has typically received less attention.


Sea ice affects the large scale global ocean circulation patterns as well as weather patterns. Professor Tom Mote is a hydroclimatologist and head of the Geography Department at the University of Georgia. He studies Greenland and other cryospheric processes. He says,

The long-term record of sea ice, in particular, is important to our understanding of the Arctic. Reductions in sea ice amplify warming in the Arctic by increasing the absorption of sunlight (i.e., the ice-albedo feedback). Some scientists believe that a warmer Arctic may change the path of the jet stream, altering weather over further south, including the U.S. (See this paper for a summary of the literature).

Climate models have been conservative with sea ice decline. They have underestimated the amount of change in many cases (see figure).


Doctors monitor a patient’s heart rate trends after surgery. An abrupt disruption in such trend information places that patient in jeopardy. In this case, Earth is the patient.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Dir., Atmospheric Sciences Program/GA Athletic Assoc. Distinguished Professor (Univ of Georgia), Host, Weather Channel’s Sunday Talk Show, Weather (Wx) Geeks, 2013 AMS President


12 Responses to “Defunding Our Eyes on the Planet”

  1. ubrew12 Says:

    “Doctors monitor a patient’s heart rate… An abrupt disruption… places that patient in jeopardy. In this case, Earth is the patient.” Why would conservatives in Congress knowingly ask us to look away as this patient dies? I understand that its dying is ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, but who is served by NOT looking as it dies? This is different from ordinary Climate Denial which was basically: ‘The data shows its a hoax!’ This is the embrace of blindness as a directional strategy.

    • otter17 Says:

      I don’t get it either, even from a strategy angle for their own political career. Don’t they think it is going to look a bit shady to their voter base that they hold an AGW denial view, accept fossil fuel campaign contributions, and then decide to eliminate measurement capability?

      If they were so sure of their position, why can’t we continue to see the record to allegedly prove that out?

      Maybe their voter bases don’t ask these questions, who knows.

      • ubrew12 Says:

        This reminds me of nothing so much as the Holocaust. Specifically the news blackout and general unspoken agreement in ‘polite circles’ not to bring it up.

    • in other words, shoot the messenger, and thus: no bad news – all good

  2. astrostevo Says:

    Its happening in Oz too sad to say :

    Its like not funding people to tell us what’s going on will stop what’s going on from going on..

    • ubrew12 Says:

      Your link is missing the ‘ml’ at the end of ‘html’

    • ubrew12 Says:

      I’m concerned that politicians know that we’ve entered the Age of Consequences, and politically the prudent thing for their job security is to put a blanket over the patient and tell onlookers to ‘move it along, there’s nothing to see here’. If 90% of the Great Barrier Reef dies of heat stroke and nobody saw it, did it make a sound?

      • otter17 Says:

        No, the reef doesn’t make a sound, but the deniers pointing to a one year recovery of a percentage point or two make a lot of noise.

  3. Jim Housman Says:

    My reaction is one of profound sadness. The comparison to the holocaust is not out of line; a society sinking into a kind of intellectual darkness.

  4. Magma Says:

    GOP Congress: The satellite temperature* record is more accurate and continuous and densely sampled and better in every possible way than those rotten corrupt surface temperature measurements. YAAY satellites!!!

    USAF and NOAA: To maintain critical global weather coverage we urgently need to launch a satellite we’ve already spent half a billion dollars building, storing and upgrading.

    GOP Congress: What a shame. But no.

    * Microwave oxygen-emission band derived and altitude deconvolved estimated temperature.

  5. I am increasingly of the opinion that they are intentionally setting out to ensure the death of 95+% of the Earths population with the select elites in safe secure, possible underground colonies for a few hundred years, with life extension technology going ahead by leaps and bounds, then their godlike technology will fix the world up without all those furriners so they can rule as Gods over the few by now primitive survivors.

    Sound crazy? what else fits.?

    • ubrew12 Says:

      Its hard not to conclude that ‘creative destruction’ is a guiding myth for some of these people (that’s the cool new buzz-phrase for what Hitler would have simply referred to as ‘The Final Solution’).

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